The Endangered Family Farmer
Florida farmer Teena Borek was on Radio New Zealand National last weekend. In the US, Teena seems relatively unknown outside of her own state, where she works tirelessly to support family farmers struggling to compete with factory farms and cheap imports from Latin America. Teena, who took over her husband’s farm when he was killed in 1989, was named Homestead/Florida City Agriculturist of the Year in March. In 2004, she was named Florida Female Agriculturist of the Year.
An Endangered Species
In the US, the family farmer is becoming an endangered species. According to the USDA Census of Agriculture, the number of U.S. farms peaked at 6.8 million in 1935 and had plummeted to 2.1 million by 2002. In 2012, family farmers are being squeezed off their land faster than ever. They face ruthless price competition from large scale factory farms – and, with the passage of NAFTA in 1994, from cheap imports from Mexico and Central and South America. They also have serious cost pressures. Increasing urbanization has made investment groups and equity firms extremely keen to exploit farmland for commercial development. This serves to drive up property values and real estate taxes. The American Farmland Trust estimates an acre of U.S. farmland goes into development every two minutes.
This trend has very ominous implications for all Americans. As the American Farmland Trust explains on their website, the advent of Peak Oil and skyrocketing fertilizer and transportation costs means our reliance on large scale factory farms and imported foods is neither economically nor ecologically unsustainable. Our ability to feed ourselves into the future depends on the continuing availability of quality farmland. However once paved over for urban development, it becomes extremely difficult to reclaim for agriculture.
The Great Tomato War of 2012
In her interview, Teena describes successfully surviving these pressures for nearly two decades by specializing in heritage tomatoes and miniature vegetables she sells to local high end restaurants. She has also been a major player in Florida’s highly visible “buy local” campaign, helping to start a local farmers market, as well as creating her own Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) scheme.
This year, owing to circumstances totally beyond her control, she was forced to leave most of her winter tomato crop in the field. Due to a flood of imported tomatoes from Mexico, the cost of labor to harvest her crop would have been greater than what local restaurants and supermarkets were willing to pay for it. It costs small Florida farmers $9-10 to produce a box of tomatoes, while Mexican producers sell the same box to Dade County supermarkets for five dollars. Lower production costs in Mexico relate mainly to lower land, labor and compliance costs. While Florida farmers can face thousands of dollars in food safety compliance costs, tomatoes imported from Mexico, which has very lax food safety regulations, aren’t even subject to inspection.
Teena explains in her interview that NAFTA was passed main to benefit large wheat and corn producers seeking to maximize overseas exports. In contrast, vegetable growers rate so low with federal authorities that the USDA refers to their products as “specialty crops.”
Other Florida agriculturists clearly support Teena’s views. The international online newsletter HortiBiz refers to “The Great Tomato War of 2012”. According to Tony DiMare, vice president of the Homestead-based DiMare Company, one of Florida’s largest shippers, the USDA is neglecting its statutory obligation to crack down on illegally low-priced Mexican tomatoes and on shipments that are not meant for export but wind up in the U.S. anyway. Foreign competition under NAFTA, according to the University of Florida, has led to a situation where nearly all Florida pepper and tomato production is controlled by a small number of large corporate agribusinesses, which can spread their “risk” over several crops or growing cycles.
The USDA gives lip service to promoting small farmers and local food production through their Know Your Farmer Know your Food Compass campaign. What the family farmers of south Florida really need is for the USDA to enforce the anti-dumping rules the US and Mexico have agreed on, as well as establishing an inspection protocol that subject Mexican imports to the same food safety standards as US crops.
How to Support Family Farmers
As the American Farmland Trust website makes clear, none of these pressures are limited to Florida. The best way to support family farmers is to consume a diet consisting mainly of locally produced foods, purchased from local farmers markets or CSA schemes. As Teena suggests in her interview, people can also demand that local supermarkets stock locally grown, rather than imported, fruits and vegetables. Finally you don’t need to be a farmer to join the American Farmland Trust. I first became a member fifteen years ago when I lived in Seattle. A membership is $35, but they also have a special donor program where people can adopt an acre of farmland in their home state for $10.