A Consumer-Driven Strategy for Local Food and Farms

Rethinking the Future of Sustainable Agriculture in the Missouri Valley

By
Jim Steffen

According to the USDA, farm incomes are down. This means that small farmers and ranchers who depend on outside (non-farm) income must work more just to stay even. Further, many if not most field hands and packinghouse workers cannot earn living wages. In sharp contrast, the Organic Trade Association says that organic food represents the fastest growing sector in the food industry. This chart tracks the sector’s growth. Nevertheless, the most experienced organic and natural farmers and ranchers in the Missouri Valley are locked out of high-end grocery stores like Whole Foods Market, Trader Joe’s and Sprouts because these companies source the vast majority of their organic products from outside of the Valley.

The costs to our rural and urban economies, communities and natural environments are significant. For example, the Omaha and Kansas City areas alone lose roughly 300 million dollars each year to imported (non-local) organic food (OTA, ERS and Census data). In other words, imported high-value foods, foods that could be grown and processed in the area, are helping drive income inequality and ever larger food deserts.

Retailers Want Local Organic, But…..

As a result of many conversations with the owners and managers of grocery stores that supply Omaha, Des Moines and Kansas City, it is clear that they want more locally grown and processed organic foods and products. But without major investments in local and regional production and processing, these products will not be available in amounts and at prices that can compete with the imports.

So, why hasn’t 300 million dollars in local demand changed the face of sustainable agriculture in any measurable way around Omaha and Kansas City?

There Are Barriers

I see three main barriers. This first two are labeled “Tax Policy” and “Farm Policy” respectively and the third is “Marketing”. Change is painfully slow because the dominate players in each of these disciplines use outdated, winner-take-all business models that push labor, government and environmental costs off the books. Remind me to tell you an old story about healthcare in a packinghouse town in central Nebraska.

On taxes, Wall Street still believes in the old mega farm and industrial-strength food processing model because it generates big fees on the front-end of each project. The food companies also do well since the interest on corporate bonds is deductible. Further, their construction costs are often reduced when states and localities divert tax revenue from food plants to pay for roads, water and wastewater systems that serve these plants. These tax increment-financing schemes can be particularly hard on schools, libraries and other public services because as their operating costs increase with inflation, income stays flat. Anyone for higher sales and property taxes? It will be interesting to see how the Costco chicken plant in Fremont affects local school budgets.

Congress has focused farm policy on various price supports, crop insurance program and subsidies that help stabilize volatile farm income so that farmers can deliver crops as promised to food, and energy companies (think ethanol). A good way to reduce the size of the federal government is to shift the costs of essential price support programs to the food and energy industries and ultimately to consumers. We will pay one way or another. Personally, I would like to know the real costs of my food. Even better, some of the savings could be used in pilot programs to scale up sustainable food systems that measurably reduce urban and rural food deserts.

On marketing, there is much to be said about the health benefits of eating right and avoiding farm chemicals and food additives. Although the industry markets the health benefits of organic and many other foods, it will resist all efforts to highlight brands that pay living wages and a fair share of state and local taxes.

Citizen-Consumers

Unless there is crisis like the Depression or the massive 2008 recession, consumers have not shown much interest in recent years in complex farm policy and corporate tax legislation. However, income inequality and distrust of government and Wall Street might be harnessed to create new interest in sustainable foods as an economic, social and environmental development tool.

I would like to test this idea over the summer by visiting leaders of neighborhood associations, community gardens, food hubs and local business incubators. With economics in mind, its not hard to imagine ROI’s that beat Wall Street. Keep in mind that USDA says that per capita annual food expenditure are over $4,000 dollars (home and away) (2014, ERS, Table 13). I believe that Missouri Valley cities and farm communities can work together in dynamic systematic ways to capture measurable slices of this very large pie.

Now, please bear with me as I take a short side trip to the land of corporate agriculture. Readers should keep in mind that the conventional food industry is not the enemy. In spite of the corporate subsidies, it still pays a lot of bills up and down the Valley, including the taxes and some of the upkeep on our two small farms. Yes it’s big, clumsy and expensive, but until we can come up with environmentally and socially efficient sustainable food systems, we are stuck with inefficient exports of meat, grain and ethanol, and the losses associated with imported organic and natural foods.

Strategy of Change

During my summer conversations, I will be asking for ideas on how to garner consumer support for my proposed sustainable food economic development agenda. First, some ideas on strategies for that agenda.

I think we need to work across geographic and income divides to engage urban consumers and near-by farmers and ranchers in discussions about potential shared visions of food system sustainability. For example, low-income urban communities could form partnerships with rural communities that want to expand production and processing of high-value foods for local and regional markets. In other words, grow organic commodities near Omaha and Kansas City and do the processing and distribution in these cities.

In fact, farmer-labor alliances have quite a history in the Midwest. They could be organized once again to promote new production and processing of local brands designed for local and regional urban markets. These projects could be financed by building three-way partnerships that include local high net worth investors, rural communities and urban neighborhoods. If there is sufficient interest shown over the summer, I intend to ask local food leaders in Omaha and Kansas City to help me find a larger audience by organizing public meeting at schools, churches and civic clubs.

A Wide Screen Look at Sustainable Agriculture

As noted, citizen-consumers are not interested in mind numbing tax and farm policy. What’s needed are new and interesting ways to look at food systems from the ground up and from the 30 thousand foot level. A few numbers are OK, but they must be mixed in with lots of pictures, discussion, good food and community. This video by Creighton University students is the way to go.

My vote for the best way to start these discussions goes to Kate Raworth. Her new book, Doughnut Economics (Chelsea Green) suggests starting with broadly defined narratives that center on best practices for the earth and society. In addition to using systems economics, she favors expressing new ideas in words, art and food so that citizen-consumers can begin to visualize potential areas of agreement.

Raworth deals with these complexities by avoiding conventional winner-take-all economic thinking. She embeds all human activities within the regenerative capacities of our atmosphere, soils, water and wildlife, as shown in the following diagram. For more, please see George Monbiot’s recent review of the Doughnut Economy in the Guardian.

Again, with regeneration and systems thinking in mind, I will be spending the next few months talking with local food leaders in the Omaha and Kansas City areas about strategies to attract a larger audience.

Please help me by passing this e-mail to organizations and individuals with the money and skills needed to help us all take a new look at food and community.

For more information, please contact me at 402-317-2639 or jim@massenafarms.com.

Thank you!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *