The Cost of Progress

What Should a Tomato Cost?

A farmer’s essay on the real price of modern farm technology

By Mike Madison

Take the example of processing tomatoes, an important crop in our area. The farmer prepares the soil, plants the crop, irrigates it, fertilizes it, protects it from pests and diseases, manages the weeds, harvests it, and trucks it to the cannery, and at the cannery gate he is paid the astoundingly low price of three and a half cents per pound. A suite of features is necessary for this to be profitable: intensive application of capital, extreme technologies, large scale (1,000 acres or more), heavy use of chemicals and fossil fuels, and extreme biological simplicity (kill everything except the crop).

The artisanal farmer with her scant capital and small acreage cannot possibly compete in this market. And so she grows heirloom tomatoes, a labor-intensive crop requiring staking and pruning and hand weeding, leading to a delicious but fragile product. She may enhance the value of her crop by growing organically and by establishing close personal relationships with her customers at the farmers’ market or CSA, where her competence and probity are appreciated. Her tomatoes fetch $3.50 per pound, one hundred times the price of the processing tomatoes.

These two approaches—the industrial and the artisanal—have co-existed for decades, but it is clear that industrial agriculture is ever in the ascendency, while the beleaguered artisanal farmer struggles to hang on. She is limited to the few remaining labor-intensive crops: flowers, berries, soft fruits, a few
specialty vegetables.

A tomato-transplanting machine sets out seedlings at a rate of 24,000 plants per hour. Two workers follow to straighten any crooked plants. A group of these machines will plant a field of 160 acres (1.4 million tomato plants) in a day.

I recently had a conversation with an engineer who was enthusing about the robotic tractor he was working on. “The technology already is here,” he said. “Computers and drones. Soon you’ll be able to do all of your farming from your computer,” as if that were a good thing. Farming from a computer strikes me as a particularly dismal form of alienation. But if the robots can bring heirloom tomatoes to market for 50 cents a pound, where does that leave the artisanal farmer? And this raises a question: Should we always use the most extreme
technology available?

There is a fine precedent for rejecting advanced technologies. During the Great Depression, the WPA had a dual mandate of building useful public works—schools, courthouses, public restrooms, hiking trails—and employing as many people as possible. So if a trench was to be dug for the footing of a new schoolhouse, instead of bringing in a backhoe and finishing the trench in a day, the contractor would hire ten men with shovels and wheelbarrows and the job would take two weeks. The trench ended up the same, but the WPA approach provided meaningful work to unemployed men.

It seems to me that fruit and vegetable farming could supply some of the same social virtues that the WPA projects did by rejecting extreme technologies in favor of simple ones. Despite government claims of full employment, there are many who cannot find work, particularly those who lack specialized training. Why not give them jobs, especially along the urban fringe, on farms that embrace simple technologies? Why reject the humans in favor of the robots?

The answer to that last question is all about price. Even if workers are paid only minimum wage, the artisanal produce will be more expensive. We might ask: How it is that industrially produced food is so cheap? The official answer is efficient technologies, but the true answer is subsidies. There are direct subsidies—price supports, federal crop insurance; semi-direct subsidies—publicly funded irrigation projects, government farm advisors, researchers at land-grant universities; and most insidious, the hidden subsidies. The principal one of these is the underpricing of energy according to the federal formula of the last 80 years: cheap energy, cheap food. The true costs of energy are not included in its price: environmental pollution of many kinds, damage to aquifers from fracking, bad foreign policies, expensive military adventures in oil-rich countries, damage to public health, tax breaks to oil companies, and climate change, to name a few. Industrial agriculture is energy-intensive, and cheap energy is a requirement for cheap food. Additional hidden subsidies of industrial farming include uncompensated destruction of soils, overdrafting of aquifers, and damage to environmental and public health from pesticides. These are costs that are not reflected in the low prices of industrial food.

The artisanal farmer, with her reliance on human labor and her thoughtful treatment of the land under her care, is denied these subsidies. And so she suffers a disadvantage in the marketplace. Moreover, when she offers paid work to otherwise unemployed people, she is performing a public good, which is uncompensated.

It is instructive to look at the situation in Europe, where energy is expensive, food is expensive, and direct government subsidies are extended to artisanal farmers as well as industrial ones. Under those conditions, the artisanal farms prosper. We could do that here, too, but opposition would be deeply entrenched. ♦

Mike Madison lives with his wife, Dianne, in Winters, California, where they operate a diverse organic farm, growing olives, apricots, citrus, melons, and a variety of cut flowers. He has authored many essays on farming in California as well as the books Fruitful Labor, Blithe Tomato, and Walking the Flatlands.