Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Do we have the food system we deserve?

I heard a story on National Public Radio last night about large scale farming.  Based on the 2012 Census of Agriculture, NPR reported, just 4 percent of U.S. farms produce 67 percent of our food.  The story focused on one large family farm in Kansas that has expanded by purchasing the farms of neighbors - to the point where they now grow more than 16,000 acres of sorghum, corn, soybeans and wheat.  Expansion, at least for this farm, was driven by the need to increase their economies of scale - to produce more food at a lower cost.  The remainder of the story focused on the impacts that this consolidation has had on rural towns throughout the Midwest.

I was interested in what was not said in the story.  Americans, I think, want cheap food produced on small family farms.  We spend the lowest percentage of our income on food of any nation on the planet - and we like it that way!  We also have a vision of what farming should be like - Jefferson's yeoman farmer (and his family) is still the ideal for many of us.  What we don't fully appreciate, however, is the disconnect between these two priorities.

In my own experience as a sheep rancher who has sold lamb at farmers' markets, I've seen this disconnect first hand.  I've had potential customers examine a package of my lamb chops and tell me, "Wow - this is a lot more expensive than the lamb I can buy at Costco."  At the same time, I've had customers imply that my ranch is larger than their ideal vision of a family farm.  They'll say, "Wow - I didn't know you had that many sheep (200 +/-)! I thought you were a small farm!"  In some ways, I wonder if folks consider food such a basic necessity that they take for granted someone should want to (or need to) make a living growing it.

As I think through this issue further, I think most of us simply desire cheap food.  We want choices when we go to the grocery store, and we want these choices to have minimal impact on our wallets. While we say we want an food system based on local, family-owned small farms, we vote with our pocket books for cheap food almost every time (I'm guilty of this, too).  Cheap food requires us to adopt policies and practices that maximize the economies of scale and production efficiencies - in other words, policies and practices that favor large scale production.  Perhaps we have the food system we deserve!

Here's an interesting discussion of other aspects of cheap food: http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2014/05/23/chart-of-the-week-is-food-too-cheap-for-our-own-good/

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