Skip to comments.Small farms biting the dust
Posted on 01/25/2004 4:09:55 AM PST by sarcasm
The grocery store's faux wood produce bins overflow with shiny red tomatoes, leafy green lettuce and deep orange sweet potatoes -- all displayed to evoke the feel of a folksy farm stand. But even in summer, those tomatoes are more likely to come from Mexico than from North Carolina. The lettuce is almost surely from California.
And the sweet potatoes? They probably didn't come from the hundreds of small North Carolina farmers who dig heaps of them out of the soil each fall.
"This is the world system," says Bob Myers, who spent two years trying to sell produce for a cooperative of small farmers in Stokes County. "We have decided in this country that we don't care about the family farm."
Increasingly, food is churned out all over the world by vast industrialized farms that harvest hundreds of thousands of pounds of fruits and vegetables every week. This new system is convenient for shoppers, who can have fresh tomatoes in the dead of winter, strawberries in the heat of late summer -- and still spend less on food than a generation ago.
But North Carolina's small farmers, already hurt by a dwindling market for tobacco and looking to diversify, are largely left out of the distribution system that feeds the country. And they are rapidly disappearing.
Since 1982, the number of North Carolina farms under 1,000 acres has shrunk by a third, from nearly 72,000 to less than 48,000, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's census, which includes an estimated 84 percent of the state's farms. At the same time, the number of farms over 1,000 acres has risen by the same factor, from 1,100 to more than 1,600.
"Everything seems like a dead end, every route we try to go," says Ryan Patterson, who farms with his father and grandfather in Harnett County.
Patterson, 28, built a greenhouse and planted tomatoes six years ago to supplement his family's dwindling tobacco income. He grows more than 18,000 pounds a year of sweet, juicy tomatoes, but he says his operation is far too small to sell to any of the large groceries in his area. He struggles to sell his tomatoes, box by box, from his house.
"I wouldn't be a millionaire, but I could make a pretty good living if I could sell to grocery stores within a 20-mile radius of my home," he says. "There's a big market out there, but they're just not buying local stuff."
The loss of small farms will likely accelerate as foreign trade barriers continue to fall. Twenty-three percent of the fruits Americans ate in 2001 and 17 percent of the vegetables were imported, up from about 9 percent each in 1985, USDA statistics show.
For small farmers who remain, two options are emerging. Some can sign contracts to grow for corporations -- as many chicken, hog and tobacco farmers do -- and give up a measure of control over their farms.
They can also move into new niche markets that are gaining popularity in urban areas: farmers markets, organic meat and produce, medicinal herbs. The success of those markets has led many North Carolina farmers to start small produce-growing operations, and persuaded a few large grocery chains to stock more local produce.
But studies show that many consumers care more about saving money than saving the farmer down the road. The share of disposable income that Americans spend on food has been halved since 1950 and it is still falling.
And most consumers now expect to find cilantro, pineapples, persimmons and other exotic foods any day of the year.
"I really don't care where it comes from, as long as it's fresh and safe and available -- and not too expensive," says Cathy Campbell, a schoolteacher who was filling up her cart a few weeks ago at a Cary Food Lion. "It would be great if it was grown in North Carolina, but we couldn't afford it. I have three kids in college and one in private school. These mass producers are able to do it much more cheaply, and that's what we need."
Ruled by food industry
Myers understands that consumers want inexpensive food. As marketing director for the Stokes County Growers Cooperative, he made $24,000 a year -- hardly enough to pay his mortgage, let alone pay extra for local produce.
Still, he had faith that, in one of the richest nations in the world, he could sell 65 acres' worth of local produce -- and help save a few small farmers along the way.
But in the shadow of the Sauratown Mountains, as in many of North Carolina's rural areas, farms are disappearing by the hundreds. Farmers in central and Western North Carolina are finding it particularly hard to compete in a food system that favors large farms, because the mountainous terrain limits them to small plots of land.
In the past 20 years, the number of farms in Stokes County has slipped from more than 1,500 to roughly 600. Today, most residents drive to office jobs in other counties.
Soon after taking the marketing job, Myers realized his mission was to conquer the global marketplace. And his farmers had few resources to keep up with companies that could supply hundreds of thousands of pounds of produce every week at rock-bottom prices.
The cooperative's members, for the most part, are tobacco farmers looking for a new way to survive on small acreage. Tobacco had supported their families for generations, but today American tobacco farmers are threatened by cheaper leaf imported from China and Brazil.
They are men such as Ricky Fulk, the cooperative president, who laughs at the notion of leaving his farm to do "public work." Men such as Tommy Collins, who has seen all five of his children take jobs off the farm because there wasn't enough income to go around.
