Agricultural Justice Project reaches out to area farmers over issues of fairness

farmerBy RICHIE DAVIS – Recorder Staff- Tuesday, August 19, 2014

When buying tomatoes or lettuce, there’s so much to consider: freshness, price, taste, farming practices — and fairness.

With a resurgence of interest in Pioneer Valley agriculture, some advocates have begun to look for ways to make sure that workers at farms are treated fairly, with livable working conditions, and that food co-ops and farm-product businesses do the same to their employees and farm suppliers.

The Agricultural Justice Project — with roots going back more than a dozen years in Florida, North Carolina, New Jersey and New York, and overseas — has been reaching out more recently to farmers in this region as well.

Looking at “Food Justice Certification” is an outgrowth of the organic certification effort that Portia Weiskel says she and other growers were involved in with formation of the Northeast Organic Farmers Association decades ago. But when federal organic standards were adopted, the “fairness” principle that was part of the original concept for organic was forgotten.

According to Elizabeth Henderson, the Northeast Organic Farmers Association representative on the Justice Project’s management committee, that meant “fairness to people who work in agriculture, fair pricing for farmers, fair treatment for farmworkers and fairness to animals and fairness to all creatures. The creatures got into the national organic program, but the people didn’t.”

Weiskel added, “It’s attempting to say the principles that apply (to how food is grown) also need to work on a larger scale, including people working on farms. This is taking in the whole system, this group of people trying to get social justice, earth justice and food justice.”

Weiskel — who runs a one-woman, five-acre farm that produces eggs, kale, rhubarb and raspberries — and farmer Jon Magee of Greenfield began approaching area farms this winter, along with food co-ops and food-product manufacturers.

After helping edit an international food justice document a couple of years ago, Weiskel said she volunteered to work on approaching Franklin County farmers to gauge their level of interest on working toward certification standards, such as “farmer provides at least one day of rest out of every seven,” “regular and timely payments” and “clear multi-step conflict resolution process with no retaliation.”

Many of the standards, Weiskel said, are probably already being met.

“I feel my presence is not about saying, ‘How much are you paying your workers?’ but in asking, ‘Do you regard what you’re paying your workers a fair, living wage? Do you house your workers on the farm?’ and whether they’d be interested in certifying for their customers that they do.

“Some of these people are operating on a shoestring, and a lot don’t have any employees,” acknowledged Weiskel. “If I had to pay anybody here, I couldn’t do it.”

Most of the farmers and the co-ops she and Magee have approached have been open to the idea, although one told her, simply, “I can’t fill out any more paperwork.”

Admittedly, this is the busiest time of year for many farmers to be approached — especially with the idea of adding another chore to their load and the expense of certification fees.

Yet, Magee said, “It seems everyone is interested in knowing more. Most are cautious because they perceive more of a managerial burden. … In the Pioneer Valley, no one has anything against farmworkers and people are fairly fond of their farms.”

Even for farmers who do not become certified, he said, many seem interested in having a conversation about issues like spelling out a clear conflict resolution process, having defined policies about sickness and maternity or paternity benefits, or health and safety protections.

“It’s a chance to bring agricultural justice to the table,” said Magee.

At Red Fire Farm in Montague, Ryan and Sarah Voiland said they are committed to trying to improve pay and conditions for their workers who number between 60 to 80 at the peak of the growing season between their Montague and Granby farms. And they said they are willing to look at the specific standards of the project, for which the Pioneer Valley Workers Center at the University of Massachusetts would be the independent certifying agent.

At the same time, Ryan Voiland said, “We feel we’re stuck between what consumers are willing to pay for their produce and what we’re able to pay our workers,” while at the same time being asked to donate food under the banner of “food justice” to the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts.

“We try to think about the right way to do things, and to make it viable for the people who work for us. And we’re in favor of having a just workplace and strive toward that,” he said. “But I’m not super-excited about having another set of forms to fill out.”

Philip Korman, executive director of Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture in South Deerfield, agreed that many local farmers care deeply about providing liveable wages, along with better benefits and fair working conditions for employees, although “they have a lot less wiggle room than larger, industrial agriculture enterprises. And the challenge is when the farmers are working under the same conditions as their laborers.”

He added, “The way this needs to move is how we can get more people to understand that the price to grow food that’s healthy and fresh and sustainable for all of us is more than what we’ve been paying.”

