Thursday, August 14, 2014

Musings: Foodies vs Farmers

Dawn in the high desert arrives cold. Venus rising, glowing like a campfire through a dip in the rounded hills, waning moon streaked with wispy clouds, Orion's belt and Makalii (Plieades) making their way west, as they do on Kauai, though here they are accompanied by a coyote's yelps and howls, rather than the clucking and crowing of chickens.

In an exchange of messages with a Kauai woman the other day she said all she knew of New Mexico, where I am, was what she'd seen on "Breaking Bad." Though I've never watched that show, I told her there are many similarities between New Mexico and Hawaii — economies based on tourism and military, vast income disparities, colonized indigenous populations (many of whom "lost" their land in the shuffle), rogue cops, rampant political cronyism, dwindling agriculture and brown people doing the dirty work.

The New Mexico police log is similarly filled with reports of drug-driven burglaries, domestic violence and substance abuse, though here as I walk I see tiny empty bottles of booze thrown in the bushes, instead of the mini zip-locks and Q-tips associated with meth use on Kauai.

The farmers' markets draw crowds of tourists and locals, as they do in Hawaii, and the produce sold there costs more than it does at Whole Foods. Still, people who can afford it seem happy to buy it as a way to support local farmers, none of whom display those ridiculous "gmo-free zone" signs in their booths, even the ones who grow organic. 

The small farmers in New Mexico are struggling, as they are everywhere, a reality revealed in a recent New York Times opinion piece, "Don't let your children grow up to be farmers."

As the writer, a shellfish and seaweed farmer on Long Island Sound noted:

The dirty secret of the food movement is that the much-celebrated small-scale farmer isn’t making a living. After the tools are put away, we head out to second and third jobs to keep our farms afloat. Ninety-one percent of all farm households rely on multiple sources of income. Health care, paying for our kids’ college, preparing for retirement? Not happening. With the overwhelming majority of American farmers operating at a loss — the median farm income was negative $1,453 in 2012 — farmers can barely keep the chickens fed and the lights on.

Others of us rely almost entirely on Department of Agriculture or foundation grants, not retail sales, to generate farm income. And young farmers, unable to afford land, are increasingly forced into neo-feudal relationships, working the fields of wealthy landowners.

Especially in urban areas, supporting your local farmer may actually mean buying produce from former hedge fund managers or tax lawyers who have quit the rat race to get some dirt under their fingernails. We call it hobby farming, where recreational “farms” are allowed to sell their products at the same farmers’ markets as commercial farms. It’s all about property taxes, not food production.

The food movement — led by celebrity chefs, advocacy journalists, students and NGOs — is missing, ironically, the perspective of the people doing the actual work of growing food. Their platform has been largely based on how to provide good, healthy food, while it has ignored the core economic inequities and contradictions embedded in our food system.

Doesn't matter if you're in New York, New Mexico or Hawaii, it's all playing out the same way: farmers struggling as non-farmers try to tell them how they should be practicing an occupation that few of us know anything about.

Is it any wonder that so many farmers silently scream when they hear the anti-GMO contingent in Hawaii keep perpetuating the fantasy that small farms, organic farms, self-sustaining farms, will take over the westside fields and feed the hungry masses — and all the tourists, too — once the nasty chemical companies are driven out?

That's just not gonna happen. Instead, golf courses, luxury homes and resorts will spring up in their place, all of them using significant quantities of pesticides to keep the bugs and weeds at bay.

I was happy to see Kauai mayoral candidate Dustin Barca finally admit, in The Garden Island: "I can’t just make the companies leave.”

His confession raises a very important question. If he can't actually stop the chem companies — and doesn't have a clue how county government functions — what possible value is he to the electorate?

Meanwhile, the mainland-based/funded special interest groups — Center for Food Safety, Hawaii SEED, Pesticide Action Network and Ceres Trust, none of which actually farm — continue to perpetuate the myth that it'll be all good if we let them seize control of agriculture in Hawaii.

