Columnist, Margaret Christie: Local farms need to pay the bills too
Published: 6/29/2022 in the Greenfield Recorder and the Daily Hampshire Gazette
You’ve undoubtedly noticed that prices for many things you need to buy are much higher than they used to be. Each time we fill our cars with gas, pay our rent, or do the grocery shopping, we’re reminded that the U.S. inflation rate skyrocketed to 8.6% in May, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Although rising prices impact everyone, they are much more challenging for people with lower incomes.
Farmers, like everyone else, are trying to figure out how to manage their budgets given rapid increases in their costs, including seeds, fertilizer, fuel and labor. As we move into the height of the harvest season, farmers are making hard decisions about how much to raise their prices to cover their costs, while still keeping the food they harvest affordable to as many customers as possible. Hatfield farmer Harrison Bardwell explains, “Our input costs are up this year between 8% (for seeds) and 80% (for fertilizer). We try to make our products accessible and affordable to everyone, but we are in a very difficult position.”
In many cases, this decision is out of farmers’ hands — often, they are price takers, not price makers. Most of their products are highly perishable, and they can’t wait for a better price to sell. They’re competing with farmers from across the globe, many located in places where costs of production are much lower. And many shoppers have lots of choices about where to buy food and will quickly turn elsewhere if they feel prices are too high.
Farmers have been managing these pressures for a long time. This year, they are also contending with rapidly rising input costs, and are coming off 2021’s historically poor growing season, when many crops were lost due to extended heavy rains (a weather pattern we are likely to see more often due to climate change). Like other businesses, they are also juggling supply chain headaches and labor shortages. Many farmers really need a few good years to recover from last year’s losses.
Income and wealth inequality, already higher in the United States than in almost any other developed country, continue to rise. One percent of Americans control 32% of our wealth, and the bottom 50% own only 3% of the wealth, according to the Federal Reserve.
The federal policies that shape our national food system suppress food prices, and as a result, we pay less for food in the United States than residents of peer nations. These policies help to keep the peace by limiting the devastating impacts that our economic system’s wealth inequality has on low-income people but haven’t erased hunger. Cheap food policies put the squeeze on farmers, forcing them to make tough calculations to survive in a system that often treats fair pay and environmental stewardship as “externalities” rather than essential costs that should be factored into the price of food.
Many of us are making hard choices these days about how to cover our rising bills, and too many households face hunger or food insecurity — double the number from pre-pandemic levels, according to figures from Project Bread. There is some valuable assistance available to low-income families: if you qualify for SNAP benefits, the state Healthy Incentives Program (HIP) provides a monthly instant rebate of $40 per household for purchase of local fruits and vegetables from participating vendors, helping to stretch your dollars a little bit. Visit buylocalfood.org/HIP to find HIP outlets.
In addition to providing delicious, healthy food, local farms offer a host of additional benefits. They spend more of their income in the local community, contributing to a multiplier effect that creates jobs, supports local government services, and helps to sustain other businesses. In rural areas, farmers steward much of our open land. Urban farmers, too, offer more than fresh food, sustaining pockets of greenery and opportunities to learn skills and to see how food is grown. Many farms donate part of their harvest to address hunger: The Food Bank of Western Mass receives food from more than 50 farms, providing over 450,000 meals.
Local farms feed our families, care for our land, and offer beauty, fun, and education — sustaining not only our bodies, but our communities and quality of life. At CISA, we’re working to build a food system where everyone has access to nutritious, culturally appropriate food, and where farm owners and farmworkers can make a living. If you share this vision, and your budget makes it possible, support your local farms! These added benefits are worth every penny.
Margaret Christie is the special projects director at CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture).