Magazine article The American Prospect

Organic Solutions: What Would Meaningful Assistance for Unconventional Farmers Look Like?

Magazine article The American Prospect

Organic Solutions: What Would Meaningful Assistance for Unconventional Farmers Look Like?

Article excerpt


While the Obama administration says it wants to support organic and local food systems and encourage healthy eating, the government still doles out most of its money to big, conventional farms. Almost all of the $15 billion in subsidies the government gave out in 2009 went to just 10 percent of farms. The vast majority of that money went to commodity crops used in producing the sugars for processed foods and feed for conventionally raised livestock--making those foods artificially cheap.

If President Barack Obama really wants to change the way Americans eat, his administration needs to do more to help the organic farmers who sell their food directly to local consumers. That means shifting funding from big conventional farms to smaller farms whose owners are struggling financially despite the higher produce prices they can command. Those high prices, in turn, keep organic food from reaching the lower-income communities that would benefit from better foods.

Here's how the administration can start easing the financial burdens on unconventional farmers and, in turn, lowering the price of local, organic food.--MONICA POTTS

LABOR COSTS FOR ORGANIC FARMERS CAN BE UP TO 30 PERCENT HIGHER, Because pest and weed control must be managed by hand rather than with chemicals, organic farmers face higher worker's compensation, tax, and salary costs than conventional farmers do. They also tend to put in more hours, which limits their potential to earn offfarm supplemental income. Sixty percent of organic farmers list farming as their primary occupation, compared to 45 percent of all farmers. This translates to higher prices and makes it harder for organic farmers to compete with imports from countries with lower labor costs.

HOW TO HELP: More cash assistance for local and organic farmers, along with subsidies or tax cuts for hiring employees, would help defray labor expenses.

CONVENTIONAL FARMERS WHO WANT TO GO ORGANIC FACE HIGH TRANSITION COSTS. They need as many as three years before their soils are pesticide-free, which means during that time they incur the higher costs of organic farming without being able to charge higher prices for their products. There is already a direct-loan program in place to help new organic farmers, but it leaves out farmers who switch from conventional methods and those who inherit their land. …

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