By Robert Turner
Most of the time I write this column to get people to think about where their food comes from, and maybe appreciate it a little more. The food system in the US is a complex, global supply chain that circles the planet. It’s complicated, and I’ve spent years trying to figure it out. The most difficult question for me is this: How do we create a just and fair system that pays farmers and farm workers a livable wage, and still keep food affordable?
Here is a truism about farming in this global food system: if a multinational food corporation can grow a pepper cheaper in Mexico or Peru, that’s what it’s going to do. It’s just business.
The average wage for a farm worker in Mexico is $8 per day. Not per hour—per day. As a small farmer here in Arden, I don’t know how to compete with that. And that’s why—very soon—more than 75 percent of our fruits and half of our vegetables will come from a foreign nation, even in the summer months.
The organic food trend helped to establish a stronger local food movement here in the Asheville region, but local food still only represents about 1 percent of the total food consumed in Buncombe County. Organic farmers here are competing with massive organic factory farms in California, Mexico and Brazil, and those factory farms are setting the consumer price expectations that people are willing to pay in a race to the bottom.
Farmers across the US are feeling the pinch in this globalized food system. They’re getting squeezed by rising costs for inputs and lower prices for their produce. And farmers in the US simply can’t compete with growers who pay farm labor in Mexico $8 per day to pick tomatoes. It’s impossible.
Migrant workers and other farm laborers on US farms are paid very low wages for all of the hard work that they do feeding the rest of us. The average hourly wages for migrant workers in 2020 was $13.68, with an average of $14.62 for all farm workers.
This is just half (51 percent) of the average hourly wage for all workers in the US in 2020, which stands at $28.78 per hour. So it’s not like farms in the US are paying great wages while other countries don’t.
The US farmer’s percentage of the retail dollar keeps shrinking as processors, wholesalers, distributors and retailers grab a bigger slice of the pie. Here are just two examples from a recent study: for an 11-pound Butterball turkey that retails for $16.39, the farmer got 66 cents; for one pound of tomatoes retailing for $3.39, the farmer received 33 cents. On average, the farmer receives less than 14 cents on the retail food dollar. This means, of course, that farm workers, families and the surrounding rural community are also getting a smaller piece of the pie.
I don’t really know what the answer is. Maybe we need to pay a little more for our food. The truth is that we pay a lot less than our grandparents did for food as a percentage of income; they paid about half. (We spend a lot more of our income on bigger homes, cars and gadgets than they did.) And we pay a lot less for food than people in Europe do, as a percentage of income (about 9 percent versus 16 percent, on average.)
Breaking up the largest monopolies in the food system—those large corporations that are putting the squeeze on farmers and consumers—may help. But are people in the US willing to pay more for food in order to improve our own food sovereignty and food security in this country? It’s a tricky question.
Localization in our food supply can offset the pressures from concentration and globalization. Localization, or regionalism, is the alternative to global corporate control of the food system. It doesn’t mean eliminating trade or absolute self-reliance. It’s simply about creating a more sustainable economy by producing and consuming goods closer to home. Localization means shortening the distance between producer and consumer. It is a leveling of the economic playing field that currently favors large, transnational corporations and banks. It means reducing our dependence on import and export markets in favor of production for local needs.
That may come with a price tag that includes higher wages for farm labor. And maybe part of the problem is that some people find it easier purchasing a $400 smoothie machine than paying a little more for the ingredients that go into it.
Like I said, it’s complicated.
Robert Turner is the director of the Creekside Farm Education Center and the author of Carrots Don’t Grow on Trees: Building Sustainable and Resilient Communities. To learn more, visit EatYourView.com.