Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Local Farm Economics: Are You Paid What You’re Worth?

PigsI have often said that I am blessed because I get paid to do something I love.  And I often put in more hours in my week than I get paid for in my pay check, but it is a balance.  I also for the most part set my own schedule.  Of course we have set office hours, and I have a desk and a chair I am supposed to be in during the work week.  But I also have meetings and consultations outside those office walls.  Because of my job, I have gotten to travel to places I probably wouldn’t have gone on my own.  Have seen and experienced places I would not have done if I hadn’t had the job I do.

At the end of the day, I am fairly certain that I am paid for the work I do and the contributions I have made to my organization and community I live and work in.  So it is rather distressing when many of the people I work with (yep I am talking about farmers) don’t feel they are paid or even that their customers could pay them what they are worth.  So they end up settling for what they feel customers can afford, or that customers expect to pay.  For someone who is trying to inspire farmers to raise good quality products for their customers that they as farmers can be proud of raising, growing or making, it is disheartening to hear the heavy sighs followed by such statements.

What has happened in American society that a large percentage of the population has little or no connection or understanding of the food that graces their tables?  Of the 2.2 million farms in the US, 97 percent are owned and operated by families – individuals, family partnerships or family corporations.  Granted farmers and ranchers make up just about 2 percent of the American population.  But this is a hard-working 2 percent, as it takes 21 million workers or 15% of the total US workforce to produce process and sell the nation’s food and fiber.  Farmers and ranchers only receive 16 cents of every dollar that is spent on food at home and away from home.  The rest goes for costs beyond the farm gate: wages and materials for production, processing, marketing, transportation and distribution. In 1980, farmers and ranchers received 31 cents.

Americans spend only six percent of total household expenditures on food; this is the lowest in the world.  Some of the poorest countries in the world spend the bulk of their household income on food!  Am I suggesting that Americans start spending 45% of their household expenditures on food, no rather I am suggesting that before complaining about the high price of food (which it isn’t) first consider what other things you spend your money on without flinching.  Food is the smallest portion of overall household costs in the average household.

Buying local, regionally, or even American may seem a bit more expensive but these dollars are an investment in your community, region and country.  American farmers and ranchers do a great job of producing food and fiber, the US exports nearly 40 percent of all agricultural products grown, raised and made annually ($115 billion worth of products).

It shouldn’t be too much to ask that farmers and ranchers be compensated for the effort they put in to produce the food and fiber that feed and clothe not only people in US but around the globe.  Farmers should not be hanging their shaking their heads and sighing because they know people won’t pay them what they are worth.  Many don’t feel they are valued by the very people they are feeding.   Instead most farmers take the little they are offered and turn back to the barn, fields, pastures, orchards and woodlots to tend to their crops and animals, hoping maybe next year’s prices will be better, and Mother Nature will cooperate and they will have a bumper crop.

Well your farmer neighbors might let you off easy, but I am not.  This coming year think about the farmers and ranchers who raised the food you are enjoying, because as the American Farmland Trust’s bumper sticker proclaims—No Farms, No Food.

Photo of locally raised hogs by Madalene Andoe.

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Bernadette Logozar is the Rural and Agricultural Economic Development Specialist with Cornell Cooperative Extension Franklin County. She works with rural communities, farmers and rural entrepreneurs in Franklin & surrounding counties in the areas of marketing, business development, regulations, alternative agriculture, diversification, small farm operations, agritourism, local food and buying local.

6 Responses

  1. Patrick says:

    This article is a rambling mess. The online epitome of soapbox preacher blaming the masses for their evil ways. It provides no remediation plan for people that would want to support our hard working farmers. Should we all give the check-out person at the grocery store 10% over our bill and ask them to give it to the farmers? It provides nothing but an admonishment for being in a highly developed economy where we don’t know who produces are food.

  2. Kathy says:

    I love the idea of your article but just cannot agree with it. I read the Mother Jones article that cites the 6% of income spent as well and it just does not hold true, unless you believe that someone who makes $32,000 a year only spends $160 a month on food. Food is expensive for families in this country. It is the biggest single monthly expense for our family of four. We all make choices about how we make and spend our money.
    I also think that the statistic about the number of farms being 97% family owned is misleading when over 40% of most agricultural industry is controlled by big agriculture and in some industries up to 80%. You can ask local families to support local farms but please don’t tell me that most of the food supply comes from that source. Farmers need to market to the customer who supports them…if they cannot they have a flawed business model.

  3. Dan says:

    First off, I wouldn’t say that this article is poorly written at all! Bernadette brings up some timely and interesting points to consider. Winter is after all a good time for farmers and their customers to reflect upon these things.

    When I lived in Norway food at the grocery stores and farmers markets was generally expensive but also very healthy. It’s really the same in the US. You get what you pay for.

    I agree with Kathy on the business model though. Asking folks to pay more is one thing, but if you can give them great value & great service above & beyond their expectations then you won’t have to ask.

  4. Dick says:

    Soldier on, Bernadette!!

    • Bernadette says:

      Thank you all for taking the time to comment on my article. It did what I had hoped inspired conversation, regardless as to whether or not you agree with what I wrote. Kathy you are correct, if the farmers aren’t getting what they deserve or should be getting for their product then they are doing something wrong. There are people who want to and do pay for quality products, who are interested in and value the work that farmers are doing. The people who attend farmers markets, stop at farm stands, purchase CSA shares, visit farm stores and roadside stands, and look for local products in their local grocery stores. And I applaud all of you who do, your local farmer needs your support. But what about the rest? What about those who say, well I’d like to purchase from farmers, but well if only they had a special shop where I could find all their products in one place, or I don’t feel comfortable knocking on their door and asking to buy something from them. What do those of us who are spending a bit more on food need to do in order to inspire the rest of the lot, who aren’t and who bringing that average percentage spent of food down to that 6% figure quoted in this article and others, to invest in their local agriculture by spending more on food? That is the spot I was at when I wrote this article–I was hoping that maybe this would be a bit of a spur to get some results. And maybe the conversation we have engaged in, is just that start. So thank you again, for taking the time to comment.

  5. Chuck Samul says:

    It never hurts us to be reminded where the food we eat comes from and that when food becomes a pure commodity it becomes a battle for lowest price.

    The fact that Bernadette did not describe a step by step solution in one article does not diminish her points about the relatively low cost of food and the longstanding feelings that farmers have about how they are compensated for their work. That latter point is nothing new, I sometimes think that if you went back to the fertile crescent you would find farmers complaining about the price of wheat.

    Value added and self-marketing by local farms is the surest way to increase the farmers share of the food bill.
    Asgaard Farms, Rulf’s Orchards, Pray’s Farmstand and Essex Farms all demonstrate that their are ways to do this.

    I am encouraged by what I have witnessed going on in the past few years in the North Country and other places as well.