Some experts think farmers could do a lot better for themselves if they changed what they’re growing. They say growing corn and soybeans subsidized by the government doesn’t do much for the farmer and almost nothing for the local economy. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Julie Grant reports on efforts to change that:
Some experts think farmers could do a lot better for themselves if they changed what they’re growing. They say growing corn and soybeans that are subsidized by the government doesn’t do much for the farmer and almost nothing for the local economy. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Julie Grant reports on efforts to change that:
It can be hard to find locally-grown broccoli, milk, or beef in most grocery stores, even in the middle of farm country. In some states, ninety percent of the land is farmed, but ninety-eight percent of food people eat is shipped in from other parts of the nation or other countries.
The local farmers are growing commodities: corn and soybeans harvested for cattle-feed or processed foods, not stuff that winds up in the produce aisle. But ag economist Ken Meter wants to see that change.
“Farmers have doubled their productivity since 1969, and yet, they’re not making more money, they’re actually losing more money after doubling productivity.”
Meter has studied the economics of farm communities. In one area, he found that nearly all of the farm fields there were used to grow corn and soybeans for the commodities market, but farmers were losing money. At the same time, nearly all of the food people bought there was shipped in from other places.
“The economy we’re in right now is extremely efficient at taking any money that you or I earn in our neighborhood or in our daily lives and basically pulling it into a big global network that very efficiently takes that money and helps other people elsewhere make some value from it.”
It hasn’t always been this way. Richard Pirog is food systems researcher at the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture in Iowa. Eighty years ago, he says, most farms grew a lot of different
products and processed them to be sold locally or within the region.
“Iowa back in the 1920’s had fifty-four canneries. We were the canned sweet corn capital of the world in the mid-1920’s. Fast forward to today, there isn’t a single cannery in Iowa. So that infrastructure is gone.”
Pirog says you could tell similar stories in farm areas across the U.S. Back during World War Two, the federal government encouraged farmers to grow commodities, such as corn and soybeans. The government starting paying them subsidies to grow those crops.
These days, Pirog says a lot of farmers wouldn’t even think about risking those subsidies to grow something besides corn and soybeans. Economist Ken Meter says that might be a mistake. He says many farmers don’t realize there’s a growing market for local ag products.
“All of us get focused on whatever we’re paying attention to, and as a farmer you get focused on producing quite well. I’ve spoken with farmers who’ve told me that they really didn’t have any clue that that their neighbors would be looking for different foods, because they just haven’t heard of the tremendous increase in demand we’ve had for things like organic milk or higher quality meats or fresher produce.”
There has been an organic explosion of local farm markets in recent years, because customers want to buy fruit, vegetables, milk, and meat directly from the farmers who produce them. But government policy and farm subsidies mainly still support the commodity production of corn and soybeans.
Richard Pirog hopes that changes, but it’s unclear if growing produce for the new local markets is always economically viable. No one has studied the phenomenon.
“It has to make economic sense for a community and a region. We believe it will, which is why it’s spread so rapidly. But it’s sort of like, the real numbers, the quantification hasn’t caught up with all the growth and explosion and the interest.”
Pirog says he’d like to push the process along. He says it would make more sense for the government to shift subsidies from corn and soybean production to the farms that produce food for their local communities.
For the GLRC, I’m Julie Grant.