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SRMAC covers water, potatoes

Posted: Thursday, Feb 14th, 2013

New Holland tractors of all different sizes were outside Ski-Hi Park during the Ag Conference, along with John Deere, Caterpillar, and other brands of farm equipment.

MONTE VISTA —Keynote Speaker Ken Meter spoke about sharing and cooperation between farmers at the Southern Rocky Mountain Agricultural and Trade Fair Wednesday, Feb. 6.

The discussion fit with the conference theme of “Farming Under Times of Stress,” as he examined the relationships between farmers, ranchers, food processors and consumers.

President of Crossroads Resource Center, Minneapolis, Minn., Meter is one of the most experienced food systems analysts in the United States, and has 41 years experience in inner-city and rural community capacity building. He told the crowd about imperfections in today’s system of raising and distributing food, and how in local operations, strongly focused distributors and marketers could better serve both consumers and the original growers.

Meter told the audience that the government-mandated and top-down methods of food distribution are not healthy or even maintainable for Americans or the world. Two factors working against the present methods are U.S. obesity rates, which have exploded upward since 1976 through the use of sweeteners and the fact that agricultural, inflation adjusted, income now is no greater than it was during the first full year of the Depression.

Levels of human population growth will require farmers to produce more food even though resources are going to be the same or fewer than today, Meter told the audience. Resources include the space available for farming, weather influenced by climate trends, increasing medical costs with aging and increased obesity taken into account. Given today’s sweetener consumption level, “Medical costs of obesity are $174 billion a year,” Meter said.

The Crossroads Response and Meter’s advice is to restore or create cooperation between producers and consumers. “We’re losing our sense of food community,” he said. People do not seem to know much about food they eat, where it is grown or how much it cost if nothing else in transportation to reach their table. To summarize, Meter said, “Local foods may be the best path for rebuilding our economy,” but cautioned, “Local may be shorthand for niche markets.”

He cited an example in the Appalachian Community Enterprise Network based in the southeastern Ohio town of Athens. “Allowing low-income people not to just accept handouts,” but take compensated parts in the packaging and distribution of food. Snowville Creamery a West Virginia dairy plant founded a few years ago by Warren Taylor wholesales to Jeni Britton Bauer’s Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams. She told Meter, “Our growth is based on Snowville’s growth,” her firm sells in the Cincinnati area.

Meter has been encouraged by recent trends. Crossroads efforts and input have encouraged Direct Food Sales, and showed a United States map with an increasing number of blue-colored marked areas defined as “Sectors of people selling in higher proportions to their own local population,” than simply growing and processing a food and sending it hundreds or thousands of miles away.

“Farmers in Montezuma County earn basically the same as they did in 1969, with the dollar now being worth one-sixth of what it was then,” but “1.2 percent of what farmers sell go directly to consumers, three times the national average.” He said, “A lot of farmers depend on someone working off the farm,” to allow their operations to stay in existence, “Sixty-six percent of all farms in Montezuma County reported a net loss in 2007.”

The answer, according to Meter, is more local focus in production and consumption. “Using local inputs would reduce those costs.” And, the ultimately, the final buyer should not forget their role:  “If a region’s consumers bought $5 a week in food products from local farmers each week, the differences would be huge.”

To end the presentation, Meter answered a concern from local geologist and resident of Rio Grande County, Charles Spielman. Would the low population density here be an obstacle, “will that block things like you’ve have talked about from happening here?”

Meter did not give an all-encompassing answer, but he did say, “Make it efficient to trade locally, rather than shipping virtually all the production away.”

Meter’s speech was co-sponsored by Farm Credit of Southern Colorado. He serves as a consultant to the USDA, EPA, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, and several universities. He also managed the grant review panel for USDA Community Food Projects Competitive Grants Program. He serves as a contributing editor to the Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Communtiy Development, he has taught the “Economic History of U.S. Agriculture” at the University of Minnesota and graduate-level Microeconomics at the Harvard Kennedy School.

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