Thanksgiving Dinner Is Cheapest in Years, But Are Family Farms Paying the Price?

, Food Systems & Health Analyst | November 21, 2017, 10:34 am EST
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Last week, the Farm Bureau released the results of its annual price survey on the cost of a typical Thanksgiving dinner. The grand total for a “feast” for 10 people, according to this year’s shoppers? About 50 dollars. ($49.87, if you want to be exact.) That includes a 16-pound turkey at $1.40 per pound, and a good number of your favorite sides: stuffing, sweet potatoes, rolls with butter, peas, cranberries, a veggie tray, pumpkin pie with whipped cream, and coffee and milk.

After adjusting for inflation, the Farm Bureau concluded that the cost of Thanksgiving dinner was at its lowest level since 2013. Let’s talk about what that means for farmers, and for all of us.

We can debate whether the Farm Bureau’s survey captures the true cost of a holiday meal for most Americans. This isn’t the world’s most technical survey—it was based on 141 volunteer shoppers at 39 grocery stores across the country purchasing these items at the best prices they could find.

But according to the USDA’s Economic Research Service, Americans do spend less than 10 percent of their disposable personal incomes on food. ERS data also shows that farmers receive just 16 cents for every dollar of food consumers purchase. (Speaking of historic lows, that’s the lowest farmer share of the food dollar in over a decade.) The rest of it is distributed throughout the food supply chain, which includes the companies that process, package, transport, and sell these foods at any number of retail outlets.

For our hypothetical holiday dinner for 10 (including leftovers), this means that in total, the farms that produced the raw foods, from potatoes to pumpkins, made about eight dollars. That’s eight dollars total across all farms, which then must pay workers’ wages and cover operating costs. These margins can work for large-scale industrial farming operations, due in part to heavy reliance on and exploitation of undocumented agricultural workers, but the math doesn’t add up for most family farms and farm workers.

And despite the savings we enjoy as consumers, the reality is that the prevailing model of food production isn’t good for any of us—least of all rural farming communities.

Midsize farms and missed opportunities

Midsize family farms, generally defined by the USDA as those with a gross cash farm income between $350,000 and $1 million, have long been key drivers of rural economies. But since 2007, more than 56,000 midsize farms have disappeared from the American landscape—a trend that has had serious consequences for rural communities across the country.

These farms employ more people per acre than large industrial farms, and when they disappear, they take both farming and community jobs with them. Midsize farms are also more likely to purchase their inputs locally, keeping more money in the local economy. Research has shown that areas containing more midsize farms have lower unemployment rates, higher average household incomes, and greater socioeconomic stability than areas having larger farms.

Beyond their impact on local economies, midsize family-owned farms are more likely than large industrial farms to use more environmentally sustainable practices such as crop rotation and integrated livestock management, resulting in greater crop diversity. This, too, may have health implications: in a country in which about half of all available vegetables and legumes are either tomatoes or potatoes, with lettuce bringing home the bronze, it stands to reason that greater diversity in our food supply can only be a good thing.

So if midsize farms are so great… why are they disappearing, and what can we do to reverse the trend and revitalize rural farming communities?

Photo: US Department of Agriculture/public domain (BY CC0)

The Local Food and Regional Market Supply (Local FARMS) Act

Representatives Chellie Pingree (D-ME), Jeff Fortenberry (R-NE), and Sean Maloney (D-NY) and Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH) recently offered their answer with a set of proposed policies and programs they want included in the 2018 farm bill. The Local Food and Regional Market Supply (Local FARMS) Act of 2017 would make new investments in local and regional food systems, helping small and midsize farmers connect with more consumers. It would ease the way for institutions like schools to purchase locally produced food, and would make fresh, healthy foods more accessible and affordable for low-income families.

In short, the Local FARMS Act is a win-win for farmers and eaters.

Leveraging consumer demand for local and regional foods and the substantial economic opportunity provided to midsize farmers by institutional food purchasers, this bill shortens the distance between producer and consumer. That ensures that a greater share of the food dollar ends up in farmers’ pockets—and that more fresh, healthy foods get to the people that need them.

Some of the key programs and provisions include:

  • The new Agricultural Market Development Program, which streamlines and consolidates local food programs to provide a coordinated approach to strengthen regional food supply chains. This program includes:
  • A Food Safety Certification Cost-share Program that allows farmers to share the cost of obtaining food safety certifications, which are required by many institutional purchasers but often prove cost-prohibitive for small and midsize producers—many of whom already have good food safety practices in place.
  • An amendment to the Richard B. Russell National School Lunch Act that allows schools to use locale as a product specification when soliciting bids, making it easier to procure local foods.
  • A Harvesting Health Pilot authorizing a pilot produce prescription program that would enable healthcare providers to offer nutrition education and fresh fruit and vegetable coupons to low-income patients.

By providing the infrastructure and support needed to bridge critical gaps between local producers and consumers, the proposed policies and programs contained in the Local FARMS Act lay the groundwork for stronger regional food systems, more vibrant local economies, and a healthier food supply.

Let’s give thanks and get to it

Whatever table you might gather around this Thursday, in whosever company you might enjoy, save some gratitude for the folks who put the food on your plate. And when you’re done enjoying your meal, let’s get to work take a nap. And when you’re done taking a nap, let’s get to work. If we want a financially viable alternative to industrial food production systems, it’s up to all of us to use our voices, our votes, and our dollars to start investing in one.

The Local FARMS Act urgently needs co-sponsors from both sides of the aisle to demonstrate widespread support for smart, science-based food and farm solutions. Write to your legislators today and ask them to co-sponsor the Local FARMS Act. For updates, urgent actions, and breaking news at your fingertips, use your cell phone to text “food justice” to 662266.

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  • Charles Rotter

    Not a mention of how the estate tax is one of the main reasons for the loss of family farms.

    • Sarah Reinhardt

      Thanks for your comment, Charles. There is certainly a much broader discussion to be had about the root causes of the national decline in midsize family farms. While estate tax has a place in that conversation, the role it plays in the loss of family farms should be approached with some degree of circumspection. Due in part to exemptions, the threat that estate taxes pose to family farms has significantly diminished over the past several decades. The Joint Committee on Taxation reported that estate tax returns represented only one-fifth of one percent of deaths in 2013. This is not to say that some farmers haven’t been forced to sell acreage to pay estate taxes, or that these narratives aren’t important, but the data does suggest we look to other factors as drivers of family farm loss.

  • Michelle

    What about smaller farms, like the family farm that grosses under $350,000? Are those included in the bill?

    • Sarah Reinhardt

      Thanks for your question, Michelle. Yes, many of the provisions in the Local FARMS Act are designed to support both small and midsize farms.

  • Michelle

    What about smaller farms, like the family farm that grosses under $350,000? Are those included in the bill?