The Undervalued Small Farmer and Food Insecurity

The average hourly wage for someone working in farming in the US is less than $13 an hour. Ignore the numbers for the total average income of farm families, because they nearly always include the income of one full-time wage earner. For a couple, it could be either partner, but trust me, one of them works a full day and then returns to work the farm until dark during most of the year. And guaranteed, the work they do when they come home is much harder than what they do at their outside job.

I thought maybe that had changed in the years since we had a small farm, but apparently it hasn’t. I recently spoke with a young farm wife and mother who stopped by to pick up some tomato starts on her way home from her office job. She named several women from neighboring farms who were also in the workforce, even though they’d rather be home weeding vegetables in preparation for the weekend farmers’ markets and being with their kids.

If you farm in the West, where heat and drought are growing worse every year, you may have foregone planting the usual vegetable crops, culled your animals, and stripped your fruit trees. That’s because most of California is under drought emergency, which is not expected to improve.

So where will our food come from if the West Coast farmers are forced to give up? The large corporate farms typically grow one crop, and this lack of diversity also means a lack of food security. We rely most heavily on Western states for the bulk of our US-grown vegetables and fruits. Farms in other regions, including here in New England, are often smaller, more diverse, and run by a couple, one of whom earns that “less than $13 an hour.” Drought and temps are increasing here too.

One of California’s main crops is almonds. We raise and export most of the nuts grown on a million acres in this $10 billion market. One almond requires one gallon of water to grow to maturity. That’s a lot of water. Raising beef requires a lot of water too—for the corn to feed them. We also export beef and other meat products. The companies who make the big bucks benefit from big government subsidies. Remember that small farmer who sells through a CSA or at the farm markets? The only subsidy she gets is maybe a “thank you” from someone who knows the hard work that went into that lovely tomato or beautiful squash, which she probably picked before you even had your first cup of coffee that morning.

If ever there were a subsidy that should be created, it would be one for the small farmers, because they deserve to make a living and because eventually you may have to look to them for much of your family’s food. Part of our trade deficit with China is made up of imported food products that include 90 percent of the vitamin C consumed by Americans, 78 percent of the tilapia, 70 percent of the apple juice, 50 percent of the cod, 43 percent of the processed mushrooms and 23 percent of the garlic. Right, that apple juice you give your kids probably didn’t come from New England or the Northwest, nor did the cod come from coastal Maine. I won’t even go into the health and safety concerns surrounding so many imports, nor will I elaborate on the geo-political risks associated with our food security or lack thereof. And if small farmers decide to switch professions so they can actually “feed” their own families, well . . . Use your imagination.

Why must we use our resources (water) to export more than $4 billion worth of almonds, for example, when we could be helping farmers and orchardists produce safe, locally grown food for us? Why did we import $10 billion worth of vegetables in 2020, equal to a third of the quantity available to US consumers? We rely on California for most of our US-produced produce, with Mexico being the secondary source.

Getting back to climate change, or what it was known as before the term frightened too many media progressives, climate catastrophe. What happens when California can no longer supply our food, if China shuts down exports, if there is political upheaval south of the border, if hackers shut down our transportation systems? So many possibilities. How friendly are you with the lady next door who grows vegetables in her little raised bed garden? Maybe you should get to know her better—and ask her for tips on growing some of your own.

Sheila Velazquez lives and writes in Northwest Massachusetts. Her work is informed by decades of experience with unions, agriculture, public health, politics and her support of populism. She welcomes contact by email: Read other articles by Sheila.