Politics, Subsidies and Your Local Fruit and Veggie Stand

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Photo: Kelly Dean

Politics, Subsidies and Your Local Fruit and Veggie Stand

Opinion, by Kelly Dean

I usually skip the produce department at my local grocery store. Frankly, I was raised on a small 40 acre cattle farm with a sizable garden as a kid. Today, the produce quality never excites me. Why? I could drop a grocery store tomato from the space station and still play a game of tennis with it afterward – as a ball. Store veggies are made for shipping, not eating.

I’ve learned what fruits and veggies are supposed to look like, smell like, feel like and taste like. Grandma taught me. And Mom taught me how to cook them.

So I prefer my local produce stand. Were it not for the fact I have wild rabbits and a protected gopher tortoise on my property, I would have a garden too. Frankly, my local veggie stand does the job well enough for my needs.

The E. coli affected vegetables we hear about on the news make me even less excited about large-scale growers and processors, who could be anyone, anywhere.

So there are many reasons to support your true, local family farmer who supplies those nearby fruit and veggie stands, as well as your local farmers’ markets. Because it’s locally grown, it’s better, fresher, and helps support our community. Plus, it produces downright scary-sized produce – and it’s usually organic.

That being said, I’m worried about the future of true organic farmers as they innovate yet struggle within the historic shadow of large, subsidized corporate farms and their tactics. The writing is on the wall. Unfortunately the language is in Pig Latin.

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Photo: Kelly Dean

The death of the small family farmer — again

What I mean by the word true or real family farmer is that too often we are sold a myth based on sentimental Americana. Although, by number, most farms are still family farms (89.7%) in 2015, they produce less than 24% of agricultural sales in our country on under half (48.4) of the total acreage. They are a mix of small conventional and organic farms, but all are struggling along. Some exist. Some manage. Most adapt.

But most farm goods are produced by large-scale corporate farms today (42.4% of sales on 23% of the acreage).

That doesn’t stop politicians, lobbyists and advertising media from resurrecting the mid 20th century romantic image of the “family farm” — for dubious reasons.

Big corporate farmers exploit this nostalgia for their own marketing benefit and feed the media. They seek subsidy favors and relaxed regulations in Washington and use the “family farm” image in paid TV and online ads to curry public support.

Today’s true, small, organic family farmer is a niche farmer. That niche is producing locally sourced, sustainable farm goods – more and more organic, with or without the government’s organic label.

The truth is, as of 2016 USDA data, there are over 14,200 certified organic farms in the US covering 5 million acres. Many are small farmers who have exploited an organic niche where they can compete and thrive on a smaller scale. The same USDA data reflects the average organic farm size is about 350 acres, which is in the mid-upper range of traditionally sized family farms of the past. But that’s an average. That average size is still bigger than what we imagine for locally sourced, produce-stand-type family farmers.

And that average size is negligible compared to industrial corporate farms with acreage in the thousands and thousands.

But between 2015 and 2016, organic acreage grew somewhat faster (+15%) than the number of new farms (+11%): This suggests fewer new farmers went organic relative to how big they went when they did. Organic land size is growing at a faster rate than the number of organic farmers. They’re getting bigger.

Most everything else grew at double digits, most over 20 percent, per the same USDA data.

Also, two key products did not show much growth. Cattle did not grow at all (0%). Not surprisingly, wheat is subsidized and declined (-1%), creating questions about whether organic grain farmers see organic grain farming as profitable when compared to the rich government subsidies available to typical grain farming.

Most organically raised grain is raised to feed organically raised animals. Conversely, most non-organic grains are heavily subsidized and frequently sold on the international market.

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Photo: Kelly Dean

Corporate Organic Crystal Ball – This is how they’ll ruin it

It would be great if all food production goes organic eventually. The sooner the better. Our health and environment is more important than high yields, shelf life, and resistance to decay.

As my mother would say, “You can eat a plastic plant that looks pretty, but it doesn’t taste very good.”

Taxpayers are historically eager to help actual small farmers over the hump of being better and becoming organic, but not corporate welfare for large-scale industrial farms. The huge corporate farms don’t need corporate welfare any more than any other big business, but they get it anyway, as outlined in this well-researched DownsizingGovernment.org article here.

In South-central Florida, there’s an agricultural area the size of Rhode Island that grows mostly sugarcane – and it’s mostly controlled by one family growing one crop. They might be a family, but they are corporate and heavily subsidized; they did $4.3 billion in 2015 and are worth over $8.2 billion, according to Bloomberg. That isn’t small. But they’ll pretend they’re small.

Florida is a good case study of corporate farming’s methodology when it comes to exploiting government subsidies:

First, with the help of some image ad dollars, corporate barons market themselves as Walton-style family farmers to get the same public opinion support as true “family farmers.”

While campaigning, our politicians are more than willing to spread the word about how they love family farms and further blur the distinctions between small, family, large-scale and corporate farming. This brings in big campaign donations from the latter.

And the Media isn’t helping.

