Unsaleable Crops, Subsidies, and Food Deserts

Among the many charming Google Alerts I maintain to torment myself with when the regular headlines just aren’t enough is one on crops destroyed after they’re unsaleable. Not unsaleable because they are contaminated or diseased and they are not safe to eat, but unsaleable because the price the farmer can get at market is too low to justify harvesting and transporting them; the crop will not pay for itself, and thus is plowed under rather than being sent to market, where the farmer would take a loss.

Farmers maintain crop insurance for events like this and will receive some compensation for this kind of crop loss. What they won’t receive is compensation if they send a crop to market anyway, even knowing that they cannot sell it without taking a loss. Which means that when prices for foods drop through the floor, farmers destroy their crops, the supply becomes limited, and the price rises again in response, allowing for a fresh round of the process.

Meanwhile, perfectly edible food is destroyed. This should not be understated; it happened perhaps most shockingly last year with the strawberry crop in Florida, but this isn’t the only crop, or the only place, where this has happened. It is devastating and frustrating for farmers, and it’s also bad for communities. Farmers can’t even try to sell their crops at a local market at cost in the hopes of getting them into bellies; they are forced to destroy them, and sometimes even post guards to prevent members of the community from trying to take crops slated for destruction.

This is clearly patently ridiculous, and points to one of the many problems with the structure of the agricultural system in the United States. In a world where food subsidies drive down the prices of major crops like wheat and soy while broccoli and tomatoes can still experience soaring prices, farmers plow crops into the ground in response to unexpected financial problems. And people go hungry; those who do not actively go hungry may live in food deserts where they have trouble accessing those same fresh fruits and vegetables that are being plowed under in other parts of the country.

Thinking about situations like these does cause a body to wonder if perhaps there’s a solution that would meet the needs of all parties. Something, perhaps, like only offering crop insurance if crop destruction is absolutely necessary, to encourage farmers to bring crops to market, and insuring instead the loss of profits, or providing an actually useful government farm subsidy to cover the difference between cost of production, harvest, and transport and the actual sale cost. Perhaps even actively encouraging farmers to send these ‘unsaleable’ crops to community markets in food deserts that have trouble getting fresh food supplies.

In the city, it’s possible to find a number of tiered fruit and vegetable markets. Some have top of the line, first grade produce. The next tier down has produce deemed unsaleable because of spots, size variations, and other cosmetic problems. It’s perfectly good, there’s nothing wrong with it, it has the same nutritional value, it just can’t be sold at the big markets because it isn’t pretty enough. And at the bottom tier, the markets with the more marginal produce, close to expiration date, to be eaten with care, but not necessarily harmful.

This system unfortunately doesn’t get produce into food deserts because there’s a poor mechanism for distribution, but the lower tier markets do tend to cluster near food deserts, where there’s a larger potential client base, and the system illustrates the demand for produce. There really is a market for everything. And there is most certainly a place within this schematic for crops that declined so precipitously in value that they cannot be sold without taking a loss. There is no reason to force farmers to take a loss just in the interest of public service, but by the same token, there’s also no good reason to plow food into the ground to rot.

If a mechanism for connecting farmers with unsaleable crops and communities with no fresh produce could be made available, it could be a win-win for everyone. No farmer wants to plow crops under rather than harvesting them and getting them into the bellies of people who want to eat them. No one living in a food desert wants to have limited access to fresh fruits and vegetables, and would be absolutely delighted if a neighbourhood store carried them; pilot programs in a number of low income communities have shown, for example, that parcels of chopped fruits and vegetables at corner stores tend to be a big hit.

It makes me wonder about the possibility of a community-based distribution infrastructure to bridge the gap, since commercial distributors apparently don’t see any need to service low-income communities. With the added incentive of government subsidies and other assistance, it might be possible to get over the hump that is keeping food out of places where it needs to go. And, of course, the removal of ludicrously oversized crop subsidies for the big three[1. Corn, wheat, soy.] would probably make a substantial difference in terms of leveling food prices and bringing the farming industry back on an even keel.

These subsidies primarily benefit the large corporations, those same companies involved at other steps of the food distribution system who refuse to make products available to the poor communities that need them. Faced with actual incentives, perhaps even a mandate, to change the food distribution system in the United States, maybe we would see actual change, and the occasional strawberry priced out of saleability on the shelves at the 7-11.