April 1, 2009
In a piece published in Ethicurean yesterday, blogger and part-time farmer Bob Comis railed against the common argument that food from local, non-industrialized producers reflects the “true cost”—which includes environmental impacts, government subsidies on commodity crops, etc.
Comis argues that small farmers are making too much profit for meat production because they are “unwilling or unable to scale up to reasonable production levels.” He doesn’t say they are striking it rich—that is hardly the case. He does think they just need to scale up production to make themselves more competitive with the industrial model, who really have cheap production down to a science.
However, the other side to the coin is that increasing production is no magic solution. Rather, increasing production and vertically integrating is a major cause of the problems with our food system. Increasing pig production from two dozen to 300 per year will not make a small farmer an industrial giant. However, not all small farmers have the desire, the capital, the land, or the manpower to grow to this level. Joel Salatin from Polyface Farms in Virginia—interviewed in The Omnivore’s Dilemma and in the upcoming documentary Food, Inc., said he struggles with the prospect of higher demand for his high-quality meat and eggs while still maintaining the integrity and accountability of his small Shenandoah Valley farm. He doesn’t want to scale up– even though some of his customers are willing to drive 150 miles for his chicken or steak.
One reader (a small scale meat producer herself) challenged Comis’ point that small operations mark up prices too high: “Our costs are higher than the mega producers because we don’t own the input streams, such as the grain elevators or feed mills. Should we have to compete on price with companies that have bent or gone around anti-trust legislation to command the entire food chain, from seed to plate (or in the case of animals, from semen to barbecue)?”
What do you think? Is small-scale production, with less output and higher fixed costs, an acceptable model? Are you willing to pay a bit more to support local farmers’ ability to stay small?