How Big Agri-Business Swallows Up Family Farms: Unsustainable disparities

For many farmers today, farming is a public service. Thanks to ever-rising production costs coupled with stagnant prices, farming is not a profitable business venture, which is in part why the average age of farmers continues to rise and is now at 58. Few people want to work this hard and receive so little.

As I think about it, virtually everyone is earning from my small family onion farm except me.

The people I employ (many of whom I provide free housing for) are earning off of my farm.

The companies I buy my seed, fertilizer and pesticides from are all earning off of my farm.

The companies I purchase insurance from for my barns, farm vehicles, equipment, personal liabilities, crop insurance, workers compensation policies, etc., are all earning off of my farm.

The farm equipment manufacturers are also earning off of my farm, as well as their local dealers — that is, when I can afford to buy a piece of equipment.

The local parts supplier and equipment repair persons are also earning off of my farm. I have a lot of payments in that department, especially when you consider most of my equipment is roughly 60 or 70 years old or older.

Don’t forget the companies that produce and distribute all of the fuel my aging pieces of equipment consume each season; they, too, are earning off of my farm.

All levels of government are earning off of my farm, whether it be through income, property and other forms of taxes, various fees to comply with more regulations than I can count, and so on…are all getting funds thanks to my farming.

Finally, the entities I sell to, whether it is the brokers I sell my crop to, the truckers that transport it, and especially the grocery store chains that make a massive profit off of my crop, are all earning off of my farm. In fact, it is my crop along with other crops sold in the fresh produce section of a grocery store that provide the bulk of the profit margin for a grocery store chain, offsetting minimal-to-break even earnings in other sections of the store.

Oh, wait, let’s not forget the local hardware stores that provide me with supplies, Cooperative Extension that collects various fees, the various trade publications and farm related news services I subscribe to, the weather apps on my phone I pay a fee for — they are just some of the miscellaneous places that earn off of my farming activity.

All of these earn off of my farm, unless I declare bankruptcy or go out of business.

There is just one entity that frequently doesn’t earn off of my farming activity.

Me.

For me, ever consistent low prices that match dollar for dollar what I was paid for my crop 35 years ago frequently equals minimal if not zero earnings for my farm. That’s right, I’m frequently paid the same price as I was in 1984, when Ronald Reagan was still in his first term, Roger Moore was James Bond and Eddie Murphy was a cast member of “Saturday Night Live.”

This is not sustainable. Yet, the moment I say “Enough!” and quit, every single one of these individuals and entities stops earning.

So, you may say, “have you thought of growing something different?” Sure I have. I have grown other crops and faced the same problems. The issue is the price disparity between what you pay in the grocery store and the pittance I receive for my product, which has to be addressed. It exists in virtually all crops.

Understand that approximately 95 percent of all consumer produce purchases are made at the supermarket. Not farmers markets. Not CSAs. Not farmstands. Supermarkets are the way 95 percent of us get our fresh produce. If the federal government doesn’t effectively address the root causes of price disparity — the obvious collusion, consolidation and concentration — there will be no more small farms left in commercial production. Fresh produce will be just another section of agriculture controlled by large companies. Think that can’t happen? What kind of chicken do you buy? Tyson or Purdue?

If this isn’t addressed I will be forced to stop doing what I do, and my father did, and his father did, and his father did before him. It breaks my heart, but my two sons have already decided they will not farm. They don’t want to be in debt like their parents, working long hours for little to no profit. Where will we be if a majority of small family farmers go out of business and food production is controlled by a handful of corporations? Because that’s the direction we are heading.

Chris Pawelski, of Pawelski Farms in Goshen, is a fourth generation family onion farmer, and director of Farmroot, a new public policy organization that specializes in policies involving specialty crops (https://www.Farmroot.org). On Twitter: @ChrisPawelski

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