On September 10th, Sienna Chrisman predicted to Civil Eats readers that a “second farm crisis” is upon us, one that echoes the legendary crisis in 1987 that is so well documented in Marty Strange’s classic book, Family Farming. Chrisman’s fine reporting reveals that this current dilemma for American food producers has been triggered by a number of factors, including radical shifts in farm policies that have affected both stockmen and annual crop producers working in several regions (https://civileats.com/2018/09/10/is-the-second-farm-crisis-upon-us/).
Rising production costs, weak markets and retaliatory tariffs have put some farmers and ranchers in greater risk of bankruptcy or suicide. In particular, Chrisman suggests that dairy and grain producers, young agrarians, and farmers of color are being hit the hardest. However, what is different about this emerging farm crisis is that many innovative producers working at several different scales of vegetable, fruit and grass-fed meat production appear to be buffered from the most severe economic pressures now affecting most conventional “status quo” producers. How so? Their production and marketing are focused on direct sales to their rural neighbors and to urban “green market” consumers who are willing to pay extra for quality food that reinforces their regional identity and improves their health.
By 2015, at least 170, 000 farms and ranches were involved with direct-marketing fresh and value-added foods in their home regions, which is now generating an average of $9 billion in annual revenues. Roughly 300,000 Americans are employed as the farmers, ranchers and orchardists who make the agronomic and logistical decisions on how and what to bring to local markets, cafeterias, restaurants, bars, and farm stands. And while some consumers are willing to pay higher costs for such foods, it is still cost effective for them to do so. Why? The prices for fresh, nutritious foods are by no means exorbitant when compared to the faster-rising, longer-term costs of extended medical care required by those whose “fast and cheap” diets have triggered obesity, diabetes, heart disease or cancer. The farmers and ranchers likely to make it through this second crisis are likely to be those who market their fruits, vegetables, meats and dairy products with “eco-labels” that essentially ask their most allegiant consumers to “invest with them in more sustainable practices, whether they be grass-fed, organic, bio-dynamic, pollinator-friendly, free-range, or certified naturally-grown. We did not have full-fledged markets based on such values shared by rural producers and urban consumers three decades ago when the last farm crisis hit America.
It is time for all of us to invest our food dollars in the ranchers who are part of the “radical center” movement, and the farmers taking the “middle path” as means to survive while healing the rural/urban divide.
-Gary Paul Nabhan