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A Small Family Farmer Looks at our Eat Now-Pay Later Food Production System:

We point out that we have used (and will use) the word system a number of times. We bring this to the reader's attention because it is critical to grasp the systematic chain of events which transforms the planted seed into the food that we place on our tables and which, hopefully, nourishes our bodies

Okay, that being said, brew a nice pot o' tea, pour yourself a cup, and bear with the length of this! We have much ground to cover!

Questions to Ponder

How long could you live without food? How long could you live without your Calvin Kleins and your BMW? Which is the necessity and which is the luxury? How have priorities gone so awry that folks will pay more to have luxuries produced than to have necessities produced?

Do you grow any of your own food? If you do, do you use any sort of chemicals during the process? Do you believe that you are what you eat (and what you think, for that matter- but that's a whole 'nother subject)? Have you thought that chemically produced food may be nutritionally inferior to organically grown food, especially when you consider that chemically treated soil is not a living organism and cannot possibly interact with plants the way a living soil does? How long can your body maintain vibrant health if you fuel it with nutritionally deficient food containing small amounts of poison?

Are you concerned about the quality of your drinking water? Are you aware that many sources of drinking water are becoming critically polluted? How much will it cost to purify it so that it will be safe to drink? How about the air that you breathe? In the wake of the 1991 Sacramento River chemical spill, is it becoming more apparent that the production, transportation and use of farm chemicals is detrimental to living beings, the water we drink and the air we breathe?

If you live around an agricultural production area, do you consider that your health might be affected by farm chemicals? Do you wonder that farmers and farm workers health might be affected by farm chemicals? Do you ever imagine what it would be like to be a farm worker? What would it be like to work physically hard under adverse conditions (dust, heat, chemicals) for minimum wage, no medical insurance, no vacation pay, no sick pay and no pension plan? Would you feel oppressed and exploited? Have you ever considered the economic differences between a small family farmer who pays the mortgage on the land he "owns", and another farmer who leases five times the amount of land for the same price as the first farmer's mortgage, and the agribusiness that buys thousands of acres of foreclosed land at a devalued price? Have you ever wondered how those three might differ in the land stewardship values they hold? Do you ever complain about chemicals in food, yet fail to ask the produce manager in your local supermarket WHY organically grown food is not for sale there? Hot on the heels of that question, can you imagine what would happen if all you shoppers sweetly and politely informed your grocers that you would be shopping elsewhere until their market made organically-grown food available for your family?

For those of you who shop at big chains and purchase produce that has been lab tested and labeled no detected residues, we bring up the difference between the terms certified organically grown and no detected residues. We define the difference by quoting Bob Scowcroft, who at the time was Executive Director of California Certified Organic Farmers. This quote was excerpted from California Magazine, June 1990, page 88: "Testing is only one block of the whole system. It doesn't say anything about groundwater poisoning, about the effects on farm workers, about the whole way of farming. He's [Dr. Stanley Rhodes] marketing tests; we're verifying a whole way of agriculture." The June 1990 issue of California magazine was a special issue which addressed "The Clean Food Revolution". You would do well to obtain a copy and avail yourself of the information it presents.

No Detected Residues gives one the "assurance", by way of lab testing, that the poisons applied to food dissipate or degrade and are, therefore, harmless. One could ask questions such as "harmless to eat, harmless to use on growing crops, harmless to fieldworkers, nearby neighborhoods or the environment at large"? The EPA establishes "allowable amounts" for toxins in food. A lab test is run to test for residues above a "limit threshold". Only those chemicals that the farmer says are applied to the crop are tested for residues. It is not a blanket test to detect any and all chemicals that might be found on that crop. Scarier yet, certain chemicals defy detection- more sophisticated equipment is required to detect them! So, a lab test can be run, residues there may not be detected, yet food is apt to lableled no detected residues!. The marketing hype does little to improve soil, water or air quality. It is simply the empty assurance that, after the farmer has used chemicals to produce a crop, somehow, miraculously, there are no detectable residues above a "an allowable government threshold". We suspect that if tests were run to detect a broad spectrum of chemical residues- not just those chemicals the farmer says were applied- the no detected residues story would read somewhat differently! We are not happy with the explanations we have received regarding this matter and have serious misgivings about the integrity of no detected residues testing. Certified Organically Grown, as Director Scowcroft points out, is about a whole way of farming that embraces land stewardship and fecundity coupled with the inherent rights of future generations.

Is it time for another cup of tea? Maybe a cup of organically grown coffee? We'll wait till you get back! Okay, Settled in and ready to go? Read on!