The media, sometimes unwittingly, extends this fallacy by linking organic with small and family. In this narrative, poor family farmers are the hard-working salt of the earth types, pursuing a noble American dream — as opposed to the big, corporate, insecticide-spewing, rich industrial farmer. It’s not that simple. True small family farms can indeed struggle. Large-scale corporate farms don’t, because Washington takes care of them, whether they’re family or not. But the media makes them look the same.

As this America’s Heartland video shows, the definitions are blurred – purposely. How is a 30 to 300 acre family farm the same as a growing, 3000 acre, subsidy-protected family dynasty? To the casual news viewer, they are the same. They are a “family farm.” That isn’t small. But they’ll pretend they’re small.

The word “family” can also be used to obscure possible bad business practices. In a recent KIDY Fox News example,  close-up, big-eyed milk cow shots on TV might be cute to the casual viewer, but what does that have to do with conventional dairy farm’s closing due to an inability to compete in the open market?  Is this business doing what it should to move forward? Could a move toward the organic niche make it prosperous? Frankly, is the operation being managed well at all? Are they evolving economically and environmentally? Or are they taking the already established easy road to subsidies? It’s more complicated than a sound bite.

It’s good to be king.

Often, subsidies are crop-specific and thereby benefit only the chosen. Corn, soybeans, cotton, rice – and sugar are the big examples. As researcher, Chris Edwards says here, “Subsidies discourage farmers from innovating, cutting costs, diversifying their land use, and taking other actions needed to prosper in the competitive economy.”

They  economically stagnate and struggle to compete at an ever-increasing scale. “Sameness” and “scale” promoted by service and marketing co-ops often add to their problems rather than help. In the end, they choose to pay lobbyists to keep them profitable, rather than risk adaptation or competition on the open market.

They have Congress fix a minimum price for their product, thereby rewarding them for not seeking new market opportunities, such as organic farming or other revenue streams. Any downstream product that uses their product as an ingredient also passes that cost along to the consumer, sometimes exorbitantly. We all pay more, but it doesn’t solve any fundamental problems. That’s why subsidies have continued for nearly 90 years, despite being intended as a depression-era quick-fix.

Lack of farming innovation also perpetuates the historical trend of polluting our environment, because it’s cheaper to lobby than to evolve.

The Orlando Sentinel recently outlined this issue.

So, we pay the subsidies; we pay at the cash register with fixed pricing; we pay for lost jobs; we pay for a sluggish economy; we pay for alternative training; we pay for the environmental cleanup; and we pay in lost tourist and travel revenue due to pollution.

That’s welfare for the wealthy – so called, corporate welfare.

Politicians purposely don’t impose realistic size language inside their legislation, so their big benefactors can get the same benefits as the small organic farms; then, big corporate farms under-price the small guy right out of business. This is what killed the family farmer the first time.

For example, Congress has used the same technique to benefit large banks, by changing the regulatory definition of “small community banks” from a $50 billion cut-off to a $250 billion cutoff. That’s an extraordinarily high amount for a “small bank.” That isn’t small. But they’ll pretend they’re small. So it’s a proven political spin that works.

What’s small and what’s big?

According to fooddialogues.com, the average farm is 434 acres. This is a simple figure supplied by USDA data from 2012. But this an ag-sponsored site reporting on the statistics, with ag-sponsored spin as well.

It also claims 97% of farms are family owned — by a rather lose definition. They can blur the image narrative by claiming the following spin:

“While some farms and ranches have been deemed corporations, the title has little to do with the makeup of the farm or ranch. Rather, forming a corporation is a standard business practice across all sectors of the economy. It not only assists with accounting, but it also protects a family’s interests.” — fooddialogues.com [italics added].

Okay, since that’s the case, then being “corporate” has little to do with being a “family” either. It’s just another corporation. Why bother talking about family then? They’re corporate on paper, but they’re family in the media. The word “family” makes for better press, but it’s often a marketing whitewash.

Using the same logic as above, we should assume Walmart is just a small family owned retailer. Granny’s Diner has an elderly woman named Granny cooking in the kitchen with her grandkids. And the Manson family were simple commune farmers. It’s all in how one spins it.

Labels are meaningless, so let’s talk scale when talking family farms. 

According to Michigan State University (MSU) Extension information found here, “… small family farms average 231 acres; large family farms average 1,421 acres and the very large farm average acreage is 2,086 using the same 2012 USDA data as referenced above.

In addition, MSU goes on to say product sales for small family farms comprise sales up to $250,000; large family farms generate from $250,000 to $500,000; and very large farms generate more than $500,000.

The USDA categorises all farms in general by annual gross cash farm income (GCFI). To them under $350,000 is small, $350,000 to $999,999 is medium and at least $1,000,000 or more is large-scale as of 2015. So this compared to MSU’s research suggests large-scale as defined for conventional farms is twice that of large family farms while being somewhat consistent with organic farms.

These are the scales we can use for comparisons.

