Written by Rebecca Thistlethwaite, a friend and colleague whom we met while living and working in Santa Cruz, CA. She currently resides in Oregon. Reposted from the LocalHarvest newsletter. Check out Local Harvest, the website to find everything local including CSA’s and U-pick farms.
This piece highlights how changes in production practices, sourcing, and trade agreements have shaped the perceptions and expectations of both individual consumers and institutional buyers. At our farm, after actually producing the crops, the next biggest piece of work is to locate the customer who values what we do (as opposed to trying to price-match a distributor and changing our practices to cut costs). Customers who value both how and where food was produced are the foundation of our business model. How can we grow this group of people?
Most of us would be hard pressed to find something like a delicious ripe strawberry in our garden or CSA basket this time of the year. Produce distributors and grocery stores figured out long ago that warmer locales like Mexico could supply US consumer demand for fresh produce during our slower growing months. That was all relatively fine and dandy until they began to buy from Mexico year-round once trade tariffs were lifted and Mexico developed extensive greenhouse growing systems and diversified produce production.
As this trend towards year-round production and exports continued, Mexico also became a leader in organic agriculture. In 2008 they had 128,862 organic farmers and by 2013 they had 169,707 organic farmers. In comparison, the US lost organic farmers during that time period- we have only 12,880 certified organic farmers in 2013, down from a peak of 13,187 in 2010 (more current data is unavailable). Organic acreage has grown to 2.33% of the Mexican agricultural landbase while in the US it struggles at less than 1% (just .64). An expansion of organic acreage anywhere means less synthetic fertilizers and pesticides being used, which I think we can all agree is a positive thing. I am not bashing Mexico or any other country for transitioning acreage to organic production. Yet the growth of Mexican organics combined with free trade agreements that eliminated tariffs on incoming food has become an increasing challenge for numerous farmers here. Many US organic farmers, some of them the same ones who helped create the organic community in the first place, are now finding themselves at a serious disadvantage when it comes to competing against imported organic crops.
A recent study in Oregon looked at whether or not Oregon organic farmers could supply most of the organic specialty crops needed within that state (by processors, wholesales, retailers, etc) and found that yes, many organic crops were available in the quantities needed but that didn’t mean that they were all purchased. One buyer interviewed stated, “yes they may be available but not at the right price”. It may be true that domestic supply just doesn’t exist for some organic crops and food ingredients that buyers demand. Things like organic hemp seeds, sesame seeds, and vanilla come to mind. But strawberries in May or tomatoes in August or broccoli in November are plentiful in this country, yet some buyers and stores are importing cheaper organics from other countries like Mexico instead. When a large vertically-integrated berry grower/packer in Mexico pays no more than $3/hour and a Californian organic grower pays $15/hour (that includes taxes and workers compensation), how can the US producer possibly compete? Many food activists complain about farmworker treatment in this country, but how could a US farmer provide better wages when they have to compete against an imported crop that was picked for pennies? It just does not compute.
A poignant story from Nigel & Lorraine Walker of Eatwell Farm in Dixon, California illustrates this challenge:
“Last year we were supplying very ripe strawberries to a famous vegan restaurant chain in L.A. They would pick up at the farm, drive the berries to Hollywood, and make them into juice for their smoothies overnight for the next day’s orders. They raved about the flavor, and only we could pick them like that. They had been getting berries from Mexico, but the quality and the flavor were not good. All went well for awhile then they said we had to match the Mexican organic price which was just above half what we were being paid. I said “no” as we were making very little on the deal as it was. I was happy to get the very ripe fruit out of the field and make a few bucks on a box. In the end, I learned that the produce buyer was paid a bonus to keep the food cost below 22% of the sales; if they went over this they lost serious money from their pay packet. In the end, they stopped ordering because I would not reduce our price. We cannot sell anything at below our cost of income. Ninety-one percent of farmers who file a tax return have another income from a spouse or part time job. We [Eatwell Farm] are part of the 9% who do not and who have to make a profit every year. Speaking with my farming compatriots, they are under great pressure in the wholesale trade to match Mexican organic prices. Here I am talking Whole foods, groovy stores in San Francisco and restaurants who claim they fare wonderful farm to table goods supporting local farmers. There are exceptions who pay what the farmers need, note the word “exceptions”… .We are constantly looking for ways to adapt, and you all are amazing and supportive; but small farms, particularly those that depend on wholesale are really hurting. We all know you have a choice where to buy your produce and that choice really does matter. We need your support. ”
And that, my friends, is where you come in. Think about where your food comes from and who it supports.