The Price of Beans

By: Dave Meyer (United States)

IMG_0237This past summer, I worked part time on an organic farm owned by a friend of mine. It is a small vegetable CSA with a herd of dairy sheep whose milk is used to make cheese and yogurt that is sold in local markets. Everything the farm produces (almost 100 weekly CSA shares in the summer and an incredible amount of cheese) is sold easily. My friend and his wife work during the summer as if they each have two full-time jobs – and yet when all is sold they earn as much as if one of them had one part-time job.

Food is too…

It’s not enough to afford any kind of stability or even to buy land. They rent instead, and over five years the farm has moved four times. Each time this means taking down all the farm structures, loading the sheep into a truck, and learning a new microclimate and a new piece of land. It is a costly, tiring process. And yet the market is constantly pushing them to sell their products for less, to lower their prices to be more competitive.

To look at it from his side, standing in a field surrounded by heirloom tomatoes hanging heavy on branches and more types of cabbage than I can name, people just need to pay more for their food. Organic food from small farms, the food that is the healthiest and the best for our planet, just isn’t worth enough for a farmer to earn a decent living growing it. Food is too cheap.

And yet no sooner do I share this idea among friends further removed from the farm than I hear the obvious retort: “But so many people already can’t afford to feed their family as is. Food is too expensive.”

But fortunately…

It seems an intractable problem. And yet in the United States at least, there are two government programs designed to address both sides of the bind. To help low-income families buy food, we have Food Stamps; to help farmers keep farming, we have Farm Subsidies. We as a society don’t want anyone to go hungry, so we pool our resources to help buy food for those who can’t afford it; at the same time, we realize the market doesn’t place a fair value on agricultural commodities, so we help farmers make ends meet.

And yet just a few weeks ago, Food Stamps benefits were reduced for 48 million Americans, including 21 million children. This just as more and more Community Supported Agriculture farms are starting to accept food stamps as payment.

It’s indicative of the poor state of American politics that programs for people living in poverty were cut first, and that the other side of the equation, farm subsidies, remained untouched. Good news for those small organic farms? Not so much. Sixty-two percent of American farmers (primarily those earning under $250,000 a year) receive no money from the federal government at all and just 10% of farmers receive over 74% of all the subsidies given. In one particularly bizarre aspect of the farm bill, in 2012, “more than 18,000 people who live in the 54 largest American cities, including New York, Los Angeles and Washington, received about $24 million in farm subsidies.”

Too big a scale?

It’s enough to make you want to pull your hair out, and if you look at it too closely it’s hard to see a way forward. And yet with rising poverty levels and climate change seemingly getting worse by the day, action is so urgently needed to address just this problem.

If the system is broken, we need to find a new one; if the government won’t help, then it’s time to move on without it. Sometimes we think on too large a scale, we search for national and global solutions when local solutions are staring us in the face. As communities, towns, neighborhoods, we can find ways to support small organic farms at the same time as we ensure that the less fortunate among us have enough to eat. There are CSA’s and volunteer programs that do just this already, subsidizing CSA shares for those who can’t afford them, or offering free labor on organic farms in exchange for food and lodging.

There is nothing more frustrating for my friend though than the fact that his own neighbors don’t buy his products – even when they could easily afford them. Why is it that the vast majority of us seem to prefer waiting for our government to take action over taking action ourselves? We seem to prefer shaking our heads in frustration at government incompetence to actually just going out and helping our neighbors.

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