Marvin is a contract hog farmer in Iowa. He owns his land, his barn, his tractor, and his animal crates. He has seen profits drop steadily for the last twenty years and feels trapped. Josh is a dairy farmer on a cooperative in Massachusetts. He doesn’t own his cows, his land, his seed, or even all of his equipment. Josh has a healthy income and feels like he’s made it.
In The Food Sharing Revolution, Michael Carolan tells the stories of traditional producers like Marvin, who are being squeezed by big agribusiness, and entrepreneurs like Josh, who are bucking the corporate food system. The difference is Josh has eschewed the burdens of individual ownership and is tapping into the sharing economy.
Josh and many others are sharing tractors, seeds, kitchen space, their homes, and their cultures. They are business owners like Dorothy, who opened her bakery with the help of a no-interest, crowd-sourced loan. They are chefs like Camilla, who introduces diners to her native Colombian cuisine through peer-to-peer meal sharing. Their success is not only good for aspiring producers, but for everyone who wants an alternative to monocrops and processed foods.
The key to successful sharing, Carolan shows, is actually sharing. He warns that food, just like taxis or hotels, can be co-opted by moneyed interests. But when collaboration is genuine, the sharing economy can offer both producers and eaters freedom, even sovereignty. The result is a healthier, more sustainable, and more ethical way to eat.
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About the Author
Michael Carolan is a Professor of Sociology and Associate Dean for Research for the College of Liberal Arts at Colorado State University. He is the author of No One Eats Alone; The Real Cost of Cheap Food; The Sociology of Food and Agriculture; Reclaiming Food Security; and Cheaponomics: The High Cost of Low Prices, among other books. Dr. Carolan is co-editor for the Journal of Rural Studies and has published more than 150 peer-reviewed articles and chapters.
Read an Excerpt
A Nightmare Realized
Born and raised in Iowa, I spent many summers working for my dad. He was a high school science teacher and a house and barn painter over the summer. He painted, he would jokingly tell people, so he could afford to teach. He still paints, even after retiring from teaching. (He would probably tell you he now paints to afford retirement.) There was one guy — Marvin — who had us paint his farm buildings every six or seven years. He was one of those farmers: kept his field rows neat and tidy, mowed ditches between the road and his crops, string trimmed fence lines, and took pride in having well maintained buildings.
I had the opportunity to visit Marvin during a recent trip back to the Hawkeye State. From the road, everything on his farm looked as I remembered. The buildings were still immaculate. "That's one thing I can still control, when and what color they get painted," he told me. Judging by that quote, you might be able to guess that something was amiss with Marvin's operation.
"I didn't sign up for this," were the first words out of his mouth when I asked him how things were going. My earliest memories of Marvin date back to the early 1980s, when the farmhouse was new, furnished with the first VHS machine that I had ever seen. My sense at the time was that Marvin was rich. He wasn't, though he admitted during our recent visit that "times then were a lot better, a lot better."
Like many farmers, Marvin has seen his income steadily drop over the past decades. While average U.S. farm incomes have been eroding for generations, the rate of decline has picked up in recent years, falling 36 percent in 2015 and another 14.6 percent in 2016. Why Marvin has seen revenues drop is a complicated story.
When describing what he "didn't sign up for," Marvin talked about what it felt like to be on the losing side of both selling and buying power. His takeaway point: there is nothing free, or fair, about the markets that shuttle commodities through conventional foodscapes. Here's a guy who has realized the Jeffersonian dream. He owns most of the land that he cultivates; let's also not forget about those good looking farm buildings. And yet — well, let's just say be careful what you wish for.
Marvin is stuck between a rock and a hard place: the rock being the very small number of firms that supply seed, fertilizer, and pesticides to farmers and the hard place being the highly concentrated market of food processors, manufacturers, and retailers to whom farmers sell. (This phenomenon is not unique to America; figure 1.1 superimposes the conventional foodscapes of the United States and New Zealand.)
