Getting Us From Farm to Table

I am an economist only in the sense of being (at certain hours) a home economist. That means much of the time I look at food from the fairly limited perspective of my wallet, my larder, and my plate. In this I am probably not alone; when most of us think about farming of any kind, be it industrial-scale monocultures and feedlots or what we would call small-scale family farming, we tend to think about the food produced from the limited viewpoint of its beginning and its end: from its beginning in the field (or cage), to its ending at our dinner tables. If that is all we see, then we are missing several links in the chain— links that have to do with preparing food for sale, marketing, distribution, and particularly with price. And yet a farmer who cannot get a decent price for his crop cannot make a living. As businesses go, farming has it pretty tough. That is because farming gives a slow, solar-powered level of financial return in a world running hot and fast on its petroleum-fired economy. Farming is slow money in a world of the fast buck. It follows a cycle of growing seasons or years, and cannot offer the instant profits of day-trading. Even the larger American farms are relatively small cogs in a world economic machine strongly affected by agribusinesses and foreign competition with its subsidies, low wages, and swings in prices. That the weather is uncertain has always been a given; that soil will play out unless it is rested and fed is another given; but modern farmers have the additional challenge of being in a pre-industrial occupation in an industrialized and service-heavy global economy. In our economy you can make big money by manipulating money, and you can make decent money manufacturing or mining, but you will make relatively little raising the food on which our lives so fundamentally depend. And so, if we as a nation are truly interested in keeping farming for food as part of the American economy, if we are not content with a future of chic
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