Claire Hammonds of the Pioneer Valley Labor Center said the hope is to get a couple of farms involved initially to raise awareness among consumers and other farmers.

“Some farms are already largely meeting these standards,” she said. “But they don’t necessarily have these standards and these policies written down.”

On the Web: http://www.agriculturaljusticeproject.org


Source URL:http://www.gazettenet.com/news/townbytown/granby/13197351-95/making-a-living-wage-agricultural-justice-project-reaches-out-to-area-farmers-over-issues

WHY BOTHER: shop at a farmer’s market?

New York Times – Mark Bittman – August 5, 2014

This is a new commemorative stamp introduced by the U.S. Postal Service

This is a new commemorative stamp introduced by the U.S. Postal Service

For most of us, there’s no better place to buy fruits and vegetables than at a farmers’ market. Period. The talk about high prices isn’t entirely unjustified, but it can be countered, and I’ll get to that in a minute.

What’s inarguable is that farmers’ markets offer food of superior quality, help support smaller-scale farmers in an environment that’s more and more difficult for anyone not doing industrial-scale agriculture, and increase the amount of local food available to shoppers. All of this despite still-inadequate recognition and lack of government support.

Then there’s “know your farmer, know your food.” When you buy directly from a farmer, you’re pretty much guaranteed real freshness (we’ve all seen farmers’ market produce last two or three times longer than supermarket produce). You’re supporting a local business — even a neighbor! And you have the opportunity to ask, “How are you growing this food?” Every farmer I’ve spoken to says — not always in a thrilled tone — that the questions from shoppers never stop. But even if a vegetable isn’t “certified organic,” you can still begin to develop your own standards for what makes sense and what doesn’t.

Farmers’ markets are not just markets. They’re educational systems that teach us how food is raised and why that matters.

“Producer-only” farmers’ markets, as opposed to markets that sell food from anywhere, are really the ideal. The organizations that run these tend to be nonprofits, and often use volunteers to keep going. In many cases they are mission-driven: organizers want to make sure small farms remain viable and that we — nonfarmers — have access to good local food. At this stage of the game, there is no higher cause.

The quality of produce in producer-only markets — that is, places where people sell what they grow — is phenomenal, especially right now. If you’re going to complain that tomatoes are $6 a pound in some markets (they are; they’re also sometimes 99 cents), you might also note that usually these are real tomatoes, sometimes explosive in flavor, whereas the $4 per pound tomatoes I bought in the supermarket this week were grown in water and were less tasty than your average canned tomato. To some extent, you get what you pay for.

Then again, there are often bargains on incredibly high-quality produce for anyone who is willing to shop. Last week, at a recently opened market near Washington, D.C.’s convention center, I bought tiny lavender “fairy tale” eggplants for less than $3 a pound. The Saturday before last, at New York’s Union Square Greenmarket, I found perfectly ripe, real apricots for $5 a pound. (A chef strode up next to me and bought two cases; the farmer had only three total, which is why you want to go early.) That may sound expensive, but if you want a real apricot, this is the only way to get it.

At the 37-year-old market on 175th Street in Washington Heights, I found purslane — a salad green I’ve been foraging for 40 years, and that I adore — and bought a bunch as big as my head for $2. I found papalo (also called Bolivian coriander), a delicious, strong-tasting green I’ve bought every time I’ve seen it since I first tasted it in Mexico a few years ago.

And at the tiny farmers’ market in Truro, on Cape Cod, now in its second year, I bought lobsters for 40 percent less than they cost in local stores, pork jowls for $2 a pound, and gorgeous half-yellow, half-green summer squash for a dollar each; they were worth it.

With more than 8,000 farmers’ markets nationwide (representing something like 50,000 farmers, according to the Department of Agriculture), potentially millions of people are being affected by similar experiences. That’s a great thing. And this week — National Farmers Market Week — a commemorative postage stamp is being introduced at a ceremony in Washington on Thursday. Present will be Bernadine Prince, co-executive director of FreshFarm Markets in Metro DC, which runs 13 producer-only markets, and president of the Farmers Market Coalition. Prince said to me, “Farmers’ markets are an economic engine that keeps farmers going.” Yes, that too.

That’s good for everyone, but things could be better. It’s clear to me — after visits to farmers in New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts and California, to farmers’ markets wherever I’ve traveled in the last few years, and recent conversations with Prince, Michael Hurwitz (director of New York’s Greenmarket), Francie Randolph (who runs Sustainable CAPE and founded the Truro market last year), and others — that a few key improvements could make it easier for farmers and markets to thrive.

