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Why Voting with Your Food Dollars Doesn’t Work.

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by Sean Croxton

Vote with your food dollars.

With activism at its core and clear purpose in its actions, this frequently heard foodie maxim has become the battle cry for those of us demanding change in our food system.

On its face, food dollar voting is intended to support those who do it the right way — the farmers who rotate their crops, protect the integrity of their soils, feed their animals their proper diets, and provide their customers, you and me, with real organic produce and pastured meats and eggs.

It just feels so warm and fuzzy. Sustainable, too.

But on the flip side of all of that warmth and fuzziness are the ones who come out on the short end of our votes — the farmers who do it the wrong way.

To hell with them, you might say. They raise monocrops. They erode their soils with harsh chemicals and tillage. They confine their animals, feeding them grains and antibiotics. And then they have the nerve to sell their sick foods to paying customers in the name of health.

The prevailing consumer solution for the horrendous stewardship of conventional farmers has been to take money out of their pockets by casting fiscal votes for the good guys, the ones who do it right. Then at some point, the ones who do it wrong will get the message and change their ways.

If it were only that simple.

The foodie electoral system is broken. This concept of voting with our food dollars is one on par with the “calories in, calories out” slogan of the fitness world — a half truth with sparse results and a laundry list of side effects.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all in favor of supporting local organic farms. However, my food purchases are made with the intention of keeping real farmers in business, not driving conventional farmers out.

No one benefits from farmers gone bankrupt.

Here’s where I’m coming from. While our foodie hearts are in the right place, our minds are living on Fantasy Farm, a place where conventional farmers listen to their customer’s demands, resolve to become better stewards of the land, and then convert all things conventional and synthetic into organic and eco-friendly by twinkling their collective noses.

It doesn’t work that way.

The reality is that even if a “wrong way” farmer felt compelled to take the leap, make the conversion, and raise animals and crops on an organic mixed farm, he’d most likely soon find his feet planted firmly on his eroded soil, weighted down by the time, money, and knowledge it takes to get off the ground.

Here are just a handful of the obstacles conventional farmers face…

Debt and the Coming Bust.

Farming is a boom and bust industry. Currently in a boom due to overseas demand, ethanol production, and soaring farmland prices, conventional farmers who grow commodity drops like corn, wheat, and soy are very much aware that the good times won’t keep on rolling forever.

In fact, the Department of Agriculture has predicted that in 2014 farmers can expect a 25 percent drop in income due to a speculated reduction in commodity prices.

As we all know, a slump in income combined with rising debt is never a good thing.

According to this article, farmer debt has risen almost a third since 2007, much of it due to borrowing against the value of farmland.

Farmers who have been in the game for some time will recall the bust of the 1980s, when they saw their land values decline by 27 percent, leading to the highest annual farm bankruptcy rate ever recorded, according to the USDA.

The bottom line: With what appears on the horizon, no farmer in his right mind would gamble his or her future to convert to organic — a conversion that requires the purchase of new equipment for soil-friendly tilling, the cost of intensive manual labor, and….well, animals.

Probably not a savvy business move at this time.

The Three-Year Wait.

If a farmer declared today to be the last time he would ever apply synthetic, chemical inputs onto his land, his crops could not be called organic until August 3, 2016.

This 36 month period is known as the transition period.

During this transition, improving soil structure and nutrition typically calls for the removal of high value crops like vegetables, replacing them with grains and legumes.

Ironically, most food dollar voters don’t eat grains or legumes.

And of course, organic conversion comes with a price.

According to this article, in a study of certification costs across eleven certification agencies, initial costs averaged $579, $1,414, $3,623, and $33,276 for farms with incomes of $30,000, $200,000, $800,000, and $10,000,000, respectively. For small farms, costs ranged from $90 to $1,290. For medium farms, certification cost anywhere from $155 to $3,300.

On a happier note, financial assistance is available to those who qualify.

A Steep Learning Curve.

The farming practices of conventional versus organic are like night and day.

The days of controlling weeds and pests with chemicals are over. Instead, one must learn which beneficial insects and bugs control for pests, how to eliminate specific weed species without toxins, the nutritional needs of a diversity of crops, the intricacies of tilling without contributing to soil erosion, how to move efficiently move and graze cattle…

The list is endless, as is the process of learning these new techniques — through books, journals, seminars, and mentorships — as well as teaching them to farmhands.