To see just how concentrated agricultural markets have become, take a look at a common measure: the four firm concentration ratio — or simply CR4. The CR4 is the sum of market share held by the top four firms in a given sector. A standard rule of thumb is that when the CR4 reaches 20 percent, a market is considered concentrated. Forty percent is highly concentrated. Anything past 60 percent indicates a significantly distorted market. As seen in figure 1.2, there's some serious distortion in the U.S. food market, with rice milling at 85 percent and sugar refining at 95 percent. The level of concentration varies by commodity — the genetically engineered seed market is about as free as markets in North Korea.
Farmers today are dealing with both horizontal and vertical concentration. The CR4 statistic is a measure of horizontal concentration, which refers to concentration at one "link" in the food commodity chain. Horizontal integration occurs when firms in the same industry and at the same stage of production merge and dominate a market. Vertical concentration, meanwhile, describes the situation in which a single company owns an entire supply chain, as when a meat processor owns the slaughter facilities, hog farms, cornfields, and veterinary services and the transportation to move commodities from one link to the next. This is the situation Marvin finds himself in.
After giving me a tour of his buildings, Marvin plopped down on an old teeter-totter picnic table. (You know the type: one side lifts off the ground unless the weight is evenly distributed across both sides.) We were situated between a new farrowing house and an old but well maintained Quonset hut. With sows squealing in the background, Marvin took a long, deep breath and exhaled. The air rushed between his teeth and made a protracted whistling sound, giving him time to think, either about the actual answer or about the one he wanted to give me. I had inquired about how the business was holding out. Marvin is a proud person. The pause was likely born of reluctance, of his not wanting to risk coming across as complaining about the hand life has dealt him, even to a friend.
It did not come out immediately, but he eventually admitted to feeling "powerless," adding, "The farm is mine, but at the same time it isn't, if that makes sense."
Some of Marvin's angst lay in having made the transition, about ten years back, to contract farming. Before that, he was "a freelance producer of food." Back then, he raised hogs and delivered them to whichever regional market was offering the best spot price on that day — doing what you might think all farmers do in order to sell their wares, if you didn't know better. Things generally don't work like that anymore.
Farming is all about timing, especially in livestock agriculture. Animals need to be sold the moment they reach optimum weight. To wait — to hold out, say, for a better price — is to waste resources (i.e., feed, space) that could be used for fatting up the next herd, litter, flock, brood, or clutch. Dairy producers need to have their bulk tank emptied daily, sometimes every couple of hours. When faced with these realities, farmers cannot hold out for a better price without severely undermining the economics of their operation, to say nothing of their animals' welfare.
Because the market is so concentrated, meat processors have the power to lowball farmers. They know that the Marvins of the world cannot go looking to distant markets for a better price, not when the commodity in question might spoil or even die in the process. Shipping live animals over long distances increases rates of animal mortality. Even if the trip does not kill them, they will almost certainly suffer from what's rather coolly known, given that we're talking about live animals, as "carcass shrinkage."
It was not long before Marvin told me about the terms of his contract. But before we could get far into the subject, one of his hired hands pulled alongside with a tractor to hook up to the Gehl Mix Mill that rested behind me. There is a lot to be said about tractors. But if I had to choose between the smell of hog manure and the smell of diesel exhaust, I would take manure every time. Between the noise and odor, Marvin and I agreed with a look and a nod to get up and walk toward the house.
With the racket receding and the sweet, nutty smell of manure once again filling our noses, Marvin returned to the subject of his contracts. With a dry laugh, he called them "the bane of my existence."
Remember, this is someone who appears to be living the Jeffersonian dream. Marvin again: "I own 1,090 acres and rent another 400, which is more than I owned back when times were good. All the buildings, mine too." At $7,633 per acre, the average price of Iowa farmland in 2016 (though Marvin's land is definitely above average), his landholdings total more than $8.3 million. He has also invested more than $1.5 million in various facilities to raise his hogs.
Wait. Calling them his hogs isn't quite right because, technically, they're not.
