Historically, my family has been farmers. My maternal grandfather grew up on a corn farm in Kinross, Iowa. As a child I would visit my great-uncle, Melvin, and his family on that farm. I remember running along the edge of the cornfields, catching fireflies in the warm summer evenings. I remember playing on the wrap-around porch of the big red farmhouse. I have nothing but fond memories of that farm. Melvin passed away several months after my grandfather in the late ’80s, and I never got to go back. I don’t know if the farm is still in the family anymore. I would like to think it is, but chances are it is not.
Cheap food means farmers do what they must to keep the land upon which their entire lives, and often those of their ancestors, have been built. If that means growing only transgenic corn and soy, then that’s what they have to do. They can’t break free because the public (specifically those who can afford to pay more but choose not to) refuses to spend enough money on food to cover the cost of production and a tiny bit more so that farmers can live. Instead, farmers must rely on subsidies from the government to make up the difference that is lost due to the demand for cheap food.
Americans spend less of their income directly on food than the residents of any other country. Most Europeans spend more than 10 percent of their income on food, while the United States hovers around 6 percent. Forty years ago, we were spending a third of our income on food. The subsidy program in the 1970s helped usher in a new era of cheap food that now puts Americans at risk of health problems and severe environmental degradation. While the total at the cash register is small, the external costs—the tax dollars used to subsidize, the cost to our health and to our environment—have risen dramatically.
In addition, many family farmers were forced to close shop, and their farms quickly got gobbled up by corporate agriculture. Those who were able to hang on do so tenuously. A farmer friend of mine once told me that if she was getting paid hourly for all of the farm work she does, it would be only pennies per hour. That is just not right.
So my New Year’s resolution this year is to make sure my food purchases pay the farmers enough for them to survive and thrive. This won’t be much of a change for us, but it will require us to spend a bit more on our food. Any produce we buy will come from the farmers market so that every dollar spent goes entirely into the farmers’ pockets, as opposed to the 16 cents farmers would get for produce bought at the supermarket.
Will this be a year without groceries? Probably not, but we can control where our money goes.
Rachel’s friends in college used to call her a Renaissance woman. She was always doing something crafty, creative, or utilitarian. She still is. Instead of arts and crafts, her focus these days has been farming as much of her urban quarter-acre as humanly possible. Along with her husband, she runs Dog Island Farm, in the San Francisco Bay Area. They raise chickens, goats, rabbits, dogs, cats, and a kid. They’re always keeping busy. If Rachel isn’t out in the yard, she’s in the kitchen making something from scratch. Homemade always tastes better!