[permaculture] Local farmers encountering difficulties selling to supermarkets: My Forbidden Fruits

Lawrence F. London, Jr. lflj at intrex.net
Sat Mar 1 10:53:12 EST 2008

Lawrence - In case you want to post this to Permaculture.  dylan


My Forbidden Fruits (and Vegetables)

Published: March 1, 2008

Rushford, Minn.

IF you’ve stood in line at a farmers’ market recently, you know that the
local food movement is thriving, to the point that small farmers are
having a tough time keeping up with the demand.

But consumers who would like to be able to buy local fruits and
vegetables not just at farmers’ markets, but also in the produce aisle
of their supermarket, will be dismayed to learn that the federal
government works deliberately and forcefully to prevent the local food
movement from expanding. And the barriers that the United States
Department of Agriculture has put in place will be extended when the
farm bill that House and Senate negotiators are working on now goes into

As a small organic vegetable producer in southern Minnesota, I know this
because my efforts to expand production to meet regional demand have
been severely hampered by the Agriculture Department’s commodity farm
program. As I’ve looked into the politics behind those restrictions,
I’ve come to understand that this is precisely the outcome that the
program’s backers in California and Florida have in mind: they want to
snuff out the local competition before it even gets started.

Last year, knowing that my own 100 acres wouldn’t be enough to meet
demand, I rented 25 acres on two nearby corn farms. I plowed under the
alfalfa hay that was established there, and planted watermelons,
tomatoes and vegetables for natural-food stores and a
community-supported agriculture program.

All went well until early July. That’s when the two landowners
discovered that there was a problem with the local office of the Farm
Service Administration, the Agriculture Department branch that runs the
commodity farm program, and it was going to be expensive to fix.

The commodity farm program effectively forbids farmers who usually grow
corn or the other four federally subsidized commodity crops (soybeans,
rice, wheat and cotton) from trying fruit and vegetables. Because my
watermelons and tomatoes had been planted on “corn base” acres, the Farm
Service said, my landlords were out of compliance with the commodity

I’ve discovered that typically, a farmer who grows the forbidden fruits
and vegetables on corn acreage not only has to give up his subsidy for
the year on that acreage, he is also penalized the market value of the
illicit crop, and runs the risk that those acres will be permanently
ineligible for any subsidies in the future. (The penalties apply only to
fruits and vegetables — if the farmer decides to grow another commodity
crop, or even nothing at all, there’s no problem.)

In my case, that meant I paid my landlords $8,771 — for one season
alone! And this was in a year when the high price of grain meant that
only one of the government’s three crop-support programs was in effect;
the total bill might be much worse in the future.

In addition, the bureaucratic entanglements that these two farmers faced
at the Farm Service office were substantial. The federal farm program is
making it next to impossible for farmers to rent land to me to grow
fresh organic vegetables.

Why? Because national fruit and vegetable growers based in California,
Florida and Texas fear competition from regional producers like myself.
Through their control of Congressional delegations from those states,
they have been able to virtually monopolize the country’s fresh produce

That’s unfortunate, because small producers will have to expand on a
significant scale across the nation if local foods are to continue to
enter the mainstream as the public demands. My problems are just the tip
of the iceberg.

Last year, Midwestern lawmakers proposed an amendment to the farm bill
that would provide some farmers, though only those who supply
processors, with some relief from the penalties that I’ve faced — for
example, a soybean farmer who wanted to grow tomatoes would give up his
usual subsidy on those acres but suffer none of the other penalties.
However, the Congressional delegations from the big produce states made
the death of what is known as Farm Flex their highest farm bill
priority, and so it appears to be going nowhere, except perhaps as a
tiny pilot program.

Who pays the price for this senselessness? Certainly I do, as a
Midwestern vegetable farmer. But anyone trying to do what I do on, say,
wheat acreage in the Dakotas, or rice acreage in Arkansas would face the
same penalties. Local and regional fruit and vegetable production will
languish anywhere that the commodity program has influence.

Ultimately of course, it is the consumer who will pay the greatest price
for this — whether it is in the form of higher prices I will have to
charge to absorb the government’s fines, or in the form of less access
to the kind of fresh, local produce that the country is crying out for.

Farmers need the choice of what to plant on their farms, and consumers
need more farms like mine producing high-quality fresh fruits and
vegetables to meet increasing demand from local markets — without the
federal government actively discouraging them.

Jack Hedin is a farmer.

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