Tuesday, May 15, 2012

consolidating instability

"Farming is also a high-risk industry. On the one hand, this goes without saying. On the other hand, risk is hard to appreciate at a distance. When we hear about weather destroying citrus crops in Florida, or the shutdown of a milk distribution and processing company in the Northeast, or a fresh spinach food-borne illness advisory coming from California, we don’t immediately appreciate the impact. Since weather, capital markets, and food safety are such large issues, it is hard to grasp their impact on the volatility of farming. ... The shutdown of a milk processing company recently happened. It began as a result of financial markets responding to financial improprieties at the parent company in Europe, which had been acquiring milk processing facilities and companies throughout the United States. When the parent firm collapsed, hundreds of dairy farmers were suddenly without a distributor for their product. Imagine knowing that consumers are eager to consume your product but that you can’t get it to them because of a business crisis on another continent."

This excerpt comes from a Entering the Farming Field, a cautionary pamphlet for new farmers published by the Pennsylvania Center for Farm Transitions. This is just another in a string of information handouts I've read recently, which all claim to point a finger at you, young dreamer, and ask pointedly whether you are sure you really want to get into this farming stuff?

The most interesting thing to me about this particular pamphlet is that most of the ills and pitfalls it identifies are the reason farming attracts me in the first place. Why should my community's food supply be disturbed by a business crisis on another continent? That level of centralization and corporate "efficiency" might work for widgets, but why would we even consider putting something so dear as the milk and bread our families must eat every single day into such fickle hands? Farming is inherently risky and unpredictable due to forces of mother nature, and doesn't need the mysteries of the global marketplace added on top.

Why should a farm not sell directly to consumers?

My idea of food safety is to look into the eye of a mother who comes to my farm to pick up her weekly CSA share. When she tells me she's concerned about spinach contamination in California, I'll be able to say, "Well, it's a good thing we don't grow any California spinach here."

Of course, direct farm-to-consumer sales are impractical in some senses. It's much easier for a dairy farmer to focus on milking, and sell their milk directly to someone who picks it up in a truck hundreds of gallons at a time and takes it somewhere else to be bottled. It might make sense for four or five dairy farms to get together and form a cooperative with someone who owns a bottling plant, who then also handles the deliveries to a local grocery store. It's bigger than a single farming family could manage on their own, and more efficient, and probably results in better profit for farmers and better quality control for consumers. Yet it's small enough that, as a child, I could bicycle to the dairy and visit the cows in person, speak to an employee who was tolerant of a short interruption from a neighbor, and be assured that I could literally know where my milk came from, even when we bought it through the intermediary of a grocery store.

I'm not opposed to small cooperatives and realize they are essential. One of the largest CSAs in Colorado, Grant Family Farms, actually sources their product from several smaller farms across the front range, in addition to their main family-owned plot in west of Fort Collins. But these operations toe the edge between local accountability and consolidated efficiency. Perhaps one day we'll reach a point where a large CSA serving a half-dozen counties has replaced the big box grocery store as the most common place for families to get their evening suppers. Maybe, at some future date in our socio-economic evolution, we might even have grocery stores who source their food from local farms in the first place. Because a small CSA such as Essex Farm, the horse-drawn operation described in the book The Dirty Life, can feed only a small number of people. But truthfully, such a farm serves a only the small portion of society that is interested in preparing their own meals from raw ingredients. Insulation from international financial crises is a fringe benefit.


  1. The way I see it is that if you feed a few, and I feed a few and our friends feed a few, together we feed a lot. :-) We may not make a lot of money, but we won't starve to death in the process.

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