Near the top of many lists is municipal support, largely in the form of space, water, electricity and the like, and the reduction (or absence) of fees. “Each of our 13 markets requires a different negotiation and different set of fees,” says Prince. “Some are a dollar a year and some are far more expensive.” Since this money comes mostly from fees charged to farmers, the costs are usually passed on to consumers.

By increasing foot traffic, bringing shoppers into otherwise-ignored spaces, providing space for farmers to sell their goods at retail prices (80 percent of the farmers in New York’s markets, says Hurwitz, could not survive on wholesale alone), these markets benefit everyone. Markets need infrastructure — either permanent space or, at least, water and electricity.

Farmers who come to market may be working 18-hour days, or even longer, depending on the length of their drive. On top of this, to handle retail sales they’ve got to process a variety of forms of payment in addition to cash, from SNAP (food stamps) to credit cards to tokens (you actually do not want to know how convoluted these payments get). When there’s a unified, wireless form of payment, this will become less of a burden. That’s in the works — Hurwitz estimates it’ll be here no later than the end of the decade — but undoubtedly it could be hurried along.

At least a few hundred markets are taking advantage of programs like Wholesome Wave that double the value of food stamps at farmers’ markets, and that number will soar when the Agriculture Department’s Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive program kicks in, contributing as much as $20 million to the cause. That’s real progress, but more is needed.

In short, says the Southern Maine congresswoman Chellie Pingree, a staunch supporter of local food systems, “We’ve had some success in passing policies that support farmers’ markets, but really the numbers are pretty small compared to the huge support that flows to big commodity crops. Policy makers are slowly catching up with the public on the benefits of supporting local agriculture, but we have a long way to go before the playing field is really leveled.”

Truth.

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New England Ag goes against national trends

I’m being interviewed today by a reporter who wants to know about trends in New England agriculture. So in preparation, I’ve pulled up the following facts (and thought I’d share them here as well).  For example, did you know that:

  1. While the number of farms nationally continues to decline, farms have increased about 5% in New England since the last Ag Census to around 35,000 farms.
  2. The land in agriculture has also decreased nationally, while land in productive farming in New England has increased by about 4% to 4.2 million acres.
  3. Farmland in New England is being converted from hay production to more valuable crops such as nursery crops, small fruits and vegetables.
  4. Beginning farmers (those with less than 10 years of experience) declined nationally but increased in New England.
  5. The fastest growing demographic category in New England agriculture is in farms managed by women, up 15% in the past 5 years.

And in Massachusetts:

  • Massachusetts was one of only 10 states that saw an increase in both the number of farms and land in farms.
  • Massachusetts operators include a greater percentage of women and a relatively high percentage of beginning farmers.
  • Massachusetts crops feature an emphasis on nursery crops, and a good amount of fruits, nuts and berries.
  • The sales channels in Massachusetts are also different than the national norm, with unusually strong direct- to-consumer sales, direct sales to retail outlets (such as stores, restaurants, and institutions), and community supported agriculture (CSA) arrangements.

 

The price of a cheesburger is not the true cost

nytlMark Bitman – NY Times – July 15, 2014

In 2005, the House of Representatives passed an act that forbade consumers to sue fast-food operators over weight gain. “The Cheeseburger Bill” (formally, “The Personal Responsibility in Food Consumption Act”) attempted to legislate the message that the costs of fast food are personal, not social, and certainly not a consequence of selling harmful food at addictively low prices.

The reality is different, as we begin to understand the extent of the financial and economic costs wrought on our society from years of eating dangerously. That’s a different kind of cheeseburger bill; the butcher’s bill, if you like: The real cost.

What you pay for a cheeseburger is the price, but price isn’t cost. It isn’t the cost to the producers or the marketers and it certainly isn’t the sum of the costs to the world; those true costs are much greater than the price.

This is an attempt to describe and quantify some of those costs. (I have been working on this for nearly a year, with a student intern, David Prentice.) It’s necessarily compromised — the kinds of studies required to accurately address this question are so daunting that they haven’t been performed — but by using available sources and connecting the dots, we can gain insight.

