Farmers Pay the High Cost for Cheap Food

northern montana farm

As I’ve mentioned many times: there is a very high cost for cheap food. In my last blog, I touched on this subject with an overview of each of the four entities that bear most of the financial burden of cheap food. But let’s talk about where it all starts—let’s talk about the farmers themselves.

Farming has always been a high-risk business, after all it’s literally at the mercy of mother nature! But there’s also the viability of the market and market prices, the availability of credit for capital purchases, access to land in general, and even the higher possibility for injury. Even death. As I said, high risk. So with all these risks, you might ask why anyone would even consider being a farmer. The answer is simple: Because we love it. But during the last 60 years or so, a new risk has been added to this already daunting list: The risk of adopting the current industrial model of agriculture which is determined to produce abundant, cheap food.

The industrial model was born with the general introduction of chemical fertilizers and pesticides after World War II. As the need for the military industrial complex diminished, the agrichemical industrial complex began to takes its place. After seeing the devastation in Europe, our government was more determined than ever to see that we had a cheap and plentiful food supply, starting with grain. Everything was focused on yields and an industrial model was adopted to achieve this goal. With increased yields, we were not only able to feed ourselves but we could sell the excess abroad, bringing in money that tipped the balance of trade in our favor for decades.

The wheat farmers of the dryland West adopted these new technologies almost immediately. And why wouldn’t they? Weeds had been increasing year after year due to a lack of crop rotations. And weeds are a pain! They reduce crop yields, plug combines at harvest, and brought so much moisture into the bins that there was a constant risk of mold. But with the application of 2,4-D, weeds disappeared. If your paycheck was being threatened and someone handed you a magic potion to fix it, you’d have done it too. It was a no-brainer and it was adopted by almost everyone in the wheat belt overnight.

By the late 1940’s, the land in our neighborhood here in northern Montana had been farmed for more than 20 years without putting anything back. The soil was starting to run out of nutrients and yields were stagnating. Slowly at first, but at an increasing rate, the application of chemical fertilizers increased yields significantly, especially when combined with higher-yielding varieties bred to respond to higher inputs. The goals for cheap, plentiful food had been achieved. Unfortunately, this industrialized model, like all artificial systems, was neither sustainable nor regenerative.

As higher yielding plants demanded ever-increasing doses of chemical fertilizers, costs for the farmer and the soil went up. After many years, alkaline soils common to the arid west started to turn acidic, which stunted plant growth and stimulated the release of deadly heavy metals like aluminum. But instead of reconsidering the wisdom of the industrial model, those pushing it advocated to apply more chemicals to the soil, such as lime, to reduce acidity and bred wheat that will not absorb the aluminum.

Naturally, chemical fertilizers stimulated more than the crops and the growth of weeds required more herbicides to control them. As herbicide use increased, so did weed resistance, which required more and stronger herbicides. See a pattern here? Herbicides now contaminate the soil, our waterways, and even our rainwater.

And these inputs, the chemical fertilizers and herbicides, are not free. In fact, they are unbelievably expensive! So how do farmers pay for all these inputs? For decades, the ag-chemical companies made sure federal subsidies were the answer. In the mid-80’s, before I switched to regenerative organic farming, my chemical bills ranged from 24 to 26 thousand dollars! My government subsidies very nearly came to the same amount. Meaning that I, as the farmer, was the middle-man in a transfer of federal funds from the government treasury to the chemical companies without any discussion or complaint.

Each year, farmers are required to pay for more and more inputs. Many crops now being grown are GMO crops and the GMO’s are owned by the companies that created them. These companies sell their genetically modified seed to farmers at exorbitantly high prices each year and even restrict farmers from saving seed to use the next year. To add insult to injury, and to entrap the farmers even more into the industrial model where they have less and less control, farmers are also required to buy the chemicals required to protect these GMO crops from weeds.

Does that sound fair or reasonable to you? So why are there still so many farmers participating in the growing industrialization of agriculture? Farmers are assured that by buying all of these expensive inputs, they will see higher yields and more gross revenue. What they fail to mention is the farmer’s net profit. As the cost of inputs continues to rise, the net profit continues to decline, until many farmers can no longer make a living.

When prices drop due to overproduction, according to market demand, the goal of cheap, abundant food is reached, but farmers are paying a very high price for cheap food.