Getting our food dollars to the farmer

There are a number of complex issues surrounding the current crisis in the dairy industry, but the complexity can largely be boiled down to one simple bottom line: dairy farmers do not receive enough money for their product to stay in business.

It could be argued that this is part of a cycle that happens from time to time in all industries. Prices drop to a point where suppliers drop out of the market. As a result, the product becomes increasingly scarce, pushing prices back up. When prices get high enough, suppliers re-enter the market, and supply is more plentiful again. Why should we be especially alarmed about the dairy business?

The answer is that once a farm is closed, most likely it is never coming back. The land could be sold to a developer and be covered with houses, roads and stores in short order. By the time milk prices rise high enough that local farms could be run profitably, there’s not likely to be any land available for them to be run on. And don’t assume that they can just go to another county, state or country. Farms are being lost, for good, all around the planet, at the rate of about 15 million acres a year.

Just as serious as the loss of land is the loss of the small-farming legacy. Because it is rooted in the ownership of land, farming frequently runs in the family. There are a number of fine educational institutions specializing in agricultural science, but the type of know-how that is passed down from one generation to the next is almost certainly irreplaceable. That is a heritage that would probably be broken off permanently for farming families that go out of business now. By the time milk prices cycle high enough to make the business profitable again, this human expertise, centuries old in some cases, could be scattered to the winds.

What all this means is that we need to be willing to spend more money on food.

Spending more money is never a popular solution, but in the case of food there are a couple of mitigating circumstances. First of all, it follows from the argument above that failure to pay somewhat higher prices now would almost certainly mean paying substantially higher prices later on. With many farms forever lost, supplies could become permanently tight, sending prices upwards into the indefinite future.

Moreover, for those of us who really can’t or don’t want to spend more money on food, there is an offset available—if we are willing to make a higher proportion of our meals ourselves using raw materials.

The portion of every food dollar that goes to farmers has declined from 37 cents in 1980 to 23 cents today. The difference is going to middlemen of all kinds, from retail giants like WalMart, who can muscle down the prices charged by their suppliers and still take more for themselves, to transportation companies and fuel suppliers, to manufacturers of frozen foods, restaurants and Madison Avenue advertisers.

Obviously, if we spend less money on these middlemen, we can channel more money directly to farmers and still not increase our overall food bill. Those of us who work full-time can’t spend all day toiling over the stove. But someone used to eating takeout during the work week could, for instance, take a sandwich to work one day, and use the saved money to buy local cheese from Tonjes Farm rather than a cheap mass-produced alternative. Or one could, with little additional work, throw a chicken in the oven with some baking potatoes, rather than paying $3 or $4 per serving for frozen entrees, and use the savings to buy more fresh, organic produce at a local farmers’ market.

We can’t expect an instant revolution. But we could at least start to reverse the decades-long trend towards the consumption of more highly processed, artificial food for which less and less money finds its way into the hands of farmers. And a shift in habits in this direction would have benefits beyond a sounder farm economy. It would diminish epidemic health problems like obesity and diabetes, while reducing the consumption of packaging and the landfill problems it creates.

On a piecemeal basis, the changes we suggest may sound trivial. But as part of a change in our way of thinking about food and the resources we consume, they could lead to something profound.

Also in this issue:

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Dr. Punnybone

Going Places

Letters to the Editor

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Honor the original agreement

To the editor:

As I talk to different people about the situation in the Sullivan West School District, I keep hearing one similar theme. Whether it’s in Jeffersonville or Narrowsburg or Delaware Valley, people almost always comment that they feel the merger was a sham, based on lies and broken promises, and they would undo it if they could.

Certainly anyone who was against the merger has earned the right to say “I told you so.” But it’s worth remembering one of the most important principles that persuaded a majority of people to vote for it. And that is the basic fairness of the original structure. People were willing to come together as a new high school as long as they could keep their local schools and didn’t lose their identities as communities. This was the essential ingredient, the basic compact that made it all come together.