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Dirty secret is cheap food relies on cheap farm labor
It’s August and that means much of Congress is, literally, either out of session, out of the country or out to lunch. That doesn’t mean, however, some of its more diligent members aren’t somehow serving the public.
Take the House Ag Committee. (Please.) A handful of its 46 members will attend three Farm Bill “Conversations in the Field” this month to hear yet-again that U.S. farmers and ranchers feed the world, Americans pay less for their food than any other nation’s citizens, and free trade will lead to more farm profit.

They will also hear, as they have for decades, that Congress needs to do something about today’s cheap commodity prices, stumbling exports, and all-but-dead rural communities.

Few people attending these “conversations,” however, will pick up on the contradictions contained in their earnest remarks. Contradictions like how we both brag and complain about our nation’s “cheap food” policies yet rarely acknowledge that you can’t have “cheap” food without having “cheap” farm prices.

Or how we continue to view U.S. ag export markets as the yellow brick road to farm riches that it once was but will never again be due to today’s cutthroat, corporately integrated competition. (A White House that puts its tweeting thumb in the eye of our best customers doesn’t help either, but few policymakers in farm country dare to publicly contradict the president.)

And, finally, how we institutionalize ag policies that underwrite farm and ranch consolidation and undermine rural communities only to later complain that “no one’s out here to take over” when today’s farmers and ranchers either retire or expire. We on the farming side of food aren’t the only ones who are angry when we eventually get what we ask for. The food side of farming, wrote Andrea Reusing, a successful North Carolina farm-to-table chef, has its own Jekyll-and-Hyde relationship with food.

“Farm-to-table’s sincere glow distracts from how … the most pristine ingredients … nearly always … rely on cheap labor,” explained the award-winning Reusing in an essay for NPR’s food blog, The Salt. “Work (is) very often performed by people who are themselves poor and hungry.” And her restaurant guests “are sometimes surprised to learn that … our relatively expensive menu yields only slim profits or that we can’t afford a group health plan.”

So today’s lopsided farm policy isn’t working very well for either producers or their customers, yet it’s the system nearly everyone on either end of the American fork defends and promotes in every farm and food “conversation.”

That’s a close-minded echo chamber, not an honest, public conversation. Moreover, the echoes are calling new players to new policy fights.

For example, legislators in many ag-centric states  are now debating badly needed clean water policies after decades of turning a blind eye to increasing farm chemical, fertilizer, and livestock waste runoff. The public, rightfully so, wants solutions to this now-public problem.

They aren’t alone. Mother Nature wants solutions, too. Recently, the front page of my local farm newspaper featured five stories, three whose headlines read: “Fighting fungicide resistance,” “New approach needed to fight herbicide resistance,” and “Farm storm damage.”