My family has historically been farmers. My maternal grandfather grew up on a corn farm in Kinross, Iowa. As a child I would visit my great-uncle, Melvin, and his family on that farm. I remember running along the edge of the cornfields catching fireflies in the warm summer evenings. I remember playing on the wrap-around porch of the big red farmhouse. I have nothing but fond memories of that farm. Melvin passed away several months after my grandfather in the late ’80s and I never got to go back. I don’t know if the farm they grew up on is still in the family anymore. I would like to think it is but chances are it is not.
Cheap food means farmers do what they must to keep the land that their entire life and that of their ancestors has been built on. If that means growing only transgenic corn and soy then it is what they have to do. They can’t break free because the public (specifically those that can afford to spend more but choose not to do so) refuses to spend enough money to cover the cost of production and a tiny bit more so the farmer can live. Instead the farmer must rely on subsidies from the government to make up the difference that is lost because of the demand for cheap food.
Americans spend less of their income directly on food than any other country. Most Europeans spend over 10% of their income on food while the US likes to hover around 6%. 40 years ago we were spending a third of our income on food. The subsidy program in the 1970s helped usher in a new era of cheap food that now puts Americans at risk of health problems and severe environmental degradation. While the total at the cash register is small, the external costs – the tax dollars used to subsidize, the cost to our health and to our environment – have risen dramatically.
In addition, family farms were forced to close shop and quickly got gobbled up by corporate agriculture. Those that were able to hang on, do so tenuously. A farmer friend of mine once told me that if she was getting paid hourly for all the farm work she does it would be just pennies per hour. That is just not right.
So my New Year’s Resolution this year is to make sure my food purchases pay the farmer that produced enough for them to survive and thrive. This won’t be much of a change for us but it will require us to spend a bit more on our food. All produce will be from the farmers’ market so that the $1 spent all goes into the farmers’ pocket as opposed to only $0.16 of that dollar when you buy it at the supermarket.
Will this be another year without groceries? Probably not, but we’ll strive to do better than we have been.