Supporting Farms: Its Everybody's Business | Civil Eats

Supporting Farms: Its Everybody’s Business

“Slowing demand at the retail level along with the food service industry has left growers with more supply than they can sell,” began a market update I received from a local produce supplier. The flyer went on to say that they expected some farmers to send their vegetables to market without a price – that is, they will take what they can get – in an effort to stimulate demand for their fruits and vegetables.

While this might be good for some consumers in the short term, as some of these savings are passed on in the form of sale prices or discounts, in the long term it is a disaster in the making for us all.

Like everyone right now, farmers are caught between a rock and a hard place – they have to plan many months in advance how much of which crops to grow. In the current situation, farmers grew too much for the existing market and now have a surplus. The problem is that most farmers won’t want to make this mistake twice, and will reduce planting as we move forward – reducing supply and driving prices up this summer and fall, and possibly longer.

The economic forces that are driving these decisions, of course, have nothing to do with food or farming at all. But they will greatly affect the quantity and availability of food for years to come. The second side to this predicament is that farming, in its modern form, requires access to relatively large amounts of capital. This allows farmers to borrow in the off season against their harvest season profits, but the source of this money has run dry right when many farmers need financial help the most. And while the Obama administration is being urged to quickly implement new policies to support small family and organic farmers, the irony is that some of these farmers just might not be there when the help finally comes through.

For there is another entirely separate issue that is going to affect our food supply this summer. In a perfect storm of trouble, Mother Nature picked this year to give us the worst drought in decades. California and Texas are the hardest hit, but many communities in the South and Southwest are experiencing lower than normal rainfall this winter.  And this phenomenon is not confined to US borders. Concerns about drought conditions in China and South America are making farmers nervous, as well.

So it is no surprise that many farmers are deciding not to plant anything at all.

Today’s food system is complex.

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Our weather can be fickle, and perhaps we will have an extraordinarily wet spring to compensate for our current water deficiency. And perhaps our financial markets will rapidly recover and spending and lending patterns will quickly return to normal. But maybe not.

I don’t have the answer – but I do know that if we want to continue eating fresh and healthy food in the months ahead, we are going to have to ask our farmers to take risks that many of us couldn’t stomach. And so we all need to support the risks these farmers are making by buying what they offer – not only when it is in the sale bin, but also when it is something fresh and yummy and perhaps just a little more expensive.

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Chef / Ecologist Aaron French is the Environment Editor at Civil Eats. He is the chef of The Sunny Side Cafe and is writing his first book "The Bay Area Homegrown Cookbook" (Voyageur Press, 2011). He has a Masters in Ecology and is currently working toward his MBA at UC Berkeley, with a focus on sustainable business practices. Read more >

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