02 April 2013

Family Farms vs. Corporate Concentration

We've seen the movies on public television about factory farming.  Maybe we've gone to a showing of a local film about farming, but do we really know what's happening with the backbone of agriculture?  How do our smaller family farms stack up against those giant corporations and what is "corporate concentration?"

Simply put, corporate concentration is the amount of control that a few large corporations have over the food sector in our country.  As a matter of fact, corporate concentration in United States agriculture is quite high, affecting everything from how farmers grow our food to how its marketed to the consumer.  This trend has forced many families off their farms and even out of the farming business. 

What does this mean for you, the consumer?  It leads to higher food prices and less choice at the market.  USDA data shows that the cost of food to the consumer has risen steadily over the past twenty years. 

What does it mean for the farmer?  A farmers' profit margin is already slim; about break even or many times below a break even value.  The farmer is squeezed on both ends; first by the corporate sales giants who sell farmers equipment, machinery, seed and fertilizer; charging the farmers exorbitant prices and then on the sales end from large corporate buyers forcing them to take less money for a crop the farmer needs to sell.  

I can't tell you how many times we have faced these situations.  It is not uncommon in the produce business to have a crop shipped to the broker on an open invoice that left the packing house in beautiful condition, to only be told by the broker that only a portion of the crop was sold effectively only paying the farmer for x number of bushels, when they actually produced and shipped more than that.  And who laid out the expense for those crops?  The farmers of course.  The broker holds no responsibility other than to sell the crop and profit.  Many times the missing bushels are sold out the back door, or not sold at all and dumped for whatever reason.  On top of not getting paid for those bushels of produce, the farmer has to pay commission, shipping, handling and dumping fees on the total load. I do have to say that not all brokers are like this, but it is difficult to find a good one.

We've even had the opportunity to be in a broker's office and have a large supermarket chain call the broker and tell them that if they want to continue to do business, they'll strike specific invoices off the supermarket's bill, just so they can promote whatever special event it was for on the backs of the growers and that smaller local broker. 

More info on this can be found at Farm Aid's website....yup...the organization founded by Willie Nelson and friends.

The produce business is tough.  Thanks to the local food movement, more and more smaller farmers are selling directly to consumers.  This is such a great opportunity for not only the farmers, but also for the community to learn about how their food is grown and where it comes from.  We are seeing more and more food in this country being imported from other countries.  While it's nice to have typically "out of season" produce whenever we want it, we have to remember that pesticides and the like that have been banned for use here in the U.S. are still used in other some other countries.  Yes, you've heard me say it plenty of times.  Those banned chemicals can end up back here in the U.S. in or on that imported food.

So please, support local businesses by supporting your local family farms.  Find farmers you can buy direct from either by attending farmers’ markets, purchasing a CSA share, or by visiting the farm itself.  There are winter farmers’ markets as well.  Visit your state's  Ag & Markets website for a listing of markets or just search "local farmers' markets."   You'll be healthier for it too!

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