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Message to Congress: Stop Sprawl. Create New Farm Markets

Farm bill should spur local supply, not global surplus

August 7, 2001 | By Patty Cantrell
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Farmers living on the edge of suburbia know they have a big payday coming as soon as the growing real estate market makes it out to their picturesque fields. But most farmers, never mind the citizens of America’s beautiful small towns, are not exactly thrilled. Like a growing movement of Americans, they know that the malls and parking lots marching their way will turn quiet country lanes into snarled commuter corridors, ruin the fishing with water pollution, and leave downtowns to disintegrate into danger zones.

Congress has a prime opportunity this fall to change that. Federal lawmakers are now writing the 2002 Farm Bill, which sets priorities for public investments in agriculture. This document, which Congress updates every five or six years, has for decades steered farmers away from nearby consumers and into the service of a few mega companies that have used taxpayer funded subsidies to dominate the global food chain from genetic stock to grocery shelf.

It’s time for Congress to invest that taxpayer money instead in building bridges across the great market divide that now exists, as a result, between local farmers and regional consumers. It can do that by putting money behind small-farm opportunities and adding a “competition title” to the Farm Bill to check the monopoly power of the food giants. At stake is nothing less than the future of the nation’s best farmland, the strength of America’s rural communities, and the environmental and consumer interests that a truly competitive market economy protects.

Global marketeers say farmers just need to work harder to hang onto their land. But that’s not the answer — any more than millions of Americans who went hungry and homeless during the Great Depression needed to put more effort into jobs that didn’t exist. The problem, then and now, is pure market failure — a fundamental breakdown in the systems that connect buyers and sellers. “Why is it,” farmers ask, “that thousands of people right here in my county spend hundreds of millions of dollars each year on food, but I now have to sell my land because I can’t make a dime off these cows?”

The reason is that the U.S. government for decades has been paying farmers to go broke. The solution is federal action to restore missing links between demand and supply.

The missing economic link the federal government had to fix during the Great Depression was the nation’s money supply. The strategy behind Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal was to inject money into the economy so that people could start spending and businesses could start paying them again.

In today’s food system, the missing economic link is markets. To bring goods and services to consumers these days, farmers have just two basic options. They can raise semi-truck loads of corn, pork, and tomatoes at poverty level wages for a handful of interconnected food giants. Or they can try their luck on the side of the road with a pickup load of melons.

Gone are the smaller independent processors, wholesalers, and distributors that used to bring fresh food from local and regional farms to family dinner tables in nearby towns and cities. America has plenty of refrigerated trucks moving Tyson chicken and Dole strawberries across the country. But it has precious few local, or even regional, slaughterhouses and produce warehouses that actually buy from family farmers and sell to area consumers.

As more farmland falls to sprawl, and the highest rates of poverty now come from America’s breadbasket, it’s time to ask why Congress keeps feeding the food giants that now block the small farmer’s way to market.

Last year the U.S. Department of Agriculture spent $30 billion helping farmers continue raising more food for less money. In contrast, according to research by the Nebraska-based Center for Rural Affairs, the USDA spent a total of only $2.5 million — a comparatively infinitesimal amount — to fund research that small farmers desperately need, such as how to switch from chemically dependent crop production to supplying more promising products. Organic markets, for example, are high in profit and are expanding in opportunity for farmers at a rate of 20 percent per year.

Farmers also need the kind of market research and development assistance that federally funded agencies regularly give other small businesses. A tee-shirt company can walk into any regional economic development office, for instance, and get help developing sales projections, determining prices, training workers, and identifying the best store location. When a farmer walks in the door, however, the USDA doesn’t know what to do.

Farmers don’t have to feed the world to be successful. They can make a living feeding their neighbors if the federal government does its job to make sure free markets work. “For Sale” signs on prime farmland will disappear, and sprawling development of the nation’s best crop land will slow down once Congress acts to put local consumers and regional farmers back together again.

Patty Cantrell, an economist, is managing editor of the
Great Lakes Bulletin, the magazine of the Michigan Land Use Institute. Contact her at patty@mlui.org.

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