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Challenges and Opportunities

Supply chain bottlenecks and shortages are realities that growers face

By Jeff Arnold, Farm Manager

Farm Manager Jeff Arnold takes a walk through garlic fields.

Walking down the farm road one March evening, it’s hard to believe that these fields are beginning to wake up from their winter sleep. The ground still clings to patches of snow on field edges, and the only green my eye can find are the pines on the ridge to the west. But spring is near, and the excitement on the farm is palpable. Crop plans have been fine-tuned, supplies stocked, backs rested, and the first warm days of early spring are welcoming in a sense of hopeful anticipation for the forthcoming growing season. While hopefulness today is something to be cherished, for many farmers in our country, this hope is being overshadowed by a convoluted food system that has become only further entangled by the challenges of our current times.

Part of this, unsurprisingly, is related to the ongoing supply chain bottlenecks that have been plaguing many businesses since the start of the pandemic. While some of the supply shortages we saw last year, seeds, for example, seem to have been worked out and there is ample availability, other items, tractor computers, and certain organic soil amendments, for instance, have become much more difficult to obtain. In many cases, farmers are ordering tractors a year or more in advance and are still unsure when something will eventually arrive. At the Farm Hub, we have had to find new avenues to acquire the high-quality compost that is one of our most important soil amendments, as our two main suppliers are both experiencing their own logistical challenges this year. While the supply chains slowly seem to be flowing and farmers have been able to pivot to other products to make their operations run, these challenges have forced many farmers to rework business plans entirely.

A bigger problem that has been worsening as the pandemic stretches on, and has now been exacerbated by recent events in eastern Europe, is the sharp rise in costs being experienced by farmers on nearly all fronts. Everything from soil amendments and equipment to fuel and transportation costs has been hit with unprecedented price hikes. In some cases, as seen with many conventional fertilizers, prices have more than doubled in the past year. Similarly, transportation and trucking costs, which farmers rely heavily upon to both move their own products and also receive supplies, have been steadily rising for the past two years. They are now nearly 40% higher and still climbing, compared to pre-pandemic levels. The list goes on and these cost increases have not been balanced by increased farm revenue.

These problems are of course not unique to farming right now as nearly all business sectors have been directly impacted in some way by similar challenges. But in an industry that has long operated within a dysfunctional economic system, rapidly rising production costs and logistical hurdles are especially perilous. The industrialized subsidy-based agriculture model that is used to set food prices has hidden the true cost of food and, as a result, many farmers have been living on the brink of financial peril since long before the pandemic. And today, when we see our grocery bill increasing at the check-out line, we cannot assume that farmers are seeing any of the extra dollars being spent. Food prices are not set by farmers and there is not a correlation between increased prices at the grocery store and increased farmer profit. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), a mere 15 cents of every retail dollar spent on food goes back into the farmer’s pocket. 

The economics of the situation is only one thread in a very tangled web that has also been woven strongly with social and environmental inequities. But if there is a silver lining to the events of the past several years, it is that many of the systemic weaknesses that were quietly lurking out of view have now been illuminated. We have had a glimpse of what it may mean if supply chains fully collapse, and an opportunity to change course lies before us. Fixing the food system before it fails will not be easy, and may require nothing short of a complete restructuring if we hope to leave our children with any semblance of a functional system.

Supporting local farms 
It is often said that farmers are price takers, not price makers, beholden to the forces of the market. This school of thought has never served anyone – not farmers nor consumers nor the land upon which agriculture depends, and it has perpetuated a model that drives down food prices far below what it costs to run a successful farm business. But communities are in no way bound to this mode of operation. While so much in the world feels out of our control right now, including dismantling a food system that has been centuries in the making, there is one simple act that we can all participate in that will, in fact, put the mechanisms controlling the food we eat back into the hands of local communities. And that is supporting local farms, local food producers, and regional supply chain models. Whether it be a CSA, farmers market, or a grocery store that sources mainly local food products, by diverting some of our grocery budgets in this direction we are immediately strengthening the local economy so that it can better withstand the challenges we are sure to face in the years ahead. A strong local food system does not just help farmers by giving them a fair price for their products, it protects all members of a community by ensuring a dependable source of nutritious food for generations to come, during good times and challenging times alike.

Walking down the farm road, I see that the garlic that was planted in October is being coaxed from its winter slumber and is pushing up through the ground. It, too, I imagine is feeling hopeful. Although this happens every year, on the cusp of winter and spring, it always seems as though something impossible is about to happen. We may yet see another snow and there is no doubt that recent events will reverberate far into the future, but outside and away from it all on this March evening, the smell of thawed earth and the songs of the spring peepers paint a more promising picture, that maybe something impossible is about to happen.

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