I imagine it feels like starting over.

Solutions?

A recent survey found that transition costs were estimated at over $50,000 (Canadian dollars) per farm, but this will vary depending on the length of the transition period (which may be phased in over several years), the current products being produced and the available buildings and equipment. [Source]

Chances are that many well-meaning conventional farmers — the ones who wish to join the ranks of the organic and humane — simply cannot weather the expense, mounting debt, and uncertainty attached to the demands of a foodie electorate whose votes empower those farmers who are already doing, while stifling the ones who wish to do.

To create change, money needs to go into these conventional farms, not come out. As backward as it may sound, it’s the truth. The discernible hitch is in identifying which farms to invest in. And how.

How can we support these farms, keeping them above water during the period of transition and beyond?

My own personal solution is to start a non-profit foodie-funded subsidy program that provides financial, educational, and voluntary labor support for transitioning farmers.

With more organic farms comes healthier soils — soils that take in carbon from the atmosphere, reduce water runoff and flooding, and of course, produce nutritious crops.

Healthy crops mean healthy animals and healthy people.

And with more organic food production comes lower prices, so less complaints about the cost of buying organic.

Though a very raw idea at the moment — I just came up with it in the shower a few days ago — I feel like such a program would support change in our food system.

It’s not about voting with our food dollars, but rather supporting with our dollars — pulling farmers up, not pushing them down.

At least that’s how I see it.

Or, maybe I’m the one living on Fantasy Farm.

With the above in mind, how effective is our current “voting with your food dollars” strategy in truly altering the real food landscape?

What solutions do you have for supporting transitioning farms?

Leave a comment below and let me know your thoughts!

Sean
Author, The Dark Side of Fat Loss
Dark Side of Fat Loss

Comments

comments

11 thoughts on “Why Voting with Your Food Dollars Doesn’t Work.

  1. Greg

    I wholeheartedly disagree with your logic. First of all, I know LOTS of farmers who grow both conventional as well as organic. Most farmers have multiple plots of land, or have their land divided into several sections. They grow what the market demands so when organic demand increases they convert more land to organic.

    Most of the farmers I know begin converting conventional land to organic by transitioning through a ‘no spray, no chemical fertilizer’ phase where they grow using organic standards without the certification. Some just stick with that since getting the cert can be expensive and most people at the markets are OK with that. Consumers can always visit the farm or check the public records for pesticide or herbicide permits given to the farmer.

    But that’s for farmers growing fruits and veggies. Farmers growing grains are a whole different animal and their lands are likely so contaminated with glyphosate residue that the land wouldn’t grow anything other than GMOs or super weeds anyway. Sad but true but those farms are simply NOT CAPABLE OF EVER BEING CONVERTED TO ORGANIC, EVER. Witness farmers converting conventional cotton to rice, then having the rice heavily contaminated with arsenic. These farms are destined to becoming deserts for at least two decades before they can grow anything. They are circling the drain and no amount of remediation can reverse the path they’re on. And that’s a good thing. Once grain production becomes more expensive, junk food prices will rise and eating real food won’t look as expensive.

    So instead of saying that voting with our pocketbooks won’t work, let’s vote with our pocket books to work to convert the only farmers that matter: Local farmers growing real food (not grains destined to become HFCSyrup) for whom the ‘no spray, no chemical fertilizer’ model is a real short term possibility.

  2. Elisa Hopewell

    Sean, I think it is a great idea. I know there are more young farmers who want to either start new farms (but don’t have the money) or urban farmers who try to start small scale in their own little spaces, but get sidetracked with city/business regulations and don’t have to room to expand. So if I may be so bold, the nonprofit is a great idea and to partner with a panel of experts (picked or headed by Joel Salatin) to pick the best applicants, would give a lot more people the opportunity to be farmers or even help older farmers to transition to organic. I think the nonprofit could do a lot of good. Check out (Dallas urban farmers) URBAN ACRES, who started small, and used Kickstarter to ask their clients to help expand the business.