Whatever the product, some costs are borne by producers, but others, called external costs — “externalities,” as economists call them — are not; nor are they represented in the price. Take litter: If your cheeseburger comes wrapped in a piece of paper, and you throw that piece of paper on the sidewalk, it eventually may be picked up by a worker and put in the trash; the cost of that act is an externality. Only by including externalities can you arrive at a true cost.

Almost everything produced has externalities. Wind turbines, for example, kill birds, make noise and may spin off ice. But cheeseburgers are the coal of the food world, with externalities in spades; in fact it’s unlikely that producers of cheeseburgers bear the full cost of any aspect of making them. If we acknowledge how much burgers really cost us we might either consume fewer, or force producers to pick up more of the charges or — ideally — both.

We estimate that Americans eat about 16 billion burgers a year of all shapes and sizes, based on data provided by the NPD Group, a market research firm. (The “average” cheeseburger, according to the research firm Technomix, costs $4.49.) And our calculation of the external costs of burgers ranges from 68 cents to $2.90 per burger, including only costs that are relatively easy to calculate. (Many costs can’t possibly be calculated; we’ll get to those.)

The big-ticket externalities are carbon generation and obesity. Environmental Working Group’s “Meat Eater’s Guide” (2011) estimates the carbon footprint of beef cattle at 27 pounds of CO2 equivalent per pound; the use of “spent” dairy beef in burger meat reduces that slightly, but we can say that each pound of burger meat accounts for roughly 25 pounds of CO2 emissions. (Cheese counts, too: It produces 13.5 pounds of CO2 equivalent per pound, and even bread has a carbon footprint.)

The cost of this carbon is hard to nail precisely, but the government’s official monetary valuation of greenhouse gas pollution is roughly $37 per metric ton of CO2 emissions. Many experts, however, double that rate; others multiply it nearly tenfold. So the monetary value of the carbon emissions produced by the average cheeseburger might range from 15 cents (the official government rate), to 24 cents (conservative independent sources) and $1.20 (high independent). The average of these three estimates comes out to 53 cents per burger.

The calculable chronic disease costs are similar. There’s some evidence that red meat intake may increase risk of cardiovascular disease and mortality, but like many of the speculative externalities discussed below, it’s impossible to assign a cost to this. (If red meat were further implicated in cardiovascular disease, the true costs of a burger would rise significantly.)

In any case, a main factor in the rise of obesity has been an increase in the availability of calorie-dense foods, and burgers played a big role in this process. Between 1970 and 2000, per capita calorie intake increased by 24 percent, and the “food-away-from-home sector” grew to nearly half of all food we eat. Restaurants, of course, are the source of most burger consumption.

Between 2007 and 2010, 11.3 percent of adult Americans’ daily caloric intake came from fast food. Correlation is not causation, of course, and it seems likely that foods high in sugar and other hyperprocessed carbohydrates are most responsible for high obesity rates, but burgers certainly played a role in rising caloric intake.

To estimate the share of obesity-related costs resulting from burger consumption, we estimated the share of calories coming from burgers in fast-food restaurants, where the majority are eaten. Assuming that the 11.3 percent of calories is proportional to the incidence rate of obesity (it may be higher), its associated health risks, and its treatment costs, up to 15 percent of fast food’s share of direct and indirect costs arising from obesity (about 1.65 percent of the whole) are attributable to burgers.

The link between obesity and a handful of deadly chronic diseases — arthritis, cardiovascular disease, hypertension, Type 2 diabetes and some cancers, among others — is well documented, as is their enormous economic burden. Direct medical diet-related costs are currently pegged at about $231 billion annually.

These numbers above would mean that this cost of burgers is about $4 billion per year (from fast food burgers only!), which averages out to 48 cents per burger. (Some put these costs five or six times as high, and there are indirect costs as well; again, we’re being conservative.) And between 2010 and 2030, the combined costs arising directly from diseases related to obesity could increase by an additional $52 to $71 billion each year. This could double the cost per burger in additional health costs alone.

Some other costs are only vaguely calculable, and we have numbers, but the ranges are so great that they’re useless; what matters, though, is that the numbers are above zero. There are elevated nitrates in water supplies resulting from the chemical fertilizers used to grow corn to feed cattle (the city of Des Moines has been forced to spend $3.7 million to build a water treatment facility for precisely this reason; then there’s the famous “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico); the cost of food stamps and other public welfare programs made necessary in part by the ultralow wages paid at most fast-food operations; the beef industry’s role in increasing antibiotic resistance, which costs, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, something like $55 billion a year; some measure of E. coli illnesses; and land erosion, pesticide residues, direct corn subsidies, injury rates at slaughterhouses, and so on.

