Friday, September 07, 2007

"Good farms and farmers markets are fragile things"

Wherein interesting and mentions a couple of books I'll probably have to buy

Russ Parsons scolds Michael Ruhlman:

The first thing that needs to be said is that contrary to popular opinion, American agriculture is not a broken system. It is a system that is performing perfectly at what it is designed to do, which is deliver high quality (at least in terms of nutrition and safety) produce at the lowest possible price. While malnutrition was unfortunately common in this country a century ago, it has all but disappeared today. And we pay far less for food than any other industrialized nation (and about half what we paid before World War II). The problems that you and I find with it are the results of unintended consequences of this. Primarily, that it is very hard to grow fruits and vegetables with great flavor when everything is predicated on the lowest bid.

At this point, a  brief side trip into the term “Agribusiness.” In the first place, of course, it is redundant. Agriculture that is not based on business is gardening. Farms need to be profitable in order to exist. Furthermore, contrary to the popular conception of corporate-based farming, in the state of California (which I continue to remind, grows more than half of all the fruits and vegetables in the country), more than 90% of all farms are owned by either families or single operators. Small farmers? In most cases. Despite the image of thousand-acre spreads, the average farm in California is less than 400 acres. And even this number is somewhat misleading because it is skewed by a few very large cattle and grain farms. Three-fourths of the farms in California are less than 200 acres.

As long as I’m going all wonky on you, let me throw in a couple of other statistics: the average fruit and vegetable farmer working in standard agriculture realizes about 20% of the retail price of the food they grow. And according to the most recent Census of Agriculture, 75% of farm family income today comes from non-ag sources. Think about that for a minute. That means that every farm family not only has one person working full-time off the farm, it means the other partner is working part-time as well. As you can imagine, with these tightening profit margins, more and more people are getting out of farming altogether. The size of farms is increasing as growers try to realize some advantage from scale. This cannot bode well for the future flavor of our fruits and vegetables.


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