Sunday, March 30, 2008

Weekend Update

Locally-grown foods may have a chance to compete with the industrial food complex when there is some infrastructure for local produce.

Think about it. Most of the nation's farmers markets are closed for the winter. When they are open, it is only for a few hours a week. Those that remain open between Thanksgiving and Memorial Day are fully exposed to ice, snow wind....

Is that any way to do business?

So we were heartened by this story of an indoor (yes, that's right--indoor) farmers market opening in Fairfield, Connecticut. Demand for local farm produce has been so great during the regular season that room was made in a warehouse attached to the Fairfield Theater Company.

When a reporter from the New York Times visited recently, the indoor market was bustling. There was only one problem: apparently nobody warned the local farmers that a winter market was in the works, so there was a shortage of produce.

It is possible to grow vegetables during the winter in greenhouses or under plastic, even in New England, and farmers say there are some distinct advantages to being able to take their goods directly to a centralized local market.

David Zemelsky of Star Light Gardens in Durham, who already grows greens all winter with about half his three acres under plastic, was one of only two growers at Fairfield with actual fresh green produce. He said that with high fuel prices, the market was more economical than delivering to restaurants. “If I can go to one place, and do all my business in one place, it’s much more effective.”

And maybe just a wee bit more pleasant for shoppers as well.


Okay, that's fine for people in Fairfield, CT. But what about the other half?

An Iowa City, Iowa, group that distributes farm produce to the needy recently came up with a list of the top 10 barriers that prevent low-income families from accessing locally-grown produce. Top of the list is price. "The cost of vegetables and fruit rose 120% between 1985 and 2000," notes the Local Foods Connection, "while the price of junk like sodas and sweets went up less than 50% on average."

Fresh food typically doesn't provide as many calories as cheap, processed food and very often lower income families just don't have the habit, the know-how or the kitchen equipment to deal with fresh produce.

Also high on the list of roadblocks for the poor: They don't have the means of getting to where local produce is being sold. Again, it's that pesky issue of infrastructure. Many of the nation's poor live in "food desserts," areas where the only nearby source of food is the corner convenience store.

Could this be a reason why sales of local produce still represent just a tiny fraction of the food consumed in this country?

Meanwhile, as we wring our hands over local food issues, some heavy footsteps can be heard rumbling in the background. That would be the sound of the industrial food complex and all its corporate foot soldiers marching in the opposite direction. Want to know where they're going? Here's a clue: follow the money.


For instance, remember all that talk in Congress about cutting back farm subsidies? Well, it looks like Big Ag has put out that brush fire.

"U.S. farm income, buoyed by demand for grain from rising middle classes around the globe and the biofuels industry, is projected to reach a record $92.3 billion this year," reports the Wall Street Journal. "Still, farmers are expected to collect $13 billion in federal subsidies this year, according to the U.S. Agriculture Department, including payments for commodities, land conservation and emergency assistance."

The agriculture lobby poured $80 million into the fray. "We got rolled," says Rep. Paul Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican who was among those trying to trim the subsidy program. "The agriculture community circled the wagons."

Farmers make up less than 1% of the U.S. population, and agriculture production is dominated by large, industrial farms that have annual sales of $1 million or more, the Journal reports. In 2006, average farm household income was $77,654, or about 17% more than average U.S. household income, according to the Department of Agriculture. Average farm household income is expected to be about $90,000 this year. Current law allows subsidies to farmers with annual adjusted gross income of as much as $2.5 million.

"If you're providing benefits to the wealthiest Americans, that's not a safety net," said Chuck Connor, deputy agriculture secretary and the Bush administration's lead farm-bill negotiator. "We felt that was fundamentally wrong."

But in the end, it came down to politics as usual.


Meanwhile, worldwide demand for more and better food, along with government-induced efforts to turn food crops into fuel for automobiles, is pushing the cost of farmland through the roof.

