In his most recent column in the Hindu,  journalist and activist P. Sainath wrote about the challenges facing Chris Pawelski, a farmer who lives 50 miles upstate from New York City. His article reveals both myths and community2realities of farming in the US, but it misses much about the diverse ways that farms around NYC function.

Sainath’s article paints a very bleak picture, one that we should take seriously because many farmers face troubles similar to Chris Pawelski’s. However, Sainath overlooks important alternatives that do exist–not only in upstate New York, but increasingly in many parts of the US, especially farms led by younger farming families. In fact, there is much to be excited about. Small farms, supported by families in New York City and elsewhere who buy seasonal shares, are growing in number and membership. An example is Roxbury Farm, part of a CSA (community-supported agriculture) that includes 12 farmers and has 1100 members who purchase vegetables from them. The farm delivers seasonally ripe produce from the farm to community distribution points every week of the growing season. Such farms not only meet the needs of middle-class households, but some also deliver to poorer areas of New York City; some even accept food stamps as payment.

Many farms like Roxbury Farm exist around New York City, and the cost for a seasonal share is less than buying an equal amount of vegetables from a grocery store. Many of these farms are even organic. Although seasonal shares usually require upfront payment, this is not the case for farm stands and markets in urban neighborhoods. CSAs and farmers markets eliminate the corporate middle-men who profit through squeezing farmers like Chris Pawelski. CSAs and farmers markets leave both farmers and consumers better off.

“Family Farms” and Subsidies

The image of the small family-owned farm is used by policy makers and agribusiness corporations to lobby for subsidies in Washington D.C. They argue that decreasing subsidies to farms will hurt the families who depend on them to make their businesses competitive. In reality, farmers like Chris, who grow vegetables, do not receive any subsidies; subsidies are given only to those farmers who grow commodity crops such as corn, cotton, rice, wheat, and soybeans. Sixty-two percent of farms receive no subsidies at all, and 80% of those that do receive an average of just $579. Most of the money used to subsidize US agriculture goes to large farms controlled by agribusiness corporations.

Chris Pawelski is $320,000 in debt, debt brought on by low vegetable prices, hurricane Irene, and expensive seeds and fertilizers. Like many families who farmed for generations, Chris is the only member of his family still farming. The others have gotten out of the family business because it has become difficult for small farmers to survive.

Farmer Profits are dictated by Giant Food Retailers

Small farmers who purchase expensive inputs are finding it difficult to make ends meet because the prices they receive for their crops are dictated by the large supermarket chains that buy the majority of the produce sold in the US. Pawelski receives 17 cents per pound of onions he produces, even though his onions retail at a minimum price of $1.49 per pound. Every year corporations squeeze more profits from farmers.

And yet, US corporations are exporting this model of agriculture, and governments around the world are working hard to attract corporate retailers like Walmart. What kind of consequences will the Walmart model of agriculture have for small farmers in lndia, many of whom farm on plots of one to two hectares?  Why is the Government not supporting small farms using SRI/SCI methods. These small farms only grow grains but also pulses, which provide most poor people’s protein.  It is striking that some of these farmers are now achieving world-record yields.

How the US got involved in Indian agriculture remains for another blog, but it should be noted that (a) it came about in part at least as a move to stop Indian land reform, and (b) that those who profit from it are mainly US investors rather than US farmers.