In an excellent post entitled "Fear: The Deconstruction of Local Culture," Hawaii Farmers Daughter blogger Joni Kamiya-Rose noted:

These outside activists have even gone as far as trying to infiltrate our agricultural communities by bringing in their fellow Filipinos to try and split them apart. Here’s a flier that was posted around the internet to demonstrate this.
And I thought, gee, if Kauai is supposedly already “ground zero” for GMO, why would we be interested in taking “lessons from the front lines?” Shouldn't we be teaching them?

Yes, Kauai, and Hawaii, could be doing a lot more to feed itself and achieve food self-sufficiency, and no, I don't think anyone wants to see a lot of pesticides sprayed in the Islands, whether it's by agriculture, pest control, golf courses or citizens.

But agricultural reform is a complex issue, involving land costs and property taxes, pressures to use ag land for non-ag purposes, shipping expenses, competition, economies of scale, available labor, water systems, consumer tastes, limited local fertilizer sources, marketing and the overall high cost of living in the Islands. It's deceptive and counter-productive to try and reduce it to a simplistic question of pro- or anti-GMO, or even pro- or anti-chemical agriculture.

Meanwhile, the county has allocated $175,000 to defend Ordinance 960, its flawed pesticide/GMO regulatory law, and that's just the beginning. I'm willing to wager the island would've been a lot better off at the end of the day if that kala had been spent on agricultural initiatives, rather than legal fees. But then, that wouldn't have satisfied the agenda of mainland activists, high-end Realtors and the politicians — most notably Councilmen Gary Hooser and Tim Bynum — who serve them. 

Never forget that's what this fight is really all about.

Oh, and if you're interested in Hawaii agriculture — as in the real producers, not just those who rhapsodize about it — check out the new publication, Farmers & Friends.


Anonymous said...

Another excellent post, Joan. You are absolutely correct that small farming in Hawaii is by-and-large not economically viable and must be supported by other means. May I add estate taxes to your list of farming challenges. If a larger landowner cannot create sufficient income to both live and to accumulate in order to pay death taxes (which at one point were 77% of the land value; currently 40% but subject to increase at any moment), then the family farm, or portions of it, must be sold to pay these taxes. This will result in transferring ownership to more wealthy owners with other incomes, or liquidation and the subdivision of these lands which will ultimately result in development and loss of these agricultural fields. So it is not only simple economics, but also our taxing policies that work to sound the death knell for the family farm.

Anonymous said...

Good one Joan. Getting out into the nation to really understand true farming is what many people lack. Large farmers need government incentives to make out. In this day and age, would I want to farm or have my children pursue that way!

Anonymous said...

Until farming becomes profitable for the small and medium sized growers there's little we can do to advance the cause except to make sure that we hold on to our water and land and hope for better days. Right now I'm OK with just feeding myself.

Anonymous said...

Families should grow fruits and vegetables, but sometimes the cost of water is not feasible. If we can develop a way to use gray water safely or develop good rainwater catchment systems, the cost to irrigate gardens will be reasonable.

Anonymous said...

As the NY Times article points out, often well meaning agricultural tax laws allow landowners "to harvest more tax breaks than tomatoes."

While some of these tax laws do a great job in truly helping bona fide agricultural operations, these tax breaks often abused by gentlemen farms/farmers who reap the tax breaks without doing meaningful agriculture, as this post amply describes. The problem is that the tax laws are not adequately enforced, which allows this deception/violation to continue.

The County Department of Water provides farmers with favorable agricultural water rates. However, to qualify for this privilege, the landowner is required to submit a Schedule F (Profit or Loss From Farming)form, which is part of the IRS tax filing requirements for farmers. As all bona fide farmers need to do this, it should be no additional burden for landowners who want to quality for their agricultural land tax exemption, which is very substantial. If the DOW can do this, why can't the Real Property Division?

There are some very well-intended laws, however, if they are not quantitatively enforced, they will be exploited.

Anonymous said...

