Monday, January 18, 2010

2010: a year for high food prices?

Now's the season for people to start thinking about their garden plans for the coming year. While you're considering those, consider this, from a New York Times story about the recent cold snap in Florida:

Vegetables were among the hardest hit. At least one major tomato grower, Ag-Mart Produce, has already declared that most of its Florida crop is “useless due to the freeze.” Other vegetable farms were expected to lose their entire crop, and wholesale prices have already increased.

“Tomatoes were down around $14 for a 25-pound box; now they are up over $20,” said Gene McAvoy, an agriculture expert with the University Florida, who predicted $100 million in vegetable losses. “Peppers — just after New Year’s they were $8 a box; now they’re up around $18.”

Translation: get ready to pay up to an extra dollar a pound at supermarkets in New York and Chicago.

A number of outlets are predicting that 2010 will be a year of climbing food prices:

The U.S. Department of Agriculture expects overall food prices to rise as much as 4 percent in the U.S. by the end of 2010. Yet, some economists think they could climb by as much as 5 percent. Even using the government's more conservative numbers, the price for eggs is forecast to rise 3 percent and beef is seen increasing 2 percent. Lamb, seafood and fish? All three categories are expected to jump as much as 5 percent.

A 5 percent boost in your grocery bill may not seem terribly devastating, but consider this: If you spend $300 a week on groceries now, you'll need to squeeze a raise of about a thousand dollars a year out of your boss (don't forget withholding tax) just to keep up with higher chicken, beef, pork and dairy prices....

[C]onsumers are still paying about 45 percent more for food now than they were just two years ago. Bill Lapp, former chief economist at food giant ConAgra (CAG) and now president of Advanced Economic Solutions, a consulting firm in Omaha, Neb. that specializes in analysis of food costs, says at the peak of the global food crisis, food prices in the U.S. grew 6 percent. In 2010, he thinks they could jump 5 percent. Yikes.

Establishing a garden can be a great investment with long-term paybacks. We're planning to set up times in the next month or so to meet with Rodgers Forge neighbors to talk about vegetable gardening and what we can do to help get your gardens going. (Contact us at if you're interested in meeting.) It's a good year to start planting.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Who will grow our food?

In a recent post from a great food and sustainability writer, Sharon Astyk, on one of our favorite sources,, comes this stunning quote:

As of 2002, the average American farmer was nearly 56 years old. The average American small farmer is over 60. More than one out of every four farmers is over 65 years old and rapidly facing retirement, and less than 6% of all American farmers are younger than 35 years old.

Astyk goes on to point out why this is so alarming: Two hundred years ago civilization used 1 in 2.5 people to farm, yet today we employ only 1 in 100 people to farm. This drift toward centralization of farming resources, which is using fewer and fewer people on larger and larger farms, has left us extremely vulnerable to large demographic shifts. And this is exactly what we are facing.

The average age of American farmers is part of the broader aging of the American population. This aging of the population might not be significant if adequate numbers of young people were pursuing farming careers. Yet they are not -- at least not in the numbers that will be necessary to replace all the farmers lost to old age. Farmers have historically grown up on farms, apprenticing at the feet of their family, learning through long experience the intricacies of growing food. As fewer younger people apprentice with older farmers, essential farming knowledge is lost.

The Rodgers Forge Farm Initiative was born out of a desire to grow our own food in healthy and environmentally sustainable ways. We imagine a greater role for suburban yard gardens in the food supply of our community. Now we even imagine a greater role for small home-scale gardening in the food supply of our great country. Sharon Astyk concludes that future American farmers may not come from the traditional backgrounds:

So where do they come from? This is a new problem for human society -- while we've always had some people take up agriculture as a new profession (and when that happened, say, during the settlement of the US west, there were always extremely high failure rates and ecological costs), the vast majority of those who did the work and stayed at it grew up on farms. We have never before in human history (except perhaps when we developed agriculture, and that didn't happen all at once) had to teach an entire generation of non-farmers to farm. But that's the problem we face.

In A Nation of Farmers one of the things that Aaron and I argue is that the next generation of American farmers will have to come out of the garden, and from other nations rather than off the American farm. That is, the children who grow up with some knowledge of growing things will largely fall into two categories. They will grow up with parents who garden, and teach their children to garden, and who take that set of skills and build upon it, or they will be the migrants themselves or the children of immigrants who come from cultures where agriculture is more common than it is today.

The future of American food production may no longer depend on farming families but on gardening families. Happy New Year, Rodgers Forge farmers!