  3. Lois Pratt

    What I found by getting to know our local farmers at the Farmers Market is they are doing the right thing but do not go through the expensive certification process required to call their produce organic but by knowing and trusting them, I feel confident in purchasing their food. It’s a matter of talking, visiting and supporting those farmers without having to have the official stamp from the government.

  4. Lisa

    Thank you Sean for fighting the good fight. This is an issue that needs to be discussed, in depth.

    Speaking for myself and spouse: Greg has a valid point and nearly voiced my thoughts for me. While I see the rationale that transition costs and depressed pay would make it harder for farmers to rationalize converting to organic, it does not mean that farmers cannot transition to more sustainable practices. This is not an either/or situation. I see the segmentation of field as the solution. Whole farm certification can happen in phases (see more http://extension.agron.iastate.edu/organicag/standards.html). I don’t even ask my farmer’s market farmers about organic anymore because I understand it’s so full of bureaucracy as to be practically useless.

    Also, we are being told that farmer income will go down and simultaneously being told food prices will go up. So, if I take my money to the farmer’s market, expecting to pay more, and do find higher prices who is getting more other than the farmer?? BUT…that’s the thing. If you take your food $$ to Wal-Mart, the farmer will get less while you pay more. Why? Because the money is going to the middle man: food handlers, distributors, chemical manufacturers, ‘food’ manufacturers. You have to
    stop supporting ADM, ConAgra and Monsanto by keeping your money out of Wal-Mart! I repeat:
    stop supporting ADM, ConAgra and Monsanto by keeping your money out of Wal-Mart!

  5. UW Sean Post author

    I agree. It’s important to know, visit, and communicate with local farmers — many of whom grow organic but don’t have the official cert.

    I also feel like most people (general population, not foodies) won’t make the effort to know their farmers. And many don’t trust it when there is no organic label.

    The majority of people shop at supermarkets. As far as I know, produce needs to have the official organic label to be sold as such in big box grocery stores.

    If we’re going to reach the general population with more organic food, we need more farmers to get the organic cert. It would be awesome if 50% of the food in supermarkets was organic and affordable.

    Thanks for commenting, Lois!

  6. UW Sean Post author

    Thanks for commenting, Greg!

    Converting sections of land to organic is a good point that I opted to not include in the video and blog for the sake of brevity. (My blogs and videos tend to get pretty long and drawn. Trying to keep things as short as possible.)

    I understand where you’re coming from. Yet, I think we need to focus of the general food consumer as well as the supermarkets they shop at.

    Let’s face it, realistically the grand majority of the population is going to shop at “regular” supermarkets where there are few organic and pastured options.

    We foodies have no problem getting to know our farmers, trusting that they are indeed organic (even without the cert), and buying from them at the markets. But we are just a very tiny percentage of the population.

    If we can contribute our dollars to these farmers who cannot afford the expensive certifications (so they can get certified), they are more likely to be able to get their foods into the big box supermarkets where most people shop. If half of supermarket meats and produce can be organic, pastured, and affordable, that’s a HUGE win.

    In my opinion, we need more organic certified farms to make that happen.

    Thanks again!

  7. Greg

    You’re much more optimistic than I am. It took four generations to dig ourselves into this hole, but we don’t have the time or the political wherewithal to turn our country’s dinner plate around before we spend 200% of our GDP on sick-care. Even with the real food revolution growing in popularity, I’m afraid we passed the economic ruin tipping point a generation ago.

    It would take a massive public health campaign to turn the tide, but with the current long list of vested interests at the helm of the FDA and USDA, there is zero chance of that happening. So I’ll continue to feed my family the best food I can grow and buy, and I’ll talk to anyone who will listen, but I hold no illusions as to the grim prospects for the future health of average Americans.

  8. Heather

    Sean,
    thanks for this thoughtful post. It is a complicated issue, and like you state here, “the foodies will always find the good food” but meanwhile, the masses are eating junk. This costs us all in regards to the health of our nation and health care costs. We ALL pay for poor farming practices and ill health, whether you see it directly or not. Keep up the good work!!

  9. megan

    love:
    – the direction you are going
    – your recent podcasts, which really look at the big picture and connect the dots (listening to j schwartz interview, didn’t it sound like soil is to the earth as the gut is to the human?)
    – that you take time to reply to so many of the comments that we leave

    you rock sean. you’re a gift to many, many people.

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