In southwestern Iowa, land prices have rocketed 14 percent just in the last six months, with prime crop acreage going for $5,630 an acre. Top among factors cited for the increases are the soaring prices for commodity crops such as corn, soybeans and wheat.

Corn prices recently reached $5.52 a bushel, up from about $2.20 in 2006. Iowa is ground zero for industrial ethanol production.

Land prices in neighboring Nebraska have risen even higher--23 percent--the sharpest increase ever measured in the 30 years the University of Nebraska has been conducting its survey. That continues a five-year trend that has made the cost of farmland in Nebraska 88 percent higher than it was in 2003.


You may be thinking, That's all fine and good for farmers with land to sell. But what could this possibly have to do with global warming?

Well, it turns out there is a connection. Part of the funding in the U.S. farm bill pays farmers to hold acreage out of production for conservation purposes. But with commodity prices reaching the stratosphere, and that same government priming the pump for ethanol production, farmers are finding they can make more off the land than what those conservation grants are paying.

A recent joint effort by USA Today and the Sioux Falls Argus Leader reports:

The USA's open plains and prairies are threatened by soaring grain prices that have increased their value as cropland. Grain prices have been driven up by a seemingly insatiable worldwide appetite for food and by federal energy policies promoting corn-based ethanol that are working at cross purposes with government programs designed to conserve open spaces.

As a result, landowners in South Dakota and across the USA's Farm Belt are converting to cropland marginally productive acres that for decades — in some cases, centuries — have remained uncultivated because farming them wouldn't have been profitable or because of their environmental value. . .

. . .Long-term benefits are being overtaken by short-term incentives, however. Farmers chasing near-record prices are coaxing higher yields from current acres and putting more land into crops.

Kevin Baloun, a farmer-rancher near Highmore, S.D., is among them. He's plowed up several pieces of virgin prairie in recent years to plant crops. Land values in his area have tripled in the past five years, which makes it harder for farmers to expand production by buying more cropland.

"The bottom line is what makes you go that direction," Baloun says of his conversion of prairie to cropland. "Wheat was $4 or $5 a bushel a couple of years ago, and now it's up to $10 or $12 a bushel."

Conservationists warn that the current commodity and ethanol frenzy could undo years of hard work and undercut the investment of taxpayer money that has bankrolled federal land- and water-protection programs.

"A generation of conservation accomplishments could be rolled back" if commodity prices remain near historic highs, warns Ken Cook, head of the non-profit Environmental Working Group.


So the rich are crowding the farmers markets, the not so rich are still buying their Snackables at Wal-Mart and the farmers are making out like bandits with help from the political clusterf*#ck in Washington. Is there anything really wrong with this picture?

You may be mildly concerned if you are commuting 60 miles each day in a Cadillac Escalade to your job as a mortgage broker.

For the rest of the world, rising food prices constitute a crisis. The United Nations recently sent out an appeal for $500 million to forestall rationing its food assistance to the world's most needy.

The agency's funding gap is now about $600m-$700m, officials said, after a 20 per cent jump in food costs in the past three weeks, the rise in the oil price to about $100 a barrel and a surge in shipping costs. The U.S. is the biggest contributor, having donated about $1.1 billion last year, mostly in food shipments. The European Union, with $250 million, and Canada, with $160 million, are the second- and third-largest donors mostly in cash donations.

Rice prices jumped 30 per cent to a record high this week, raising fears of fresh outbreaks of social unrest across Asia, where the grain is a staple food for more than 2.5 billion people.

The increase came after Egypt, a leading exporter, imposed a formal ban on selling rice abroad to keep local prices down and the Philippines announced plans for a major purchase of the grain in the international market to boost supplies.

Global rice stocks are at their lowest since 1976. While prices of wheat, corn and other agricultural commodities have surged since late 2006, the rice prices increase started in January.

Philippines, the world's largest importer of rice, is at the point of tapping into emergency stockpiles or imposing rice rationing.


What's the solution?

Think potatoes. Lots and lots of potatoes.

