How to get right side up again
Instead of propping up corporate agriculture, let's subsidize small farmers
Note: this essay is part of a package of articles in this print edition speculating about the future of the West as a cultural region.
We were talking about small-scale agriculture in northern New Mexico, about water and traditional acequias, about the new Intel plant in Rio Rancho and about the new Wal-Mart in Espanola, and the new Whole Foods store in Santa Fe. We were talking about how the next generation of small farmers can't afford to buy land within 50 miles of Santa Fe, where prices for irrigated bottom land start at $30,000 an acre.
There were eight of us at dinner, three of us small-farm activists of one stripe or another, and all owners of parcels of irrigated land large enough to provide a living to some enterprising young farmer. And until two years ago, when I became a foundation grantee to develop a permanent farmers' market site in Santa Fe, my wife, Rose Mary, and I made a living (more or less) by growing garlic, onions and shallots on some seven acres, 50 miles north of Santa Fe.
Our hostess, who loves to drop the cat among pigeons, wrenched the conversation in a new direction by asking me: "Given your druthers, what would you like to see happen in the next 10 years?" - re: small farms, acequias, and farmers' markets in northern New Mexico.
I had no quick answer, but back at the farm, in bed, a thought came at 4 a.m., an hour when things seem either absurdly simple or impossibly complex. That particular morning, Simplicity raised its smiling head.
"The world is upside down," it said, "so turn it right side up." Upside down? In agriculture, large corporate producers underprice small producers because they don't have to factor in pollution, soil loss, health effects of pesticides and herbicides and nitrate-loaded groundwater, fossil-fuel depletion, benefits for farm laborers, and the withering away of villages and small towns.
But if you do the right thing and become a certified organic grower, you have to pay to use the term.
Right side up would be to have corporate agriculture pay the full cost of poisoning the land and polluting the water. Agriculture is our greatest polluter, and when these costs are finally paid by the producers, then that food will reflect the realities of manure lagoons, monstrous feedlots, and a billion pounds of herbicides and pesticides spread across the land each year.
At that point, organic food from small farms will not only be cheaper than agribusiness crops, but it will be, as it always has been, better and healthier for everybody up and down the food chain. At that point, you will see your small farmer outbidding developers for farmland and water rights, and pushing city limits back where they belong. Goodbye, sprawl.
Northern New Mexico lends itself to such thinking. There are still agricultural land and water, as well as feed stores and farm-equipment dealers - and there are still farmers on the land. Northern New Mexico is still more or less right side up.
But the dinner-table conversation suggested that our world is about to flip over. Development will soon fill the irrigated acres of our small river valleys with mobile homes, retirement homes and second homes.
The anarchistic irrigation system made up of a thousand acequias governed by Spanish water law with roots in Moorish North Africa is under siege by commercial and municipal interests. Big box stores are moving into Santa Fe and Espanola at the rate of about one every two months. So northern New Mexico soon promises to be upside down like everywhere else, distinguished only by its scenic backdrop of the Sangre de Cristo Range and its self-parodying fake adobe architecture.
Development has come relatively late to northern New Mexico because of what was so well-rooted here. The Indian Pueblos have been adept at ducking beneath the waves of cultural invasion, the first Spanish, the second Anglo. And for centuries, Hispanics were protected from rapid assimilation by the isolation of their small villages. Against all odds, acequia traditions have remained strong in river valleys where subsistence farming and livestock production were once the center of village life.
The scattered villages, the acequia system which makes it so hard to tear the water away from the land, and the rough country have allowed northern New Mexico to remain rural and productive. But those are all defensive weapons. They don't confront traditional agriculture's inability to compete with industrial agriculture on price.
An offensive weapon appeared in the early 1970s, when the emergence of farmers' markets in Los Alamos, Santa Fe and Taos began to change the cost equation, and encouraged a new generation of small farmers to stay on the land, or return to it. Like farmers' markets everywhere, New Mexico's are based on protectionism: You are allowed to sell only what you grow, and your farm must be within a certain region.
This rule is probably in violation of some clause in GATT or NAFTA. Someday, this may become an international issue because there are now 28 farmers' markets in New Mexico alone, and 3,000 to 5,000 nationally. They have become recognized forces in downtown revitalization and farmland preservation everywhere.
Turning the world right side up by getting the big boys to do the right thing is - conceptually - easy. Just make them pay the full price of their production. The hard part lies in how to encourage the little fellow to do his part. Our dinner-table conversation raked over the agonizing problem of how to encourage people to keep farming when they couldn't afford to buy land, when they had no access to long-term credit, when they couldn't earn equity in rented land, when they had to work 16 hours a day during three seasons of the year for little money and virtually no fringe benefits.
What I would propose - until the corporations clean up their act - is to create Local Content Zones in which local producers of all sorts, but primarily agricultural, are protected from competition coming from outside their self-determined region. A Local Content Zone could be anything from a farmers' market, a public market hall (several of which I recently visited in Baltimore), or a small zone within a city, such as the soon-to-be-developed city-owned rail-yard property in downtown Santa Fe.
Local Content Zones and their producers would be subsidized to exactly the same measure and degree as multinational producers are now subsidized. Add up the environmental and social costs not covered in the cost of goods being produced and pass this amount on (by way of subsidy) to the Local Content Zones and their producers, enabling them to underprice their multinational competition right away. This is just the sort of calculation the World Trade Organization should be able to do in a snap of the fingers. With the Local Content Zones providing their economic base, the farmers will soon be able to buy land, get credit and send their children to college.
In 10 or 20 years, when the world turns right side up - as increasingly acute environmental crises will force it to do - subsidies to Local Content Zones can wither away, because our small, locally based producers will be on a level playing field.
There will be those who argue that with subsidies you can make anything work. Exactly. Our present upside-down world is a prime example.
Copyright © 2000 HCN and Stanley Crawford