Agricultural Oppression and Exploitation

Will Allen (organic farmer, activist, researcher and anthropologist) in his still-soon-to-be-published "Cheap Food, Cheap Labor, Lost Land" gleaned the following information from available data on Farm Retail Price Spreads, 1921-1987 He writes: "A common index used to gauge farm-retail price comparisons is the marketbasket of all foods. In the first two decades of this century, farmers averaged a 45% share of this marketbasket. For the depression years in the 1930's the farmer's share of the shelf price dropped to 32%. Of course, for this time period a more interesting question might be 32% of what, since prices were so low. During and immediately after the Second World War, the farmer's share of retail prices soared to the 50% range. Recently, there has been a 12.3% drop in the farmer's share of the retail price of all farm products from 37.2% in 1973 to 24.9% in 1987. It would appear that as farm products became less directly consumed and more processed, the farmer received a smaller portion of the shelf price."

As Will states, we are a nation of eaters that gravitates to processed rather than fresh foods. As small family farms share the marketplace with agribusiness farms, the small farm struggles to survive. Will points out another difference between agribusiness and family farm: "Perhaps most lamentable from my point of view as a farmer is that these monster farms do not necessarily have to make money on what they grow. Since these farms are all vertically integrated they are making most of their money on post-harvest business. After all, 75.1% of the shelf price of a marketbasket of food is due to processing, shipping, canning, boxing, cooling, advertising, marketing etc. this too has gotten dramatically worse for the farmer in the last twenty years. As recently as 1973 the percentage the consumer paid for these post harvest services was 63.8%." (Farm Retail Price Spreads, 1921-1987)

Consider the rate at which inflation has been rising and the rate at which consumer dollars to the farmer have been decreasing. Consider too, wage disparities between road/highway labor and farm labor. These two sectors of labor share much in common, as Will points out. They use much of the same equipment, are subjected to many of the same environmental elements and job tasks and have similar work related injuries. Again, Will has done the research: "In the early 1920's agricultural labor averaged $2.44 a day, while road and highway labor received an average of $3.80 for a 10 hour day. So, farm labor was valued at about 64% of road work pay (USDA ag stats 1935, p. 396). From the most recent statistics available, the average hourly wage for United States agricultural workers was $4.72 an hour while highway workers averaged $12.32 an hour (USDA ag stats, 1988, p 385). Why seventy years later, is farm labor only valued at 38% of a highway worker's pay? Is food worth 26% less than it was in the twenties?" Employee benefits is another consideration: union highway workers enjoy medical benefits, paid vacations, paid sick leave and pension plans. Few family farmers can afford these employee benefits- they are lucky to be able to afford medical insurance for their own families. Even worse, the pension plan on which most farmers depend is selling their land to developers!

In comparing the family farm with the agribusiness farm, several differences emerge: 1)family farms make their money on what they grow- agribusiness farms make their money on post harvest handling, 2) family farms provide much of their own labor via family members and hire supplementary and seasonal labor on an as-needed-basis. agribusiness farms meet labor needs by importing- sometimes literally, sometimes figuratively- hundreds or thousands of workers via "labor camps" or "pools". 3) The smaller the farm, the more humanely laborers are treated. The relationship between farmer and farm worker is related to the size of the farm. On large farms the relationship between farmer and worker becomes as impersonal as between CEO and line worker in a large corporation.

"Hidden Costs" of So-Called Cheap Food

We could label this section "Eat Now- Pay Later" because that is what you do when you support conventional agriculture as opposed to supporting sustainable agriculture. Here are a few reasons why:

A small flier published by Pesticide Watch, 11965 Venice Boulevard #408, Los Angeles CA 90066, (310) 391-8151 states: "on our farms: 20,000 to 30,000 farmworkers are poisoned each year in California. In our water: seven different pesticides, including some of the most hazardous, have contaminated groundwater in 28 counties across California. In our food: thirty pesticides approved for use on food are known to cause cancer."

On the Eat Now- Pay Later plan we can buy food at an "economical" price now. But how economical is it- really? How economical will it be to clean up our polluted environment? Who will pay for it? How economical will it be to treat the cancers and health-related problems that are the by-products of our present food production system? Who will pay for that? We can kid ourselves by saying that's what we have insurance for, but who pays for the insurance coverage? And who pays for the fieldworker who has no insurance coverage? We pay. It may be now -it may be later, but we must pay. So the question then becomes, for what do we wish to pay? Do we wish to pay more now and spend our dollars for prevention or do we wish to pay more later and spend our dollars for cure? The choice is ours. We must remember: things of value are not attained cheaply or easily.

Examination of The Food Production System

Hopefully, much of the foregoing has given you pause for thought. The most we can do with this site is to present you with information, ask you pertinent questions and hope that you will wrestle with the issues. The food production system is just that: a system, one that is very complex and interdependent. We cannot exist without this planet, yet we diminish its biological diversity hourly. We cannot exist without each other, yet we would put distance between our farms, our cities, our businesses, our homes! In so doing, we diminish our cultural diversity! We need to think of ourselves as a richly and intricately interwoven tapestry. We need farms and open spaces to interface with nature; we need cities to interface with art, literature, education and each other; we need businesses to supply our marketplaces; we need our homes for the nurturing of our families. We are all part of numerous systems and we need to examine our respective places as working parts of a greater whole. We need to know where our responsibilities lie and how we can better fulfill them. We need to be conscientious producers and consumers who work for the good of the whole not only for our lifetime, but for the lifetimes of generations of our descendants.

