For more than a century agriculture has been moving toward a mass production model. The single-commodity, export-oriented producer such as the potato farm in Maine or the wheat farm in Kansas has been the prototype. Summer farmers' markets make this an ideal time to talk alternatives.
Mainstream economists argue that the shape of agriculture is determined by consumer choices. Yet public policy and economic power play a major role in the direction of our ag economy. Even in our industrial or "post-industrial" world, the shape of the ag economy has a major impact on our economic future and on the quality of our lives.
One can go to a grocery store any time of year and purchase a plastic container with four or five tomatoes for a fraction of what one would have paid years ago. We should take a closer look at those tomatoes and their history. Many are grown on commercial farms in Mexico. Environmental regulations, though inadequate even in the US, are weaker in Mexico. If poor pesticide regulation has implications for tomatoes and workers in Mexico, the consequences could also be passed along to consumers and taxpayers in the US.
Tomatoes are shipped to northern destinations by truck. Energy economists would agree that even the high price of today's gasoline fails to reflect the costs of our highway system. Those costs include police and fire protection, the damage that large trucks due to highways and the military costs of such ventures as the Iraq war.
Many of the commercially marketed tomatoes have hard skins. They have been bred for distance travel and machine processing. Commercial farming usually reflects research done by land grant universities under the auspices of the Department of Agriculture. That research is hardly neutral. Much of it is geared toward the development of processes, products and technologies that are beneficial to large-scale farms. The Center for Rural Affairs points out for instance that in the case of poultry production, "Public research efforts have concentrated on large-scale confinement hog and chicken operations. These large-scale operations have put untold numbers of independent family farmers out of business. Research that helps producers find low-cost ways to raise and market hogs and chickens could rescue those on thin ice and put some diversity back in the economic playing field."
Here in my home state of Maine, when tax and zoning policies make it difficult for local farms to thrive, the cost of organic tomatoes rises. Consumers are driven to the industrial alternative. Organic tomatoes can become so hard to find that consumers eventually forget about them or never discover that there is a substantial taste difference.
Public policy should put local, organic agriculture on an even playing field with industrial, export-oriented agriculture. Former Maine state economist Charles Lawton reminds us that "Maine households spend more than $3 billion on food products every year, but less than 4% of that total comes from Maine farms. Maine is not likely to supply the local supermarket with coffee, kiwis and mangoes anytime soon, but $2.9 billion still leaves quite an untapped market."
Lawton argues that the local market is diverse and thus less volatile whereas world markets are notoriously subject to wide price swings. If small Maine farms can produce a variety of food crops, they can both lower their risk and quickly respond to changes in taste.
If more states were to pursue policies that emphasized local agriculture, would this lead to destructive, beggar-thy-neighbor economic competition among states? Unlike state competition through tax breaks to lure out of state corporations, which end up bankrupting everyone, a strategy emphasizing local agriculture carries win-win potential. Local farmers can capture more of the ultimate consumer food dollar. Fewer dollars are wasted in costly and environmentally destructive transportation, advertising and food conglomerate profits. In national markets, less than 20% of consumer spending goes to the farmer. With most states facing a fiscal crisis, even small increases in local production and consumption would be a welcome stimulus to the economy.
Research priorities at both the state and national level must be reexamined. Local farms growing diverse crops can both control pests and achieve economies of scope (i.e. ways of connecting crops or crops and livestock in mutually supportive ways). These can be as significant as the economies of scale on big farms. University of Maine agricultural economist Stewart Smith points out, "A number of Maine farms are demonstrating that farming systems that integrate livestock and cropping enterprises reduce the need for purchased inputs, especially chemical fertilizers, and so reduce production costs."
Most state marketing initiatives have also been devoted to the export commodity market. In many states with large agricultural economies, export promotion will remain important. Nonetheless, more state efforts devoted to touting the value of locally grown produce can enhance the value of local tourism and the quality of life. It can also assure that more of our consumer dollars go to the men and women who grow our crops and raise our animals.
John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine, and writes regularly on labor and environmental issues. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.