Turns out the lowly pratie produces more calories on less land that any of the usual grain crops. Some think it could be the food of the future. The U.N. opened a conference in Cusco, Peru, with 90 of the world's top potato experts to investigate.

"Potato consumption is expanding strongly in developing countries, which now account for more than half of the global harvest and where the potato’s ease of cultivation and high energy content have made it a valuable cash crop for millions of farmers," says the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization.

To which we say, Pass the ketchup and bon appetit...


Lissa said...

Regarding your first point, I had no idea that in-door Winter Farmer's Markets were so rare -- in New York's capital region, we're fortunate to have two: the Saratoga Farmers' Winter Market and and the Troy Winter market. I prefer the Saratoga market, personally, even though -- or perhaps because -- it's smaller and more local-to-me. The Farmer's Market is my first stop for weekend errands -- I shop for grower-and-artisan supplied goods first, then hit the independently-owned natural grocery, and swing into the traditional grocery store only if I must. I would estimate that 80% of what I eat is sourced locally, mostly thanks to the winter market.

As for everything else in this weekend's update ... I'm very glad to be hard at work on my garden already. Because, as our friend Pattie says, "this, I can do."

Have a great afternoon.

Ed Bruske said...

Lissa, one of things I like best about the community of bloggers is that we are always feeding each other new information. So our common wealth of knowledge grows. I had no idea you had not one but two indoor farmers markets in your area. We have nothing like that here in the nation's capitol. I take it the produce being sold in being grown in greenhouses. I would like to know more. Congratulations!

Kevin said...

I want to do a piece on urban farming for my next Spot-on column. I was wondering if I could give you a call and chat about it a bit, and I also wondered if you could provide me with a picture of your garden that shows its urban context. My email address is kevin at kdweeks dot com.

Becky J said...

We, too, in the Fox Valley in Wisconsin have at least one indoor farmer's market. Maybe two. The only problem is that it is only open until noon on Saturdays. It's hard to get my two small kids and myself out the door by then. It's also downtown with sometimes difficult parking. I really do need to try harder.

Your Sunday blogs really get me incensed. (Chap my behind even!)I agree with your whole cluster#$% analysis of Washington. Our own democratic governor just signed some kind of incentive program for biofuels. I really expected more from him--maybe because he's a democrat?? Whatever.

Made bean dip today. Never thought I would see the day when a can of organic pinto beans cost less than half of the nonorganic. I haven't grown beans before, but hope to find some that work in our garden this year.

Have a great week!

Anonymous said...

I knew there was a reason I love the potato so! In the California Bay area, we have several year round farmer's markets, but then we're not talking about particularly harsh winter conditions. If I may be so bold, may I suggest that you intended to "wring" your hands rather than "ring" them?

Ed Bruske said...

What's that you say, Merceb? I can't hear you well with all the potatoes wringing in my ears...We count California as a Mediterranean country, so winter markets there don't figure in our calculations. You are too lucky.

Janet said...

Before people get the idea that lots of farmers are rolling in the dollars, they might want to take a look at the USDA's farm income report at Of particular interest may be the income chart showing farm income and non-farm income of farm households. Big Ag is making hay, but your farm families aren't, I don't believe, at least not from farming.

Ed Bruske said...

Janet, I'm sure the devil is in the details, and I was just waiting for someone more knowledgable such as yourself to come along and point that out. The corporate media like to paint things in broad strokes. We are hearing two things: that farmers are making more money than ever, and that the expenses of farming are higher than ever. My suspicion is that the smaller family farmers as you describe are the losers--especially as they grow older--and end up selling to bigger operations, furthering the consolidation process. In other words, the big get bigger, the small get lost.

Ed Bruske said...

Becky, I'm glad to hear you have indoor markets in Wisconsin as well. Sounds like I still have a lot to learn about how local foods are marketed around the country. As usual, D.C. has some catching up to do. Definitely try growing beans. They're easy. I had great luck with a variety of bush lima beans. I had beans coming out my ear. You can eat them fresh or wait till they dry on the plant. Either way, terrific.