Each of these adds pennies or less to the external costs of a cheeseburger. But although they may be trivial individually (unless of course, you’re being directly affected by them), they add up. Even more difficult to calculate are the “cost” of a shortened life, or the value of loss of biodiversity that results from the destruction of rain forests to provide land for cattle or their feed. There is even an emerging body of research linking decreased male sperm quality to mothers’ beef consumption.

Last year, burger chains grossed about $70 billion in sales. So it’s not a stretch to say that the external costs of burgers may be as high as, or even outweigh, the “benefits” (if indeed there are any other than profits). If those externalities were borne by their producers rather than by consumers and society at large, the industry would be a highly unprofitable, even silly one. It would either cease to exist or be forced to raise its prices significantly.

In this discussion, the cheeseburger is simply a symbol of a food system gone awry. Industrial food has manipulated cheap prices for excess profit at excess cost to everyone; low prices do not indicate “savings” or true inexpensiveness but deception. And all the products of industrial food consumption have externalities that would be lessened by a system that makes as its primary goal the links among nutrition, fairness and sustainability.

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Boosting Local Food, One Parking Lot And Hot Pepper At A Time

Click on the image below for the radio version of this report!neprToday, the idea of “buying local” is firmly rooted in our culture.

Farmers markets flourish almost every day of the week in western Massachusetts. Community-supported farms offer the chance to buy a share of a crop. And lots of farm stands and retail stores trumpet the sale of local produce.

The value of a “local” perspective is even rubbing off on other parts of the Pioneer Valley’s economy, including financial investing. In our series, A New Kind of Local, we look at the growth and the challenges of the movement, starting with a history of local food.

Local as a movement

Pigs at the Bars Farm in Deerfield, Mass. (Nancy Eve Cohen)

The idea that consumers can help preserve farms by choosing to buy locally-grown food first began to take root more than 40 years ago.

“A lot of us thought we could change the world,” Rich Pascale says.

Pascale, 65, started farming in Franklin County in 1974. It was a time when young people moved to rural areas to build self sufficient lives.

“Live simply, grow your own food,” he says. “And from that point it was like, ‘We have to make some money,’ so we have to sell our own food.”

He’s been selling at the Greenfield Farmers Market for four decades.

“So these are $3.50 for the six packs,” he says of his goods. “And these are $2.75 for tomato plants.”

A way to stabilize prices

In the mid 1970s, as more young people, like Pascale, were choosing to farm, the state was losing farms. Nearly half of them went out of business between 1964 and 1974

The Bars Farm in Deerfield, Mass., grows more than 30 varieties of hot peppers as well as sweet peppers. (Nancy Eve Cohen)

“The Massachusetts agricultural economy was on the downward skids,” says Greg Watson, commissioner of the state Department of Agricultural Resources. “We were losing about 10,000 acres of farmland a year. And I think a lot of people had just given up.”

But not everyone.

“It was the summer of 1973 and Governor Sargent called me,” recalls Ray Goldberg, a professor emeritus from Harvard Business School.

Massachusetts Governor Francis Sargent asked Goldberg to head up an emergency food commission.

“We had crop failure around the world,” he says. “Food prices were rising faster than general inflation.”

And the OPEC oil embargo forced up petroleum prices. Goldberg says the commission found Massachusetts was highly dependent on food from distant places.

“We were a high-cost food area compared to any other state in the nation,” says Goldberg. “So there was a great deal of encouragement to get more locally grown production.”

The commission’s work led to new policies. One program allows farmers to sell their development rights to the state, preserving more than 70,000 acres. The state launched an advertising campaign, with the slogan: “Massachusetts Grown and Fresher.” And it helped expand the number of farmers markets.

From farm field to parking lot

Agriculture Commissioner Greg Watson was a young man in 1978 when he was hired by the state to launch markets in poor areas of Boston. Watson says, at first, neither African-American residents nor the white farmers trusted each other.

“The first reaction of farmers to come into the city was ‘I won’t come out alive!’” Watson recalled. “And the residents were saying ‘Why should we go to the trouble of making the parking lot in the South End available for rich farmers to come in and get richer?’ So there were these really solid stereotypes, both of them really far from reality.”

