As county changes, we need to support farmers

August 08, 2006|by JEFF SEMLER

Have you ever wondered what the true cost of cheap food is? Yes, I said cheap food. Here in the U.S. we have a cheap food policy which allows the populace to spend the least amount of their disposable income on food.

It takes the average American about six weeks to earn enough money to buy their groceries for the entire year. On the other hand, depending on whose figures you use, it takes four to five months to earn enough to pay your taxes.

Yes, there has been a recent rise in food prices but that has been due to the increase in transportation costs, not an increase in farm gate receipts. The true cost of cheap food is the way it has changed our communities and our culture.

This light came on for me during a recent trip to Manitoba. Manitoba is just north of Minnesota and North Dakota. It is known as the bread basket of Canada and it is no wonder. As far as the eye can see in the Red River Valley of the province is a sea of wheat, barley, oats, canola and sunflowers.


In talking with some of the locals, I discovered a 5,000-acre farm would be considered on the small side. As a result of this shift from small land holdings to large blocks, the landscape is being markedly changed.

No, the fields look no different; what looks different is the towns. Small town Manitoba is disappearing. Because it takes less people to till the soil, there are less people to support local businesses. Small prairie towns that would have had three restaurants, two gas stations, several churches, a school and other small businesses are reduced to a church and a gas station at best.

The loss of community is the biggest loss in central Canada and many places in our Midwest as well. As my thoughts turned to home, I realized the same thing is happening.

No, our small towns aren't disappearing. At least the physical place isn't but much of the character is changing. Small businesses are closing and being replaced by big box stores in population centers. Agriculture support services are consolidating to regional centers. So what was at one time a short drive for parts has turned into a long drive or a long distance call and a visit by a package delivery service days later.

I was sharing these thoughts with a local farmer and we agreed that the folks who are moving to the area for the ambiance are going to wake up one morning in the suburbs.

He related that one of his sweet corn customers had mentioned just this change. The gentleman said he and his family had moved to the county 15 years ago to escape Montgomery County and its urban sprawl, now he sees many of the same things happening here.

At this point, I related a statement that I had heard some time ago. The definition of a preservationist is the guy who built his house last year. This is a very common sentiment, "I am here so let's restrict development." Oh if it were only that easy.

I wish I had the answer, I don't. However, we do need to preserve some of what's left of our county's rural character. If we want to keep farmers on the farm, we need to make farming profitable. That means we need to support local growers as much as possible.

It also means we may need to be willing to spend a few more dollars on food but again on a more local basis. We are trying to keep farmers here, not supporting multi-national companies. Before anyone jumps to conclusions, corporations are not the evil empire but they do get the largest share of your food dollar. On average, less than 20 percent of your food dollar makes its way back to the farm.

What then should we do? I say support responsible development, buy local and thank a farmer. They provide food but also open space, vistas and fresh air.

Jeff Semler is an Extension educator, specializing in agriculture and natural resources, for the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension. He is based in Washington County. He can be reached weekdays by telephone at 301-791-1404, ext. 25, or by e-mail at

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