How to be a Responsible and Empowered Consumer

Your first responsibility and your greatest empowerment is the sure and certain knowledge that YOU can make a difference. Sometimes you will be obliged to take that on faith, but don't let that slow you down or dampen your commitment!

Dan Millman illustrated this concept perfectly. He and a companion were walking along a beach when they came upon thousands of stranded starfish, drying out and dying in the sand. His companion began to pick up starfish, one by one, walk to the water's edge and return them to the water. Dan writes: "completely overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of the starfish, I said, 'Mama Chia, there are so many- how can you make any difference?' She looked up at me for a moment as she lowered another starfish into the sea. "It makes a difference to this one,' she said." (from Sacred Journey of the Peaceful Warrior by Dan Millman. c. 1991 by Dan Millman. Reprinted by permission of HJ Kramer Inc, P.O. Box 1082, Tiburon CA 94920. All rights reserved.)

You must realize that how you spend your food dollar- and for that matter, how you spend any dollar- makes a difference in quality of life to someone, somewhere up or down the line! Maybe even all along the line! By buying organic food, you help improve the quality of the farmworker's life, the quality of the wholesale and retail food handler's lives, the quality of YOUR life, and you preserve the quality and integrity of the environment for future generations!

You there, you with the dollar in your hand, YOU determine what, ultimately, will be for sale in the future!

The marketplace exists to turn a profit. If no one buys a product, there is no profit. If there is no profit, a business will not continue to produce or offer that product for sale. Simple Economics. However, one snag here is that very few fresh produce departments in big grocery stores actually turn a profit! Fresh produce is termed a "loss leader" in the business. Most grocery stores make their profit on liquor, drugs, processed foods and impulse items, NOT on fresh produce. Recall Will's research? We gravitate to the packaged, processed, carbonated and adulterated edibles as opposed to the fresh.

Ok, what concrete things can you as an empowered and responsible consumer do? 1) Start an organic garden- however small! Give yourself a personal experience with food production. 2) Subscribe to Organic Gardening magazine and learn as much as you can about organic food production. 3) Go into your grocery store and tell your produce manager that YOU have made a commitment to purchase organically grown produce, request that she/he begin stocking same or you will be forced to shop somewhere that better meets your personal needs and your social commitments- and back that up by taking your business elsewhere until your request is honored! At some point, your grocer will get the drift. He or she will get it a lot sooner if you enlist the aid of your friends and neighbors (possibly in the form of a letter signed by the group) and make a polite yet firm request for "earth friendly -life friendly" products. And when I say products, I mean products- don't stop with organic produce! move on up to "earth friendly- life friendly" cleaning supplies, wearing apparel, paper products- get radical! If your local grocery store cannot or will not comply, start shopping at a store that is willing to make a commitment to ensure a better world for future generations. 4) Write a letter to your favorite commercial food processor. Tell them what a great company you think they are, what a wonderful product you think they have. Then explain your commitment to sustainable agriculture. Let them know how much more you would admire them and appreciate their product if they could incorporate organically grown ingredients into their line. Suggest they request their present commodity growers begin a transitional movement towards organic. Have everyone on your block sign your letter. 5) Have everyone who signed your letter write their favorite food processor and then you sign their letter, along with everyone else on the block, of course! 6) Repeat steps 4-5 by writing letters to your legislators, expressing your concern for the environment and the pollution that exists due to our present farming practices. 7) Invite friends from another block over for dinner and serve as many organically grown things as possible and let them know what they are eating and why you feel it is so important. 8) Throw an organic wine tasting party. 9) Take organically grown dishes to pot-lucks and let folks know it's organic origin. 10) Look at your children. See their innocence and vulnerability. Make your gift to them your efforts to ensure their right to thrive- not merely exist- in a clean, whole and caring environment!

In Summation

There are so many products produced organically that it is no longer a question of "is it possible?". The question is like two sides of the same coin: 1) how to motivate mainstream growers, processors, grocers, restaurants, etc. to make the transition to organically grown, and 2) how to balance our food production system so that it is more equitable for field workers, farmers, present and future consumers and the environment.

For these things to happen, 1) consumers need to create a demand for suppliers to supply and 2)the true importance of farming as a profession or craft needs to resurface. That's where all you folks who buy groceries and eat food can be so darned important! There has to be a grassroots demand to transition or the status quo will never change.

Embrace your responsibility; seize your power; step out in faith and KNOW that one person, doing what he or she is able, can and will make a difference!

We reiterate, things of value are not attained cheaply or easily.

Thanks for bearing with the length of this article. We hope it has been informative and will provide fuel for the fires of your commitment!