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Obama's Food Revolution: Business as Usual for Agribusiness, Small Change for Organics

  • Slowed Food Revolution
    Obama seeks to boost demand for organic food but doesn't offer meaningful support for the people who grow it.
    By Heather Rogers
    Prospect, July 6, 2010
    Straight to the Source

Morse Pitts has been cultivating the same land in New York's Hudson Valley for 30 years. His operation, Windfall Farms, is the very picture of local, sustainable agriculture. From early spring to late fall, the farm's 15 acres are luxuriant with snap peas, squash. mint, kale, and Swiss chard. Its greenhouses burst with sun gold tomatoes and an array of baby greens. Pitts, who is in his 50s and is tall with gray hair, doesn't use chemical fertilizers or pesticides or any genetically modified seeds. He cultivates biodiversity, not just vegetables.

Twice a week, he hauls his produce 65 miles south to Manhattan to sell at the lucrative Union Square farmers market. His converted school bus runs on biodiesel he makes from used vegetable oil, which he is also trying to use to power his greenhouses. Pitts does a brisk trade; demand for his produce is high, and the way he farms is increasingly valued. Since the mid-1990s the number of farmers markets has shot up 300 percent, and the organic sector has seen annual double-digit expansion.

But despite having no mortgage debt (he inherited the place), a ready market, and loyal customers, Pitts wants to leave his farm. His town recently rezoned the area as industrial, and if he wants to cultivate soil that's not surrounded by industry and its attendant potential for water and air pollution, he has to move. The problem is, he can't afford to.

Aside from the standard instability farmers must endure -- bad weather, pests, disease, and the vagaries of the market -- holistic and organic growers face great but often overlooked economic hardship. They must shoulder far higher production costs than their conventional counterparts when it comes to everything from laborers to land. Without meaningful support from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, their longevity hangs in the balance. In the meantime, the USDA showers billions on industrial agriculture. Growers who've gone the chemical, mechanized route have ready access to reasonable loans, direct subsidy payments to get through tough years, and crop insurance, plus robust research, marketing, and distribution resources. Whether organic and holistic growers raise crops, like Pitts does, or grass-fed, free-range livestock, they must contend with circumstances made harder by a USDA rigged to favor industrial agriculture and factory food.

What makes Pitts' situation untenable is that he earns just $7 an hour -- even though he is well respected in farming and culinary circles and praised in the pages of Gourmet by the likes of Alice Waters, the doyenne of the local, organic movement. It's no secret that local small farmers charge more than the supermarket chain, and Windfall's prices fit the caricature of well-grown food as a high-end niche market: His eggs sell for $14 per dozen while some of his greens go for more than $40 per pound.

If Pitts could boost his own pay, he'd be in a more stable position, but he can't. And he's not alone. Small farms rely on off-farm sources of income for 85 percent to 95 percent of what they bring in. Medium-sized operations, ones that earn between $250,000 and $499,999 in annual sales, rely on off-farm resources for almost 50 percent of their income. This means that most local unconventional and organic growers don't even come close to earning a living from being farmers.

When the eco-friendly, food-savvy Obamas rolled into D.C., they sparked hope for a renovation of the nation's agricultural priorities. The first family promptly ripped up a plot on the White House lawn, and at the urging of Alice Waters, planted an organic vegetable garden. Michelle Obama invited local school kids to collect its first harvest. Wholesomeness and health were the message -- eating right, being environmentally responsible, enjoying nature. It looked like non-industrial food was poised to finally reclaim its place at America's dinner table.

But, as George W. Bush's before it, President Barack Obama's Department of Agriculture is doing little to ensure the survival of Pitts and thousands of other holistic local farmers. Obama is making some changes at the USDA, but they're the type of improvements that appear larger than they really are. Sustainable agriculture proponents don't want to complain because finally they're getting something. But these incremental changes won't be enough to ensure farmers can stay on their land and sell their produce at reasonable rates. Neither will they clear the path for a new generation of farmers to participate in remaking the food system.

While the public and organic advocates may be wooed by feel-good photo-ops, the fact is Obama has yet to get his hands dirty and truly commit to reforming the industry. The stakes are high: Unless the administration takes immediate steps to remake oligopolistic, fossil-fuel reliant, scorched-earth agriculture, the small farmers meant to lead the way will remain critically endangered.

Reforming agriculture won't come cheap. Most organic consumers know premiums for cleaner food are 10, 20, 50 percent -- and can reach 500 percent or more -- but this produce is also demanding for farmers to grow. It's so expensive because the caretaking of natural systems is more labor-intensive than industrial agriculture, which engineers its way to productivity. Many organic farmers must rely on hand labor to bring in crops and keep fields free of weeds and bugs without using sprays; more workers mean costly payroll taxes and unemployment and workers' compensation insurance. What's more, these growers are typically located in areas near urban markets, where high real-estate values mean hefty mortgages and taxes.


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