Watson was able to sign up 20 farmers to come to the grand opening of the Dorchester market. It was a big deal. The lieutenant governor was there, and a bunch of television cameras.

“Opened up at 9 o’clock, not a single farmer,” he says. “About 9:20, people were getting impatient, they were nervous, a pickup truck comes down the street.”

That was the only farmer to show up. But Watson says that night on the news, instead of pictures of an empty street, the cameras had zoomed in.

“All you saw was the farmer, his wife and his daughter,” he says. “They couldn’t get the food off the truck fast enough. People were clamoring. Next week we had 20 farmers.”

Back then, there were fewer than 10 farmers markets statewide. Today, there are nearly 300.

Although the middleman is cut out, in some cases the food at farmers markets costs more than at supermarkets. Watson remembers one customer who explained why she was willing to pay more.

“‘Because my kids eat it,’” Watson recalls her saying. “They were eating raw peas. ‘If I pay a little less and half of it gets scraped into the garbage is that economical?’”

Today, many farmers markets take food stamps. Watson says perhaps farms could become more efficient to lower the price of food.

“Are there things we can do to help make this not just accessible, but also affordable? And those are challenges,” he says.

A face on the food

The state has gained back many of the farms it lost 40 years ago. But they’re smaller now – about half the size.

Dean and Allison Landale cultivate more than 100 varieties of vegetables on their farm in Deerfield, Mass. (Nancy Eve Cohen)

“Eggplant, cherry tomatoes, okra, tomatillos. We have about 30 varieties of hot peppers here,” says Allison Landale, as she points out neatly tended rows of crops she and her husband Dean cultivate on 15 acres in Deerfield.

The farm has been in her mother’s family since the 1800s. Her father farmed it. Allison says when she first started working with him in the early 1990s, at times it was tough.

“Local wasn’t anywhere near what it is today,” she says.

The farm’s sales have tripled in the past five years. The Landales say the nonprofit CISA, Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture gives them a lot of support. CISA first developed the Local Hero advertising campaign in 1999.

Back in Deerfield, Dean Landale is pounding stakes for tomato plants. For him, the concept of “local” makes farming more personal.

“We see our customers,” Landale says. “We don’t ship to a supermarket someplace. So our face is basically attached to what we sell.”

That connection between farmer and consumer is strong today. But local food advocates are still hard at work.

There’s a push to bring more processing facilities, including slaughterhouses. One group says by 2060, New England farmers could produce half of the food consumed here.

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Food is (relatively) inexpensive in the U.S.

When droughts or crop failures cause food prices to spike, many Americans barely notice. The average American, after all, spends just 6.6 percent of his or her household budget on food consumed at home. (If you include eating out, that rises to around 11 percent.)

In Pakistan, by contrast, the average person spends 47.7 percent of his or her household budget on food consumed at home. In that situation, those price spikes become a lot more noticeable.

The US Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service keeps tabs on household expenditures for food, alcohol, and tobacco around the world.

Americans, it turns out, spend a smaller share of their income on food than anyone else — less even than Canadians or Europeans or Australians:

Food_spending_worldwide_2

Note that the map above is based on data for food consumed at home — the USDA doesn’t offer international comparisons for eating out, unfortunately. Still, even if you do include food consumed at restaurants, Americans devote just 11 percent of their household spending to food, a smaller share than nearly every other country spends on food at home alone.*

Below is a chart showing numbers for a handful of select countries. Note that this doesn’t include spending on subsidies and the like — it’s just a measure of the fraction of household expenditures devoted to food consumed at home:

How_much_countries_spend_on_food

There are a few notable points here:

1) Richer countries spend a smaller fraction of their income on food. This makes intuitive sense. There’s an upper limit on how much food a person can physically eat. So as countries get richer, they start spending more of their money on other things — like health care, or entertainment, or alcohol. South Koreans spent one-third of their budget on food in 1975; today that’s down to just 12 percent.

That said, this relationship doesn’t always hold. It depends, at least in part, on what kind of food people favor, patterns of eating out, and the specific food prices and subsidy schemes in their country. Note that India spends a smaller fraction of its budget on food consumed at home than Russia, which is much richer. Likewise, South Korea spends a smaller share of its budget on food than wealthier Japan does.

2) Americans spend less than Europeans on food. The fact that Americans spend a smaller portion of their budgets on food than Europeans do is partly a consequence of the fact that Americans are richer. But Americans spend less on an absolute level, too.

