Some in the food and agriculture industry are sounding the alarms. The future of our food is in jeopardy, they say.
I dont know what the answer is, but something has to change or were not going to be able to eat, Durango hay farmer John Boughman said. If people cant afford to farm, where will we get our food?
News headlines often raise the issue of rising food costs and the pressure it puts on the nations struggling families. But local farmers say a deeper, more behind-the-scenes problem could jeopardize the nations access to healthful food produced by small, local farming operations.
Even as more Americans, and Durangoans, are turning to farmers markets and roadside produce stands for locally grown, often organic foods, farmers continue to find their costs far outstrip the value of their harvests.
Local farmers, ranchers, officials and farm-equipment suppliers interviewed for this story said that for most small and mid-size farming operations, a tractor no longer earns its keep. That is to say, over the expected lifespan of most farming heavy equipment, the food the equipment produces no longer nets enough cash for a farmer to pay for the equipment before it needs to be replaced.
Bottom line: Planting, growing and bringing the food thats on your table to market came at a net loss to the family that did the work.
Most of the farmers in our local market have another full-time job, said Rich Hillyer, part-owner of Southwest Ag, a local farming-equipment retailer. Thats been the case for a long time.
Boughman echoed the sentiment, saying its almost impossible to be just a farmer anymore.
Even at todays high prices for some types of produce and hay, youre not making it unless you have a really large farm, said Ben Wilson, sales manager for Witt & Sons Irrigation.
A whole host of issues are playing a role in a growing epidemic of small farms going broke, officials and agricultural workers said.
Land costs have risen drastically during the last decade, farmers and ranchers said. Equipment costs alone have risen more than 30 percent in just three years, said Hillyer and Wilson. Gas costs have risen. Tax policies and local land-use rules and regulations also can create hurdles for farmers.
Even new air-quality rules posted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will cost farmers, Hillyer said.
To meet the requirements of the regulations, a $60,000 tractor today will cost $75,000 next year, Hillyer said.
Its scary, Hillyer said.
The farmers have been surviving the only way they know how, several people said. Theyre taking on debt. Theyre borrowing to pay for the land, equipment and seed.
The only thing that saves the farmer now is installment payments, said Kent Ellison, a hay farmer in Arboles.
Its a disaster waiting to happen, said Evert Oldham, area director for the U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development office in Aztec.
You end up with these required massive capital investments and no profits after you pay all the debt service, Oldham said.
One bad year, one flood or crop infestation could begin a farmers downward spiral to watching the death of his lifes work, he said.
Our food security, stability and sustainability depend upon us returning to a smaller-scale system, Oldham said. Its not about going back to the good ole days, but the food system model weve had for the last 40 years is a proven failure.
With food-contamination scares increasing in numbers and gas and energy costs soaring, people like Oldham say they question the wisdom of recent decades scaling up of food production operations into larger and larger commercial farms.
There comes a point when consolidation makes you so fragile that its not sustainable, Oldham said. We cannot risk that with our food.
But reversing the food systems path, which Oldham says looks remarkably like the path the recently bailed out banking industry took to in recent decades, wont be easy.
Food will inevitably cost more, but there would be long-term health-care cost savings, Oldham said.
Though Jim Dyer, director of Healthy Community Food Systems, knows a struggling family who needs cheap food today might find it hard to adopt that long-term view.
In the end, Dyer said, semantics will matter.
People want cheap food, but I think we need affordable food, he said. Theres a difference.
Affordable to Dyer means fair prices for the producer, the consumer and everyone in between. Getting there will involve fixing more than a broken food system. Working wages also must be addressed across the board.
We have to also start talking about living wages to deal with this in the longer term, Dyer said.
And a problem this big cannot be fixed overnight, Dyer said. It starts with people feeling entitled to a say how their food is moved, grown and what it costs, he said. Right now, everyone owns the system but us, Dyer said.
Solutions will come if people are taking ownership in area food systems, playing a role in organizations working to find a solution, supporting their local farmers and keeping a closer eye on the trends surrounding the commodities that keep us fed and healthy, locals in the agriculture industry said.
In the meantime, Ellison said, buying a farm is a good deal for people who need a write-off because its a good loss.