"From the outside, I could see someone thinking that it's a pretty equitable arrangement. Hell, I thought that way at first." Marvin's contract was structured a lot like the hundreds of others that I have been shown. The farmer supplies all the labor, land, and buildings, "Though," Marvin was quick to add, "the facilities need to be built to very specific specifications, which means they can't be easily repurposed for something else." Meanwhile, the buyer supplies everything else: vet services, feed, transportation, and animals.
Marvin proceeded to tell me about the tens of thousands of dollars' worth of new gestation crates that he was recently required to buy. Gestation crates, also known as sow stalls, are metal enclosures — Marvin's were roughly six and half feet long by two feet wide — for female breeding pigs. They are usually found only in more intensive hog operations. The expense was made even more difficult to swallow in Marvin's case, as the old crates "worked perfectly fine; they were just too large." He explained that the change was made to "cram more sows into the farrowing barn."
We could debate the welfare implications of this switch, not that I think there is much to debate. Cramming sows into even smaller spaces is a step backward, on multiple levels. This investment also made it exponentially harder for him to rethink his business model, especially if the alternative involved producing something else. You cannot really do much with gestation crates outside of hog production.
As we discussed his contract, an old saying kept coming to mind: the devil lies in the details. And those details in Marvin's case were devilish. In negotiating his contract, Marvin never really had a chance. Processors have their pick of farmers. Meanwhile, farmers are lucky to have more than one buyer to select from. Farmers in these situations lack exit power, the power to walk away from the negotiating table, which means they lack leverage, making them price takers rather than negotiators. In Marvin's case, his contract is structured in such a way that he is "getting less" than what he "used to receive back when there were a couple buyers to choose from," like back when he was envied by an eight-year-old for his VHS player and twenty-inch-plus television.
I asked Marvin why he accepted such an arrangement. Having known him for more than thirty-five years, I felt comfortable taking the direct approach. His eyes immediately fixed upon his hands, almost as if he did not want to look me in the eye. Then, sheepishly, he answered, "I know; stupid, right? Yeah, I knew I wasn't going to be making as much. But at least I knew I had a long-term contract. Beggars can't be choosers."
There you have it: market concentration makes beggars out of farmers.
I am not suggesting that processors are bad people. They are taking full advantage of the fact that farmers in these situations need their business. That dependence also increases over time, which was Marvin's point when telling me about how his buildings were "built to very specific specifications, which means they can't be easily repurposed for something else."
Think back to those gestation crates — cages that have trapped Marvin every bit as much as his sows. When you invest $1 million into a facility with a thirty-year life and no practical alternative use, you suddenly have a million new reasons to renew your contract and a million reasons for overlooking how unfairly structured it is.
As if things couldn't get worse ...
On October 17, 2017, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced that it was withdrawing the Farmer Fair Practices Rules — or the Grain Inspection, Packers, and Stockyards Administration (GIPSA) rules, as they're more commonly known. The move was essentially the government giving the middle finger to farmers such as Marvin.
Marvin's life would not have changed all that much had the rules been allowed to go into effect. But these Obama-era rules would have made it a little easier for livestock farmers to sue processors or meat-packers over unfair treatment by updating language in the Packers and Stockyards Act of 1921. Farmers currently have little legal recourse to all the unfair treatment described here. Marvin's buyers could tell him to build any sort of structure they want, no matter how outrageous. Noncompliance could be grounds for breach of contract and would certainly jeopardize contract extension.
Right now, and for the foreseeable future — thanks, USDA — Marvin would need to prove "competitive injury" if he wanted to take his buyers to court: a legal bar that would have been lowered considerably had the rule gone into effect. In practical terms, this means he would need to prove that a company's actions against him harmed competition throughout the entire industry. This burden of proof is as irrational as it is insurmountable. It is like saying that if punched, you would have to prove that the assault harmed all of society in order to claim punitive damages from your assailant.
Farmers deserve better.
* * *
I met Jack during a thunderstorm, which seemed to portend the discussion that followed. Over coffee and cinnamon rolls, and between cracks of thunder, Jack told me a harrowing story.