Currently, the hardship level the USDA sets as a cut-off to be considered a small organic operation stand at $500,000 in sales per year, or too small to supply supermarkets. These cut-offs are important because many regulations relate to relaxing environmental requirements for smaller scale operations but not the huge ones (such as manure use and storage).

Of course, now some larger organic farms with income in excess of $500,000 are currently complaining to Congress that the regulatory sales-dollar-ceiling should be raised, thereby allowing bigger farmers to still get the scale benefits of smaller farmers. This could foreshadow a dangerous repeat of environmental carelessness, if not recognized.

Remember, that $500,000 number is indeed higher than the small (<$250,000) organic produce-stand farmer produces, and more in line with the upper level, “very large” family and organic farm level, as noted above. The current organic sales cutoff does indeed seem most consistent with both organic and small farms, as opposed to all farms.

Yet it’s not the same everywhere.

In some areas, organic farms have some notable separation from other organic farms. For instance, the average California organic farm is about 400 acres and has $1,064,872 in annual sales as of 2016. Compared to the US as a whole, that’s 14% bigger than the average US organic farm. And those figures are high for being considered a small family farm (231 acres) and by income (<$250,000) whether organic or conventional. Organic farms in California average-out more like conventional farms and their incomes are considerably higher than both.

California also produces more organic certified product sales than the next 8 states combined (38% of the entire US); and California farms more organic acres than the next 4 states combined. As the average California organic farmer is more of a mid-range farm by acreage, and an above average farm by income, are they truly comparable? Are they entitled to different rules? Not if the goal is helping more small organic farmers in the other 49 states catch up.

So what’s the point? And why does all this size stuff matter?

Because helping the big, wealthy and powerful push out the small, struggling yet innovative is the exact opposite of what lawmakers are telling us we’re doing when it comes to legislation promoting organic foods, the small farmer, and the family farmer.

Corporate double-dipping and double-sided arguments are common tactics as well.

Corporate lobbying efforts get benefits from lower crop yields. As we know, insecticides and fertilizers allegedly increase yields but to the detriment of our health and environment. As an excuse, well-connected corporate farms argue and lobby for getting compensated for their organic production sacrifice — compared to what they might have produced before. They’re wanting paid to not pollute. It creates a no-lose scenario for them and no gain for the taxpayer or consumer. The government offsets any loss, even if it’s just a projected loss. Isn’t that what higher prices from greater demand for organic is for? Isn’t that what they’re supposed to actually want in a free market?

Meanwhile, America thinks they are helping a Mel Gibson-type farmer from the movie The River — when they’re actually helping a John Huston-type farmer from the movie Chinatown.

Lastly, if it follows the proven pattern, corporate entities will unleash lobbying efforts, relaxing the organic rules regarding environmental requirements of the type mentioned in this linked NPR article.

I’ve written plenty about what the sugar barons have done to the Everglades, here and here and here. They’re already subsidy rich, non-organic, and unabashed polluters. Their influence in Washington is witchy.

Unfortunately, those dubious Washington techniques will come in handy when forced to clean up their act and go organic. The writing is on the wall. And they’ll write in Pig Latin.

And this, my friend, is how corporate farming could ruin our efforts to actually help true small farmers — and go organic.

We’re back where we started

If it follows the pattern, according to the Washington Examiner, we’re back where we started: paying corporations subsidies, functioning as a de facto broker, forcing companies overseas, and eliminating job opportunities, all while never achieving our intended goal of a better world.

According to NewFoodEconomy.org, some organic growers want voluntary higher standards added to the USDA’s current standards, especially relating to humane animal treatment. This is an effort to separate themselves from big industrial organic farmers who are already working to obfuscate organic certification requirements. There is pushback. Guess where that pushback is coming from?

“It’s déjà vu all over again.” – Yogi Berra

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Photo: Kelly Dean

Back to my little produce stand

That’s why I love my little fruit and veggie stand. Because, if their organic products are priced reasonably, and sell well on a grassroots level, growing demand will make it successful. Everyone will come around to naturally safer, fresher food source.

By extension, that’s why I love the true, local, small farmer. The smallest might start with a five acre garden or twenty acres of fresh local vegetables; he might sell at a stand or off the back of his pickup truck; he might have to work a second job; but he could grow and prosper.

Meanwhile, the local produce stands create a distribution source for him, and our patronage makes it viable. If he’s very small, he can still be locally sourced even without the help of a USDA “organic” label, as some have done by self-regulating and inspecting each other.

“When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” — Yogi Berra

If legislation is truly designed to help small organic farmers, make it so. If legislation is designed to encourage big farmers move toward organic, make it so. But blurring the two with vague use of the words “family” and “small” only helps the corporate guys take advantage of us.

Maybe I’ll be wrong about the future.

Hopefully, the big guys come along, play fair and become organic too – to survive – but it should be for real, and the planting field should be level.

(The data and links are the best available at the time of writing. Additional research guidance courtesy of Tracey Rankin)

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