The average American spends $2,273 per year on food consumed at home, the USDA notes. The average German spends $2,481 per year. The average French person spends $3,037 per year. The average Norwegian spends a whopping $4,485 per year on food.

The USDA doesn’t explain the variation. Some of it likely has to do with different tax systems in Europe (here’s a comparison of food prices in Europe), as well as differences in eating out. But there are also dozens of forces making food in the United States so cheap — from farm subsidies to advancements in industrial agriculture that have pushed down the price of food. (Over the years, the price of meat, poultry, sweets, fats, and oils in the United States have fallen, although the price of fresh produce has risen.)

There are fierce debates about the downsides of industrial agriculture — as well as the desirability of subsidizing agriculture. But one thing this system has done fairly well is keep the sticker price of food at the grocery store down.

3) High spending on food and malnutrition seem to go hand in hand. This is another perhaps obvious point, but worth highlighting. Poorer countries that have to spend a much larger share of their budget on food also end up with much higher malnutrition rates.

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One conclusion might be that most of us can afford to invest in a better quality of life for all by buying our food from local farmers.

 

Massachusetts Agriculture Defies National Trends

14373311117_8e652f5b29The Census of Agriculture is the most complete account of U.S. farms and ranches and the people who operate them. Every Thursday USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service will highlight new Census data and the power of the information to shape the future of American agriculture.

According to the 2012 Census of Agriculture, Massachusetts agriculture defies national trends in more ways than one. For example, while across the country the number of farms decreased four percent since the 2007 Census, Massachusetts was one of only 10 states that saw an increase in both the number of farms and land in farms in the same time period. In addition, while women make up 31 percent of all operators across the country, they make up 41 percent of all operators in the Bay State. Similarly, while the number of female principal operators decreased nationally since the last census, that number increased from 2,226 to 2,507 in our state. In fact, female principal operators compose 32 percent of all of our state’s principal operators, the highest percentage among the New England states and the third highest nationwide.

We also have a growing number of beginning farmers in Massachusetts. Although the proportion of all beginning farmers in our state is down slightly since 2007, it is still higher than in other parts of the country. In Massachusetts, 29 percent of all operators and 25 percent of principal operators began farming in the last decade, while nationwide, 26 percent of all operators and 22 percent of principal operators fall in that category.

Massachusetts’s agriculture has developed to meet the needs the needs of metropolitan area that stretches from Boston to New York City. To meet the needs of East Coast home owners and landscapers, in 2012, 1,039 of Massachusetts’s nurseries, greenhouses, floriculture, and sod farms grew and sold over $144 million worth of those crops. Sales of these crops accounted for almost 30 percent of agriculture sales.  Also, 1,223 farms produced just over $125 million of fruits, nuts, and berries. Our state ranks eighth in berry acreage in the nation, at 15,727 acres, and 89 percent of that is dedicated to what many consider to be Massachusetts’s signature crop, the cranberry. Massachusetts is the birthplace of the cranberry industry and currently has the second highest cranberry acreage in the nation, at 14,070 acres.

But what makes Massachusetts agriculture particularly unique is our direct- to-consumer sales, direct sales to retail outlets (such as stores, restaurants, and institutions), and community supported agriculture (CSA) arrangements. More than 28 percent of the Bay State operations engage in direct market sales, and our state ranks third in the nation for value of direct market sales per operation. In addition, Worcester and Middlesex counties are in the top ten counties nationwide for value of direct market sales. Over 13 percent of our sold to retail outlets which ranks 6th nationally.  CSA arrangements are also very prevalent in our farming industry. In fact, nearly six percent of farms in our state market products through a CSA arrangement, up from three percent in 2007. We rank sixth nationally for number of farms and first nationally by percent of farms using CSA arrangements. In addition, four Massachusetts counties – Middlesex, Hampshire, Worcester, and Franklin – rank in the top 10 nationwide for number of CSA arrangements.

As you can see, Massachusetts agriculture stands out in multiple ways, and it’s clear that we will remain unique and continue to grow.

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If you want to learn how to get involved in agriculture in Massachusetts, you might be interested in the B.S. degree or the ONLINE Certificate in Sustainable Food and Farming offered by the University of Massachusetts Amherst.  Or at least, stay connected with whats happening at Just Food Now in Western Massachusetts.