SUTTONS BAY —

Mira Levitan

Jim Nugent is an easy man to like. His
broad smile and loud, contagious laugh are only overshadowed by his
lively blue eyes and his insightful mind. Seated in his warm rural
farmhouse he sits and sips tea, talking about agriculture.
Somewhere in his 50s, Nugent and his wife, Toddy Rieger, own 76
acres of prime cherry orchards. Farming is in their blood and their
passion for and knowledge of the subject is immediately
apparent.

Discussing the economic pressures small farmers face the
conversation quickly turns to free trade agreements like the
proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas and what it means for
small farmers.

“Northwest Lower Michigan is the best place in the world
to grow tart cherries, there is no place better suited,”
explains Nugent, whose second job (most farmers these days need two
jobs to stay farming) is working with the regional agricultural
research extension office. He tells me that acre for acre, no place
on Earth can produce more high-quality cherries than the
area’s rolling hills and sandy soils.

Nugent doesn’t fear any other U.S. region out competing
the local cherry industry. And currently he shouldn’t: The
Grand Traverse region produces about 50 percent of the
world’s supply of tart cherries. However, what really worries
Nugent is competition from countries that exploit labor and the
environment for short-term profit and U.S. trade policies that
encourage this behavior.

“In the short run it might be more efficient to grow
cherries elsewhere, but only if you define efficiency very
narrowly,” Rieger says. It might be cheaper at first blush,
but that ignores the real costs of pollution, soil degradation and
worker exploitation in foreign countries, not to mention the
irreplaceable potential loss of small farms and the associated open
space in the United States. Nugent says, “Right now maybe
some (foreign nations) can maybe grow fruit cheaper, but look at
what it does to their land and to their people.”

Hardly an isolationist, Nugent seems upset not that other
countries might out-compete U.S. farms, but that it is such an
exploitative process. Rieger sums it up this way, “They are
destroying their land to feed us.”

For example, farmers in China “compete” with U.S.
small farmers by not accounting for the negative externality of
pollution, by unfairly paying their workers an exploitative wage,
by permanently depleting fertile land, by benefiting from the
artificially cheap price of fuel for cargo ships and semi-trucks,
by profiting from the free good of the U.S. interstate highway
system and by selling to monopolistic chain supermarkets that
refuse to deal with local farmers.

U.S. farmers pay at least minimum wage and use environmentally
sound policies to limit chemical use and maintain soil health and
cannot compete with countries that pay workers less than 25 cents a
day and farm property until it is dead and then move on to the next
field. It is no wonder why fruit from China and other nations is
cheaper.

Free trade agreements with these nations make it hard, if not
illegal, to regulate these abuses. Attempts to even out the playing
field with tariffs or subsidies are consistently denied and as a
result, nations with deplorable labor and environmental records can
undercut farmers that behave ethically.

In Michigan, free trade agreements cut the bottom out of both
the apple and asparagus markets in the last decade. Once two of
Michigan’s most important export crops, now suburban
development is springing up where golden delicious apples once grew
as farmers sell land to pay off increasing debt. This suburban
growth — unlike small farms — uses up more tax dollars
than it provides, depleting township coffers and clogging
roads.

Damaging farming practices, tacitly encouraged by free trade
agreements, have led to irrevocable loss of fertile land. Delegates
are meeting in Miami this weekend to work to ratify the FTAA. As it
stands today, the FTAA would unite 34 nations in a free trade
agreement, eliminating tariffs, but with no significant labor and
environmental protections. Protesters will go as well, to demand
— among other things — that agriculture is preserved
forever.

Nugent explains that, “We need policies that will produce
food not just today, but in the next generation. We are going to
need farms 500 years from now, and to get that, we need sound
policies today.”

Otherwise, all that will remain will be barren, dead polluted
fields where third world farms used to grow, and sprawling suburban
development where U.S. orchards once fed the world.

Piskor can be reached at
“mailto:jpiskor@umich.edu”>jpiskor@umich.edu.

 

 

 

 

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