My home community is located in the Northwest corner of Michigan’s lower peninsula. For those of you who know the area I live about 20 minutes north of Traverse City, in Suttons Bay. The area has two major claims to fame – tourism and cherries. Each year, Northern Michigan welcomes several million visitors as one of the top vacation destinations in the Midwest. Every summer, the region’s cherry farms produce a crop so prodigious that Traverse City can easily lay claim to the title of Cherry Capital of the World. These two industries drive the local economy and every summer the National Cherry Festival brings the two together for a huge tourist extravaganza designed to highlight our local crop. For more than 75 years the National Cherry Festival has served as a celebration of the relationship between local farmers’ harvests and our tradition as a tourist hotspot.
But that relationship is fading. In an attempt to attract more tourists, the festival has been moved forward from its traditional August time, when the cherry crop had been harvested and farmers had reason to celebrate, to the more lucrative Fourth of July weekend. Since the shift was made about 10 years ago, the Festival has grown in size to become one of the largest in the country. However, moving the Festival forward entailed a sacrifice. By July 4, our local cherries are still green on the trees. But a festival designed to celebrate cherries requires cherries. In order to satisfy these demands, Traverse City ships in cherries from Washington and Oregon. Our local festival designed to promote our local crop has completely abandoned our local farmer. It’s a somewhat humorous anecdote that would otherwise be rather meaningless if it didn’t also serve as but one example of a trend towards abandoning local small farmers.
Across the country small farms have been failing since the Grapes of Wrath. You can’t make a living as a farmer anymore. Every year more and more farms in Northwest Lower Michigan are parceled off and sold to real estate developers. Every year farmers get deeper and deeper in debt. Farms aren’t passed on to the next of kin anymore, they are abandoned and left for subdivisions.
The small farm is dying and that’s a bad thing. Just like small businesses and mom and pop stores, small farms provide something that can’t be replaced by big box stores and factory farms. Contrary to popular belief, small farms haven’t been made obsolete by better methods of food production.
From an outsider’s standpoint centralized food production seems to make sense. Giant farms have economies of scale and can provide huge amounts of cheap food. It’s tempting to say that the age of the small farmer is over. It’s easy to say small farmers represent a slowly dying traditional way of life that should be phased out like horse-drawn buggies and rotary telephones.
But it’s simply not true. Centralized food production is only cheaper because oil prices are kept artificially low in this country, allowing food to be shipped around the country at practically no cost. Small farmers don’t see a penny of the billions in farm subsidies that go out to huge agricultural businesses like ConAgra and Ore-Ida. No one factors in the negative externalities of a disproportionate increased pollution and pesticide use that monocultures and sprawling 10,000 acre factory farms require. Small farmers aren’t to blame for the 400-square-mile dead zone at the mouth of the Mississippi river where the run-off from our nation’s breadbasket disgorges its bile.
It’s more than just the cost. Small farmers are tied to the land. They breathe the air and taste the soil. They are the real stewards of our food; our neighbors that provide for us. Unlike modern agri-businesses that are headquartered in New York City, small farmers live on their land and produce quality food that they are proud to eat.
The determination and hard work that defines the small farmer has been glorified in our national conscience. That spirit that allows farmers to plant again after a failed crop seems unbreakable. But I fear that spirit is failing.
Watch the eyes of a farmer when the price of cherries hovers around four cents a pound when he needs about 17 cents per pound in order to break even. Watch the eyes of a farmer who dumped 100,000 pound of cherries on the ground, knowing it’s the only way to reduce supply and ensure a decent price on the market. Watch the eyes of a farmer forced to sell half of the farm that has been in his family for four generations so that he can pay the bills. I’ve seen it. It’s happened to too many farmers that I know. And now it’s happening to the farm I worked on every summer in high school. Our small farms are dying, soon they will be dead and it breaks my heart.
Jess Piskor can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.