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A Patch of Common Ground

Claire Hermann

This past fall, I spent most of a Saturday afternoon working on a five-sentence letter with a chicken farmer. We weren’t having grammar trouble. We were struggling because his public letter expressed support of proposed USDA rules that would regulate poultry companies like the one that held his contract. The rules would protect growers from unfair market practices that have become commonplace.

The farmer had four barns full of the company’s chickens. Each barn cost almost $300,000 to build, and he alone was responsible for repaying those loans. The company, on the other hand, could cancel his contract at any time. Such situations are typical for poultry growers.

“I’m trying to figure out what I can say,” he told me. “I don’t want to make the company angry. Without that contract, I’ll lose everything.”

Many of us who love local, sustainable food assume that farmers who don’t switch to sustainable methods simply don’t care. We focus on what we, the consumers, want from farmers: good food, safe food, environmentally-friendly food. We talk about nurturing new farmers and finding land for new farmers so that we can be supplied with that good food.

We ignore the reasons why veteran farmers can’t change what they produce or how they produce it — even if they want to.

The barriers to changing farming methods are varied but pervasive: Consolidation in the food and agriculture industry has created virtual monopolies that skew markets against farmers. Farm profit margins hover in the low single digits. The USDA’s 2007 Census of Agriculture showed that only 47 percent of farms made a net profit, and only 18 percent made more than $25,000. A majority of farmers are dependent on off-farm income; among small farmers, like the ones who supply most farmers markets, more than 95 percent have an off-farm job. Farmers who grow commodities will lose their crop insurance if they switch to other crops, and without crop insurance, farmers can’t get operating loans.

Half of the world’s branded varieties of major crops belong to only four companies, giving farmers fewer choices and raising seed prices, according to a report by the National Family Farm Coalition. Farmers who don’t grow genetically-modified (GMO) grain can be sued by seed companies if GMO pollen drifts in the wind and pollinates their fields. The result? Farmers whose neighbors plant GMO seed take a risk unless they do the same. African-American farmers face the financial constraints stemming from the proven widespread discrimination by government lenders well into the 1990s. Poultry growers wind up trapped in debt when they have to pay for new buildings and equipment – but can’t get a contract long enough to recoup the investment.

Buying local, organic, sustainable, seasonal and fair-trade food is important. But to build a truly sustainable food system that can provide those things to all Americans, we must tackle these underlying issues. It will take cooperation and understanding between those in the industrial food system and those outside of it.

There are many areas where conventional farmers, organic farmers and consumers can be allies, such as the Farm Bill. This gigantic piece of federal legislation dictates our national food and farm policy — everything from commodity programs to nutrition assistance (formerly called food stamps) — for five to seven years.

The 2009 Farm Bill, for instance, authorized the USDA to write rules that would finally level the playing field between those who raise chickens and the companies that sell them. The rules strengthen arbitration processes, protect farmers’ capital investments, and reform the payment system. They would outlaw retaliation against farmers who speak out. These are protections that farmers have been seeking for decades — and will be good for anyone who raises, or eats, chickens.

“It’s not just for me,” said the poultry farmer, who finally mailed his letter. “It’s for all of us. For everybody growing chickens who is afraid to send a comment. For the organic farmers, who are going to be stuck in the same situation as we are if things keep going this way. For people who want to keep buying American-grown chicken. Somebody has to speak up.”

He had everything to lose — his farm, his livelihood, his home — but he decided to take the risk. He wasn’t alone. Thousands of farmers signed letters and showed up to hearings. These farmers are still waiting for the final rules to be issued, and they are still calling their legislators, still speaking up.

The U.S. won’t have a fair, sustainable food system if we leave behind the thousands of farmers who are trapped in an unfair system still dominated by a small number of powerful corporations. The fight for good food can’t be about sustainable agriculture versus conventional agriculture. It has to be about all of us.

Claire Hermann manages communications at the Rural Advancement Foundation International – USA, a North-Carolina-based nonprofit that cultivates markets, policies and communities that support thriving, socially just and environmentally sound family farms. She also coordinates the Come to the Table Project, a statewide initiative that brings together farmers, food security organizations, and faith communities to foster ministries that address food insecurity and strengthen the farm economy. She is the author of Come to the Table: How People of Faith Can Relieve Hunger and Support Local Farms in North Carolina.