This blog is the last in a series on saving family farms in Maryland. In the first blog, I highlighted the need for beginning farmers. In the second and third blogs, I addressed access to land and infrastructure needs. In this blog, I discuss how to create a level access to markets.
The local food movement has given us hope that we can maintain family farms in Maryland. For decades, I have heard of farmers telling their children that there is no future in farming. That attitude is changing. Now more farm children are returning to farms. And clearly, more people care about family farms and want to know how their food is grown.
However, the playing field is not level. Recently, National Public Radio covered an 18-month investigation by a reporter from the Los Angeles Times which described working conditions on mega-farms in Mexico. According to the reporter, the mega-farms are mistreating workers and paying them $8 to $12 per day, hardly on par with regulations and expectations in the U.S. The story also noted that major U.S. food chains are purchasing from these farms.
Farmers in Maryland face additional challenges in trying to provide more locally-sourced food. In the 19th century, and early 20th century, most grain, canning and food processing operations left the state and local health regulations were not designed for small scale food processing operations. Meanwhile, chain stores out-competed local food markets in the 20th century. Few locally owned stores still exist and local farmers have a tough time negotiating square deals with most chain stores.
Without local food stores, farmers selling retail were literally kicked to the curb. If farmers wanted to sell the food themselves, they had to sell at roadside stands or in farmers markets, where local zoning would permit them. In commercial shopping centers, chain grocery stores typically would require landlords to impose covenants restricting local farm sales. To take advantage of the local food movement, some chains have established local market sections in their stores, but “local” can be as much as a 300-400 mile radius and farmers are subject to their terms and whims. Many farmers have stories about working with chains. After the picture of the farm went up in the food isle, the produce orders would disappear.
1. Encourage counties to include goals that promote local food systems in their comprehensive plans and adopt zoning ordinances that permit value-added production on farms.
2. Insist that our legislators oppose trade agreements that create unfair competition for our farmers. They should not have to compete with food from countries with weak environment, labor and food safety standards.
3. Work with businesses and government to rebuild local food aggregation systems and distribution systems, such as
- -More local food transport systems.
- -More indoor and year-around markets.
- -Better market sites in towns, such as around village squares and other activity centers.
4. Tell the stories of farmers who provide great local farm products.
5. Support a food system that is sustainable and treats everyone in the food system fairly.
Giving farmers level access to markets will build the local economy, create jobs and help insure that our food is fresh and safe.