The Milk House is fortunate to be able share a piece from Irish farmer and blogger DJ McAuliffe, who expresses some of the frustrations of being victimized by the retail market and the ultimate cost of cheap food.
Cheap food is something that we see advertised a lot in supermarkets nowadays. Signs like “Buy One Get One Free”, “25% Extra Free”, or Two–for-One offers are abundant, but at the end of the day who do you think pays for this?Is it the supermarkets who are making millions in profit every year or the processors, who also seem to be making a good profit every year?(Yes, some smaller processes have gone out of business in the past, but not nearly as many as the primary producers).
Farmers across the world are going broke every year, and many small family farms are struggling with bank debt on money they have borrowed to try to keep their farm viable. Most businesspeople would run a mile if they saw the return on investment that a farm enterprise makes, so you might wonder why farmers do it.
That’s a hard question to answer and I think it comes down to more than one explanation. Farmers are a resilient breed and to most farming is about so much more than the money. It is more about a way of life. It’s about their property and the soil and their forefathers before them that worked the land through the good times and the bad and came through their own hardships and struggles to provide for their families.
Of course, they might do a lot better investing their time and money into something else, but farming is what they know and love and what they were taught from a young age. They grew up around tractors or farm animals and wondered when the day would come that they would take over the running of the farm from their parents.
It is seen as a badge of honour or an unspoken code, like in some neighbourhoods where people refuse to do certain things or report others to the police even if they have to take the blame for something themselves. A lot of farmers will refuse to sell up and walk away from the family farm even when it is a loss-making enterprise.
There is a sense of pride in what they do and in what their parents and grandparents have done for them. To some it would be almost sacrilegious to walk away from the farm, and even when they can’t possibly make a profit from it they will stubbornly carry on with a dogged determination to stick it out to the bitter end in the hope of turning things around.
On top of this there is also the fear of failure and what their neighbours and family will think when they lose everything. Knowing that the banks may sell their property and home if they give up and admit defeat quite often leads them to borrow even more money when markets are bad in the hope that they can ride out the storm and come out the other side and hopefully someday get back into profit again.
The farmer is like a gambler with all his chips on the table looking for one last roll of the dice in order to turn his fortune around and get back on top again. Unfortunately, the retailers know this and are, in a way, like a casino owner who has the game rigged and giving the gambler just enough to keep them playing, and so what if some lose everything along the way?
This leads to the human cost of it all. It is difficult to think about the number of farmers around the world that have gone out of business and the mental health issues from the pressure of trying to just break even while the companies that now control our food industry become bigger and richer every year.
This happens every day all around the world, whether its someone growing coffee beans in a third world country of producing milk in a first world country— the price they are paid varies somewhere between above or below the cost of production. Whether the farmers make a profit, or a loss all depends on what the retailers that they are selling to are willing to pay.
You could be forgiven for thinking it is a free market and people fail in business all the time, but if you look at the amount of farmers have gone out of business over the last thirty of forty years and the growth of food supermarkets it starts to form a picture. I am not talking of the small corner shop, but the big supermarket chains that has put the smaller shops out of business too. When did you hear of any of these large retail supermarkets going out of business?
Cloths shops might close but never a chain of food stores. This is because they control the market and pay as little as possible for the food product they are buying. In turn, they can sell it on at a lower price than anybody else and put the smaller family owned shops out of business until eventually the have all the competition wiped out and have complete control of the market.
When you see farmers dumping milk on the fields while other people are hungry on the streets it should be a clear indication that something is wrong in society. You may not be concerned about what some farmers are protesting about or why you will never see the retailers protesting, but I once heard a saying that evil only triumphs when good men do nothing.
Supporting smaller shops and buying fair trade products will only do so much to help. People should really try to make their voice heard that they want family farms to get a fair price for the food that they produce because if someone doesn’t shout stop at some point in the future, all that will be left are some few very large farms and some very large supermarkets that will control everything that we eat and if we reach that point they can charge whatever they want to for food. This is the real price of cheap food and special offers and something to think about the next time you visit the food store.
Read more from DJ at his blog Blackfield Farm.