Confession: I’ve never gone through census data the week it was released.
Double confession: I’ve never anticipated its release two months prior until now.
I guess you could say the recently released 2017 USDA Ag Census was a milestone in my life.
Perhaps that means I should get out more, but really I suppose my excitement for this data isn’t so hard to believe when you realize it contains updates on the subject you eat (quite literally), live and breathe all day, every day. Reviewing it reminded me why the work we do (and others like us) is so critical for rural communities, the future of food and our climate.
Why so critical? I want to talk about three subjects: 1) Milk, 2) Farm Economics and 3) Carbon + Cattle.
Is dairy milk experiencing a comeback? The total value of sales sure seems to paint this picture. Milk is the ag commodity with the fifth highest sales on the conventional market, and by a sizable margin the largest sales commodity on the organic market.
I won’t proclaim to be an expert in dairy price setting, because it brings with it a complicated set of grading categories and pricing algorithms. But as a generally curious individual, there’s something that doesn’t add up when looking at these sales and comparing them to industry trends, including Ohio’s loss of more than 600 dairy farms in two years or increased rates of dairy farmer suicides. Small dairy farms (75-200 head/herd) can’t compete with the economies of scale of mega-dairies and the backwards economics it creates. For four years in a row, the cost of production for a small dairy farmer was more than the price paid to them as governed by said highly regulated and complex industry algorithms.
Who can make these prices work? Only large, consolidated dairy farms, leaving in their wake rural communities that can no longer maintain their livelihoods and support their local economies.
Speaking of consolidation in the dairy industry, the farming community at large continues to fall prey to the industrial agriculture giants. According to the 2017 US Census, 4 percent of farms account for 69 percent of total agriculture sales in the United States. While consumers beseech Amazon to lower their produce prices at Whole Foods, there’s no such thing as a free lunch. Lower prices drive family farms earning less than $1 million in annual sales out of business. The resulting closures or corporate consolidation of family farms contributes to the dissolution of communities and simultaneously creates serious strain on the environment as large farms must manage their massive acreage with a cocktail of inputs and intense tilling practices (see Climate + Cattle below).
Climate + Cattle
Agriculture represents one of the top five emitting industries in the US. And yes, increased applications of chemical fertilizers are responsible for toxic algal blooms in fresh water while tilling accelerates release of carbon in soil. While both of these negatively impact two of the greatest carbon sinks, an even steeper uphill battle has yet to be waged. Recall that same 2017 Ag Commodity by Sales table above.
Cattle is the Number One ag commodity in the US. Cattle production is also responsible for about HALF of all US agriculture-related emissions. Global cattle production as a whole is the world’s third largest of emitter of greenhouse gases. Talk about not adding up — the very thing we’re consuming the most is the single-most impactful factor driving our planet to a climate of no return.
We have to be willing to connect the dots between what’s happening in our economy and how that impacts our neighbors and our environment. In the end, it comes back to millions of consumers making decisions that don’t seem “that bad.”
Understanding, of course, there exist very real socioeconomic spectrums, every time we choose to shop at COSTCO, WalMart, Kroger or similar major retailer, we are sending signals that say “invest in big ag” because I like affordable food. It’s completely understandable, but shopping under “business as usual” circumstances will continue to drive unprecedented consequences to family farms across rural American and exacerbate the climate crisis.
We need your help. I’m not going to pretend that this won’t take effort. We need you to ask your workplace cafeteria to source locally, we need you to ask the vendors at your daughter’s wedding to source from a food hub, we need you to stop buying Tyson Meats outright. We need you to lobby your school district for increased local sourcing, we need you to source from a local milk processor even if the price per gallon is $1 more.
At Farm Fare, we think technology can help family farms work together more strategically so that they can “act” big yet maintain the same size of operation and their own independence. We believe in food hubs who are key partners in helping family farms in the same region work together and coordinate supply to serve customers (like you) better. For more information, see our philosophies here.
With your help, I’m already anticipating the release of the 2022 USDA Ag Census. Here’s to driving market forces to better reflect our social and environmental needs!