In the late 1990s, as their tobacco crops began to shrink, they decided to plant sweet potatoes and a few summer vegetables. Produce would bring in almost as much an acre as tobacco if they could sell it. By the fall of 2001, they scraped together enough money to hire a marketing director. They gave the job to Myers, who had grown up picking tobacco in the Stokes County hills.
Myers, a part-time preacher, poured his faith into selling their produce. But in the summer of 2002, he watched 24,000 pounds of Stokes County sweet potatoes rot because the cooperative was too small to provide the cheap, uniform foods that major grocery chains demand.
Cheap trumps local
Grocery chains say it simply isn't good business to buy from small farmers. The stores want produce that looks the same from store to store and from month to month, and they want it at bargain prices.
Food Lion, for example, is North Carolina's largest grocer, with 462 stores. Produce buying for all its 1,200 stores in 11 states is handled through a central office in Salisbury. In North Carolina, the company typically does business only with growers big enough to supply half the state.
That amounts to between 150,000 and 180,000 pounds of sweet potatoes a week, for example. In its biggest year, the Stokes County co-op produced 240,000 pounds in an entire season.
The store also wants vegetables of a uniform size and shape, and it wants them year-round. Company officials say they look to North Carolina farms first, but they often have to work with corporate farms that own land in other states or countries.
Jeff Lowrance, a Food Lion spokesman, said shoppers want produce that is plentiful, blemish-free and as cheap as or cheaper than any other store's. If they don't find it, they'll go elsewhere.
"The best way we can provide quality, in the quantity we need, is working with growers that can supply us in large quantity," Lowrance says.
Bob Usry, an N.C. State University agricultural economist, says the American food industry is following well-established free-market principles. Consumers demand low prices, and companies supply them by becoming larger and more efficient.
The shift toward industrialized food production started after World War II, when refrigeration allowed fresh foods to be shipped over long distances. But it has picked up in the past decade as corporations have grown larger, shoppers have demanded a more diverse mix of products and trade barriers have fallen.
"Food is not exempt from the global marketplace," Usry says. "If they can produce it more efficiently in another country and ship it wherever it's needed in the world, that's going to happen. And if someone can produce asparagus in Chile, and do it better than we can here, what's the problem with producing asparagus in Chile?"
Lesser wages, rules
Some of Usry's colleagues do see problems.
American groceries are increasingly importing produce from Mexico and Central and South America and beyond -- countries where farm laborers are paid one-tenth what their American counterparts make and pesticide regulations are less stringent, says Bob Patterson, a professor of crop science at NCSU.
And because the journey from farm to warehouse can take weeks, produce in grocery stores isn't as fresh or flavorful as local produce, says Doug Sanders, an NCSU vegetable specialist.
Most commercially grown varieties of tomatoes, for instance, have been bred for their thick skin, which holds up better for shipping and gives the tomato a longer shelf life. They are picked green and ripened with gas, a process that doesn't allow the fruit's natural sugars to develop, Sanders said.
And North Carolina's sweet, deep-red strawberries are almost never seen on grocery store shelves because the state's warm climate gives them a short shelf life. Most grocery store strawberries are a large, white-centered variety grown in the cool climes of central California, which can survive up to a week longer than local strawberries, Sanders said.
"Ultimately, the consumer decides what's in a supermarket," says Todd Hultquist of the national Food Marketing Institute, a supermarket trade group. "If it's not selling, it's not going to be there."
On a recent weekday, nearly every shopper in the produce section of a Cary Food Lion went straight to the sale items: clementines from Spain that cost $3.98 for 5 pounds, and Granny Smith apples from Washington state on sale for 49 cents a pound.
Sandy Gerardis, a part-time merchandiser from Cary, said she looks first to see if the produce appears fresh and has no bruises or bugs. Next, she looks at the prices. She would prefer local, but she doesn't demand it.
"The green beans are on sale this week, and I need 4 pounds," Gerardis says, filling up a plastic bag. "So I don't care if they come from Chile."
Old days are gone
When Myers started, it seemed as if the Stokes County cooperative had found a way around the system.
Food Lion had made a deal with the co-op growers that allowed them to skip the company warehouses that large suppliers deal with and deliver their produce to local stores. They displayed sweet potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, corn, squash, zucchini, cucumbers and watermelons in a dedicated kiosk. And at Myers' urging, the farmers started spending time in the stores, talking to shoppers and distributing recipes.
Before long, the co-op was delivering produce to more than 50 stores in 10 counties.
It felt for a while like a slice of the old days, when farmers harvested a crop and drove it to the back of the local grocery. The customers, store managers told Myers, would wait for the co-op's delivery rather than buy the regular produce that had come from the corporate warehouse.
In January 2002, with the co-op warehouse full of sweet potatoes, Myers got an e-mail message from a Food Lion executive.
