RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Tilling Moral High Ground

After the early warm spell that forced all the fruit trees into flower and the late freeze that killed all the blooms, we've had an almost-perfect growing season here in mid-Missouri. So, even though some wheat crop was lost and all the tree fruits in the Midwest were wiped out, local farmers can offer a good bounty of tomatoes, peppers, squash, melons, herbs, onions and other standards of our area.

And, with so many people trying to localize their food purchases rather than buy from industry, this is a good thing. We have more markets than ever before. For the first time in years, local producers can pick and choose the places they want to sell.

Consumers going to the farmers' markets this year will begin to understand that you can't always have oranges, or even peaches (dang!), but you can get by with tomatoes in the morning. Imagine that you're living in England, where the broiled tomato is a breakfast standard. Or learn to enjoy other breakfast fruits -- like blackberries. Eating locally ties you to your ecosystem -- you'll begin to notice if it's raining or unusually hot, and you might wonder how the pastures look around your local beef producer.

The increasing consumer interest is welcome, as growers at farmers' markets have been barely breaking even for decades. One of my favorite growers, owner of a CSA [community-supported agriculture group] selling to a medium-sized town, announced proudly in December that she and her husband had made $3 an hour running their farm in the last year. She had a right to be proud--that $3 per hour was a result of a lot of penny pinching. She had paid her workers minimum wage, so they made more than she did, and all her bills were up to date. But there was no health insurance, no 401K. Nobody should be surprised that her husband found a good job and she's now staying home with the kids, just raising gardens for themselves.

We've lost many growers in the last 20 years. They couldn't make a living, and you can't eat the moral high ground.

We hope that the new customers are different. They have read the books on eating local, and they know the food tastes better and is better for you. But even though they can't imagine growing a carrot or a crop of peas, they think local foods should be as cheap as the stuff they've been buying. To them, local food has extra value but, at the same time, they are accustomed to box-store prices. Even though they know that the big-box stores bring fresh produce from faraway low-wage growing fields, they think the costs of import should be equal to higher labor and land prices here.

This expectation is wrong. The low prices in the big-box stores are, like many of the big-box ingredients, artificial. Prices for commodities like corn and soybeans that go into big-box food are set at the Board of Trade. When manufacturers pay a low price for, say, corn, they can charge consumers less for corn flakes. But the farmer has expenses that add up to more than the price. So the government subsidizes his operations to keep the corn prices low. The farmer collects the subsidy, and stays in business, but the benefit goes to the corporation and industry's consumer. This is America's "cheap food" policy.

The cheap food price is due to subsidies paid to producers that control huge acreages and export and import foods. While the subsidies are paid to farmers, these subsidies benefit corporations by providing raw ingredients at artificially low prices. For more about this policy, look at, a website that has been able to gain access to the USDA subsidy database.

Prices for commodities are now rising because there are more buyers -- the ethanol producers and biodiesel producers -- so farmers will get more from buyers. This means that consumers will pay more for food. Higher corn prices mean that dairy farmers have to pay more for corn, resulting in higher prices for their products, milk and cheese. The higher cheese prices are blamed when pizza places announce they are raising their prices.

But why can't local growers, who use fewer inputs like fertilizer and gasoline, sell much cheaper? After all, a pasture-based system for cattle or a small tomato patch doesn't cost as much to run as 1,000 acres of corn.

At the farmers' markets, farmers don't get subsidies. And their costs, like the costs of the big farmers, are going up. Every tank of gas, every piece of plastic irrigation pipe -- all more expensive this year than last year. Land prices are rising, due to increased urban sprawl, so rents for land have gone up. In addition, most farmers' market farmers pay their staff fairly. Contrast American wages with wages in third-world countries where the big-box veggies are grown.

Still, farmers' market growers know what the prices are in the big-box stores, and try to set their own prices according to what the big guys are getting. When local fruits and vegetables are plentiful, you'll probably pay about the same at the rural farmers' market as you'll pay in the big-box stores. In urban markets, the prices will be higher.

Selling to the urban market means the grower has to own a decent, large vehicle. A good pickup truck, say, or an SUV or van. And, obviously, the cost of gas, insurance and maintenance are much lower if you stay close to home. And, just as obviously, the employee that drives two hours to and from market costs a lot more than the employee that drives 15 minutes to town and back.

And maybe, just maybe, some of our producers will be able to look back on 2007 as the year they made minimum wage, just like their workers.

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email:

From The Progressive Populist, August 1, 2007

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