Just because it has not been done...i.e. make money farming, does not mean it can't be done.

We are not the mainland. We are land locked by 1,000's of miles of Ocean. Local farmers not only have to make money, they have to support the community with food without damage to the environment.

Just because some cannot fathom it and are stuck in the "conventional factory mega-farming" mentality..i.e. you have been programmed to think small... your reality, other people dream big and work hard.

It takes an Education, which many who comment on this blog do Not have.

Agriculture studies, Business, besides biochemistry, botany, and soil chemistry would help to make small farming a community success.

With Community support, we get together instead of tearing each down....then maybe something positive will happen?

Sitting on the side lines complaining about dis and dat ain't gonna bring Enlightment to this island.

Work together and Dine Together... or Decline together.

Dr Shibai

Anonymous said...

Dr. Shibai - you certainly live up to your name.

Anonymous said...

Dr. Shibai - exquisitely appropriate name!

Anonymous said...

Dr. Shibai - Some of us aren't on the sidelines but apparently you are and when you say, "It takes an Education, which many who comment on this blog do Not have," you are describing yourself. You obviously are a pie-in-the-sky dreamer who has little knowledge of the reality which faces farmers.

Anonymous said...

Dr. Shibai's shibaioleth on the necessary ingredients: "Agriculture studies, Business, besides biochemistry, botany, and soil chemistry would help to make small farming a community success." And how many of these ingredients do you suppose the authors and supporters of 2491 have in any meaningful aggregation? How about Shooltz and his handmaidens for the "Charter Amendment"? I'd say the seed companies and regulatory agencies trump the council and fistees in every single quality. But, on the positive side, we were treated to a highly entertaining parade of mountebanks masquerading as authorities on GMO's during Council's anti-GMO "hearings". However, the council had to cough up another fifty grand down-payment yesterday to pay the attorneys that the Grand Panjandrum of the movement dismissed as "the cost of doing business" in TGI today. Fifty here, fifty there and pretty soon We the People get pissed off. Can't blame us. It's real money- and ours.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

Typical black & white response 9pm. No one is trashing local food just pointing out it's not the magic bullet unless you expect small farmers to work for free or near-free.

Anonymous said...

"Just because some cannot fathom it and are stuck in the "conventional factory mega-farming" mentality..i.e. you have been programmed to think small... your reality, other people dream big and work hard. "

You ever try make it as a farmer Dr Shibai? Didn't think so. Easy for run your mouth. How much you buying at Costco.

Anonymous said...

I just got turned off by Marta Lane's (Tasting Kauai) article about a Santa Maria Style Barbecue business. The food sounded great so I went to the Tasting Kauai link she posted in her article and was happily reading it. i for one am not against organic food/farms which she touts in her website, but when I got to her food For Thought, Steps You Can Take page I found that she like many others in order to compete must bad mouth her GMO competitors. there's no live and let live here. She actively wants her minions to work to against the GMO food community. doing so totally undermined everything she has posted on her website about her farmi9ng/restaurant cohorts. consequently, I will not be patronizing anyone who allows her to do their marketing for them. If you lie about one thing, you'll lie about anything. Sorry Santa Maria Style Barbecue.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post, Joan. There's too much ignorance about farming and the tools that farmers depend on if they're going to have a fighting chance. One of these tools is pesticide. Pesticides have changed dramatically since Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring. Without pesticides most farmers would not be able to achieve the yields necessary to stay in business. Because pesticides are expensive and poisonous when not used correctly, farmers are judicious in applying them. Integrated pest management, which means only using pesticides when needed and then only using enough to control the pest in question, is the norm. Only someone ignorant of modern farming practices would accuse farmers, large or small, of "drenching" crops with poison or carelessly allowing large quantities of pesticide to drift away when applied. That's why sprayers have anemometers that shutoff spraying when the wind kicks up. The anti-ag folks are kidding themselves if they think a farmer can grow more than a couple of acres without pesticides and not lose the majority of the crop to insects, disease and crowding out by weeds.