Food Lion, the message said, would no longer accept food that did not go through its distribution warehouses. And the Stokes County Growers Cooperative, Myers knew, was far too small to become a supplier at a warehouse.
The deal was off.
Lowrance confirmed that in early 2002, the company began eliminating small growers that couldn't supply at least half the state. Myers said he got the same message from other large groceries in the area. And when the summer heat arrived in June, the co-op's potatoes rotted.
A constant battle
To make things worse, another fall harvest loomed.
In May, only a month before, the growers had planted their next crop: 45 acres of sweet potatoes and 10 acres of summer produce, on the hope that the grocery stores would reconsider. When Myers told them the grocery stores weren't budging, some of the farmers got angry.
They started to think it was Myers who had failed them, and they called for his resignation.
Myers desperately combed the county and the state for buyers. He spent days racing across the county and the state, seeking advice from the state Department of Agriculture and other produce growers, meeting with produce buyers at grocery stores, selling one or two boxes of sweet potatoes at a time to roadside stores.
But when March 2003 arrived, the warehouse was again full of sweet potatoes and he had no sure buyer. He prayed for a savior.
"I was sweating bullets," says Myers, 43. "Frankly, I was worried about my job and my mortgage."
In April, the answer to his prayer arrived. A major Eastern North Carolina sweet potato grower, who sells most of his crop to European countries where sweet potatoes don't grow, agreed to buy the rest of his new crop of potatoes.
Since then, Myers has also made a deal to sell the co-op's potatoes to a handful of Bi-Lo grocery stores, but the majority are still sold to an overseas distributor at a lower price, he said. In December, discouraged by the long fight he knew was still ahead of him, Myers resigned.
"I knew I was doing all I could," Myers says. "And I knew it wasn't enough."
After all that work to grow local produce, most of the co-op's potatoes are thrown in with thousands of pounds of other anonymous potatoes and shipped across the ocean.
The people who eat them will never know that they came from the hills of Stokes County, from the fields of a few small farmers trying to survive.
So what? Welfare Farmers don't deserve handouts; they can compete like any other industry. Or die.
I believe there are many examples in history of what happens when a country allows itself to become dependent upon other countries for essential resources necessary for human survival. The more dependent the United States becomes on other countries, the more of a "national interest" it has in what happens in those countries - the more embroiled it gets in wars and actions to protect those foreign resources, our continued access to them and the ability to transport those resources to the homeland.
Having local resources, the knowledge and technology to develop those resources, a market system to distribute those resources and an industry to utilize them and make them into useable products is economic independence. We have outsourced our industry, so that we no longer have the infrastructure to manufacture. Markets have become global. We have encumbered access to our local natural resources with regulation so that we no longer can afford to develop them. We have burdened technological advances in genetics with fearful notions. In the process, we are losing a generation of knowledge. We are losing our national independence and our strength.
We are losing our small miners, loggers, farmers and ranchers. We are becoming a bloated and decadent empire dependent upon economic third world "colonies" to produce the products that serve our basic needs. In the meanwhile, our saved wealth is hemorrhaging to other nations as our real standard of living descends, bolstered only by credit on our future wealth.
Wealth is natural resources + labor and knowledge. The vast number of our farmers and ranchers are at retirement age. Doesn't that scare you a bit?
Another option which has had success in some areas is the formation of CSA's
In basic terms, CSA consists of a community of individuals who pledge support to a farm operation so that the farmland becomes, either legally or spiritually, the communitys farm, with the growers and consumers providing mutual support and sharing the risks and benefits of food production. Members or shareholders of the farm or garden pledge in advance to cover the anticipated costs of the farm operation and farmers salary. In return, they receive shares in the farms bounty throughout the growing season, as well as satisfaction gained from reconnecting to the land. Members also share in risks, including poor harvest due to unfavorable weather or pests. USDA definition
Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) requires a high level of trust between the community and the farmer. Its physical basis is diversified small-scale agriculture (what used to be called truck farming). It is more suited to some areas of the U.S. than to others. CSAs thrive where small farms can provide a diverse array of consumer-ready products such as vegetables, fruits, herbs, meats, honey, milk products, and eggs to large urban populations (the market) in close proximity to the farm. CSAs are less adapted to sparsely populated regions characterized by large-scale commodity farming.
Please excuse my unfamiliarity with your state. Where are you located that you have a problem with frost & short growing seasons?
I would add that since the Lord decided to put most of the oil underneath land populated by people that hate us, we just have to deal with it. His will be done.
But if we stupidly place our food supply in the same situation, we deserve what will happen to us.
In a related story, Buggy Whip sales at an all time low!
Whew! For a moment I thought you were going to recommend secession. And you know how those Civil War threads go around here.
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