A few years back, on a night not unlike the one unfolding beyond the dry confines of his house, Jack had heard a knock on his door. Answering it, he discovered two gentlemen. Claiming to be surveying area farmers on behalf of the state's land grant university, they asked him a few questions. (They didn't show credentials, and Jack didn't ask to see them, midwestern hospitality norms being what they are.) The men were interested in the seed he had planted in recent seasons, the herbicides he had used, and where he had taken his crops after harvest. Then, as quickly as they had appeared, the men thanked him for his time and turned back into the rain, never to be seen by Jack again.
It took six days, and some sleuthing on his part, to discover their true identities. Turns out they'd been asking questions around town about him. These visitors were investigators for Monsanto, an agrochemical and agricultural biotechnology company.
Parts of Jack's story sounded like something right out of the Jack Reacher series by Lee Child: clandestine agents lurking in his fields trying to obtain unauthorized seed samples, and Jack, never far from his shotgun while doing chores — purely for intimidation, he assured me. I could not verify that anyone actually trespassed, though I did see two large RedHead gun safes in Jack's machine shed, right next to a reloading bench with a shotgun shell press.
Monsanto does not inspect all the farms using its products. The company's pockets are deep, but not that deep. Typically, it works from information gleaned from its tip line. The company strongly encourages farmers to report neighbors they suspect of using its seed unlawfully — generally anytime Monsanto's seed is saved and replanted.
We are talking about seed the farmers bought. Seed that will produce new seed, which farmers will then harvest, with their own sweat and equipment. Seed they will then take to a grain elevator to sell, presumably because it's theirs. Right?
Farmers effectively sign away their ownership rights the moment they buy most commercial seed. Remember what I said earlier about the devil being in the details of contracts. Seed use agreements are devilishly detailed. All farmers using Monsanto's products must sign a Monsanto Technology/Stewardship Agreement, wherein they agree to a list of stipulations. To quote directly from one such agreement dated a few years back, users agree to things such as these:
"To use Seed containing Monsanto Technologies solely for planting a single commercial crop;
"Not to save any crop produced from Seed for planting and not to supply Seed produced from Seed to anyone for planting other than to a Monsanto licensed seed company;
"Not to save or clean any crop produced from Seed for planting and not to supply Seed produced from Seed;
"Not to transfer any Seed containing patented Monsanto Technologies to any other person or entity for planting;
"To use on Roundup Ready crops only labeled Roundup agricultural herbicides or other authorized non-selective herbicide which could not be used in the absence of the Roundup Ready gene. [Farmers here are being told what herbicide to use. No surprise; it's owned by Monsanto too.]
"To allow Monsanto to examine and copy any records and receipts that could be relevant to Grower's performance of this Agreement."
Note the openness of this language: records and receipts that could be relevant to the agreement. This essentially gives Monsanto access to any and all paperwork linked to a farmer's business.
There is one additional stipulation in the agreement worth highlighting. Located in the section titled "Grower Receives from Monsanto Company," farmers are said to receive "a limited use license to purchase and plant seed containing Monsanto Technologies ('Seed') and apply Roundup agricultural herbicides and other authorized non-selective herbicides over the top of Roundup Ready crops."
Jack swore that he did not violate any of the agreement's terms. And yet, he settled out of court. When asked why, all he could initially muster, a whole octave higher than his normal speaking voice, was, "Me take on Monsanto — are you nuts?" What the actual terms of his settlement were, he would not say. Settling sealed his secrecy on the specifics, thanks to a nondisclosure agreement written by Monsanto attorneys.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Food Sharing Revolution"
Copyright © 2018 Michael S. Carolan.
Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Aknowledgments Introduction: Ownership through Sharing Chapter 1. A Nightmare Realized Chapter 2. When Sharing Is Illegal Chapter 3. The Promise of Access Chapter 4. Social Trade-offs Chapter 5. Putting Shared Technologies to Work Chapter 6. Overcoming Barriers Chapter 7. Walls Make Terrible Neighbors Chapter 8. From Pricks to Partners Chapter 9. Food Sovereignty Notes Index