2000s Archive

The Price Is Right

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Even so, it’s not clear that doing away with marketing orders—at least where produce is concerned—will necessarily help small farmers, either. In fact, many defenders of local farming—like the Minnesota-based Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy—are also for production controls and, in some cases, price supports. Like the New Dealers, some small-farm advocates believe that individual competition is a recipe not for innovation and productivity, but rather for destruction. The trick, perhaps, would be to craft a federal farm policy that actually helped family and local farms without also offering a giveaway to agribusiness. If there is a way of doing this, the government hasn’t found it yet. (And the agribusiness lobby will no doubt make sure it never does.)

Of course, there is one answer to the perils of competition that doesn’t require any government help, and that is for farmers to grow a crop that isn’t like everything else on the market. In the case of tomatoes, for instance, even as the Florida and Sinaloan farmers were fighting over the vine-ripe market, other farmers were cultivating cluster tomatoes and greenhouse tomatoes, which both sell at a much higher price than vine-ripened ones. Farmers markets place a premium on freshness and quality, and their numbers grew 63 percent between 1994 and 2000. Today, organic crops are the fastest-growing segment of the entire agriculture business.

Relative to the size of U.S. agriculture as a whole, these are all small innovations. But they do suggest that the choice between overproduction and low prices on the one hand and government assistance on the other is sometimes a false choice. Sometimes, it seems, farmers can thrive even without the help of marketing orders or tariffs or price supports. Sometimes, quality really does pay.

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