Why super-sized farms don’t work

I just read an article in Grist magazine online called “Bread Basket Case” that details the paradox affecting big midwestern farms: as rural midwesterners rely on the supermarket rather than the farms that make up their landscape for sustenance, the corn that may be growing in their backyard comes back to them highly processed.

While this might sound lucrative for farms, it is in fact the opposite. Midwestern farms are going bankrupt, as the research of U of M professor Ken Meter shows:
“Meter’s work shows that commodity farming, rather than building wealth, extracts money from rural communities. In a seven-county region of southeastern Minnesota in 1997, farmers brought in an impressive $866 million selling their wares. However, amazingly, they incurred $947 million in costs to do so — a loss of a cool $80 million. Federal subsidies covered just half of that loss; the rest had to be made up by non-farming activities. Moreover, nearly half of the $947 million in incurred expenses left the area, as payments to distant suppliers of seeds, fertilizer, and pesticides, or to banks in the form of interest.”

The author of the article suggests we rethink these super-sized farms in favor of local markets.
(Tom Philpott for Grist)

5 Comments so far

  1. Erica (unregistered) on November 2nd, 2006 @ 5:44 am

    I’m all for anything that reduces government subsidies to farms. Nice to see them point out that ethanol is not the corn farmer’s savior, either.

    What I can’t figure out is why food from our nearby farms doesn’t come to us first anyway.


  2. JC (unregistered) on November 2nd, 2006 @ 8:19 am

    I’m not a big fan of corporate agriculture myself, but the problem is much harder to tackle than the article suggests. Most telling is the quote from George Naylor, “We’ve got a long-term investment in growing corn and soybeans; the elevator is the only buyer in town, and the elevator only pays me for corn and soybeans. The market is telling me to grow corn and soybeans, period.”
    Changing the way we grow food reqires, at least in part, changing the way we consume it. To say that there is no infrastucture to support local producers is an understatement. And when you factor in economies of scale at the international level, the problem becomse even more complicated.
    Supporting local farmer’s markets and environmentally sustainable products is a good first step, but unfortunately it’s a long way from changing the current system.


  3. Evelyn (unregistered) on November 2nd, 2006 @ 2:09 pm

    It’s definitely complicated; I think you’re right that the article doesn’t address that it’s both top-down and bottom-up changes that have to occur–not to mention the fear, trembling and (often) initial money loss concomitant with such changes.


  4. JC (unregistered) on November 2nd, 2006 @ 5:38 pm

    I think looking at the problem from top-down, bottom-up….whoa, wait a sec… yeah, both of those is of utmost importance. In the macro sense it’s international markets we’re talking about, and investment in the current system has been nearly incalculable, good thesis study though. I have a real fear that sustainable farming has some significant limitations as things stand. But I find that ideologically the goal is to become more than a niche market.


  5. Ohiorganic (unregistered) on November 13th, 2006 @ 9:17 am

    we need to rebuild the local and regional foodsheds for local ag to work. Farmers’ markets, CSA’s, local co-ops are a good first step but more needs to be done. Finding small scale meat processors or grain mills is almost impossible. small towns that used to cater to farmers are all but gone meaning farmers no longer have much of any locally based infrastructure to depend on any longer so like everyoine else they shop at multi-national corporate owned places for everything, not at the locally owned tractor store, grocery store, feed store, etc..

    Perhaps what needs to happen is for the USDA to subsidize those who want to rebuild this rural infrastructure instead of subsidizing corporate agriculture. of course getting the USDA to turn its’ back on its’ corporate overlords is not going to be easy.



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