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August 15, 2009

Wall Street vs. Small Farms: Put Your $$$ Where Your Mouth Is

By Chaz Valenza

Our priorities are inverted when it comes to two commodities: food and money. We reward Wall Street and stiff the local farmer. This upside-down situation is driving us toward a dystopian future.


I believe we Americans and our corporate state called America have our priorities inverted when it comes to two commodities: food and money.

Money. Think a twenty dollar bill; Wall Street; corporate bailouts; your bank account; your earnings; corporate CEO compensation; the federal deficit; the cost of the Middle East wars; prices at Wal*Mart.

Food. Think a fresh, tasty summer tomato salad; fast food tainted with e-coli; a great steak with caramelized onions; a chocolate souffle hot out of the oven; mad cow disease; a sweet cantaloupe; melt in your mouth sushi; a microwave dinner.

We think of money as expensive. We think of food as cheap. We crave money. We stuff our faces. We'll do almost anything for money. We don't worry about our next meal.

Geordie Kerr, a young farmer still on the fence about his inherited position in the family business of four generations, told me a story about one of his customers. This customer was amazed that one prosciutto (thinly sliced cured ham) Proscuitto di Parma at $19.99 a pound could be so much better than another proscuitto for which he paid $14.99 a pound. I'll tell you the punch line to this story later.

When we shop, we Americans tend to want it cheap. We shop price, price, price to nearly the exclusion of all else.

Price is the reason we shop at Big Box Stores and eat at McDonalds.

Price is also the reason you cannot find an American-made men's dress shirt, or pants, or socks without a diligent search of the internet. It's why we drink wine from Australia. Why all our electronics are made in China and, I venture, why I have to return some of them because they're defective.

Price is why lead-based paint was used to make play things for our children. And, it's why almost nothing we eat is grown locally. Why much of the better food is imported. And, why so much of our food is now mass produced and subject to recall for fear of death and disease.

Price is not value. Price is not cost. This is why young not-sure-he-wants-to-always-be-a-farmer Geordie doesn't like working his farm stand, Kerr's Korn Stand, where he sells nearly all of his fresh grown produce. Reason?

People want to haggle with him, down from fifty-cents for an ear for the sweetest freshest white corn on earth. Or, they balk at $2.99 a pound for his just picked "Fourth of July" tomatoes that sparkle in your mouth. And, it's where if he could only get a bit more for his crops, he would definitely commit to farming as his passion.

But right now he can't get that twenty-five cents more an ear or dollar more a pound.

He weighs the long hours against the time he'd like to spend with his family. "It's difficult getting a balance between family and work," he says.

I'm thinking that's true for nearly all Americans. By far we are the hardest working people on earth right now. But we heavily reward the money changers and give short shrift to our farmers.

We've declared money is more important than food. Hmmmm, what's wrong with this picture? Which one can't we live without?

If Geordie could get that twenty-five cents more it would mean a decent livelihood. Like all of us, he loves his wife and little girl. He knows they deserve some of the things money can buy, like higher education and decent healthcare. "My wife loves the Jersey shore," he tells me. "Unfortunately, farming is about working long hours all summer."

But Geordie is no victim. He blames no one. He recognizes he has options, even though he'd prefer to farm. We discuss how European farmers ban together to standardize high quality, protect a trademark, market and distribute their products in ways that gain them fair trade, i.e. a fair cut of the profit.

But money is precious and we shop price. Price is driving jobs overseas. Price begets manufactured food that risks lives. Big Agra has yet to lose its license over the people it's sickened and killed. So, we literally risk our lives for a cheap meal. Money over food.

Geordie informs me that there are new farming regulations to stop food contamination. Certain manure fertilizing is now restricted, for example. The regulations, born of made by industrial agriculture are making Geordie's life harder and driving up his costs.

I ask him, in the entire history of the family farm, had they ever sold food that made anyone ill. "No," he reports, "but people occasionally complain about worms in the corn." Truth is any small food business would be sunk should they cause any significant illness, much less a death.

"We're careful," he says, "We have to be."

Last year's fast food e-coli contaminations were most likely caused by field hands that didn't have access to bathroom facilities, not normal farming practices. In other words, Big Agra wouldn't spring for a port-a-john, and some desperate moments for workers picking the crop, turned into what can only be called manslaughter. Who pays the price in increased regulations that may or may not be necessary? It's not just small farmers, we all do.

Now, here's what Geordie's customer thought about the cost of Proscuitto di Parma, a product "handcrafted" from old lineage pork and cured the same slow way for hundreds of years. He retorted, "When was the last time you ate a twenty-dollar bill?"

To that I add, when was the last time a twenty dollar bill was your job? Or, your shelter? Or, your clothes? Or, your family?

My point is we have to stop shopping price and start thinking about what all this cheap stuff we buy really costs. Our coins and paper bills have no real utility except as a means of exchange.

The true cost of cheap food, or cheap anything else for that matter, includes surrendering our lives as more and more power rises to the top of Big Greed corporations who claim they are the low cost leaders. They've convinced us to nickel and dime all the people around us whose work and services and products provide authentic value and could sustain us locally.

When cheap oil ends, when all the manufacturing jobs are gone, when all the farms are overseas, and all we are left with is taking in each other's laundry, how do you think that twenty dollar bill is going to taste?

Oh, wait, no! There's always Soylent Green. It's much better than Soylent Red or Yellow. Trust the Soylent Corporation.

Geordie Kerr is the heir apparent of Kerr Ridge Farm, Pennington, in New Jersey'sHopewell Valley.

Submitters Bio:

Chaz Valenza is writer and small business owner in New Jersey. He earned his MBA from New York University's Stern School of Business. His current feature film project is "Single Point Failure" an insider's account of how the Reagan Administration caused the greatest tragedy of the space age based on Richard C. Cook's book "Challenger Revealed." He is a former Director of Public Information for Planned Parenthood of NYC. His website is: www.WordsWillNever.com