New Mexico grows amazing food. We should totally be eating it. And the Covid-19 crisis impacting large food processors makes it even more important.
But first, a quick ECON 101 primer (you’re welcome!): Supply and demand are inversely proportional. When one goes up, the other goes down. This relationship of supply and demand is what sets prices for labor, that is, wages. When unemployment is very low—as it has been in the past few years—employers must compete for the best available workers with higher wages and other compensation.
Here’s where economics gets fun: It’s essentially a made-up science based on human behavior and even greed. In labor markets human behavior can skew the point of intersection between labor supply and labor demand all over your graph paper.
To that point, agricultural workers, meat processors and food processors. In May 2020, the U.S. needs its food supply to remain stable in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic. In some cases, farmers must destroy crops or livestock because of the inability to process them. At the same time, unemployment claims reach new record levels every week. Why aren’t people signing up to harvest and process crops and livestock?
Worst. Rhetorical. Question. Ever. Americans don’t want those jobs. They haven’t for decades. Like other First World nations, we let immigrant labor perform the work our citizens don’t want to. And that’s an important, if polarizing, choice we have the freedom to make. In China, there is no problem with Chinese laborers staying on farms, because the government won’t let them leave.
About 80% of America’s food processing is performed by five huge companies. This industrialization, which really took off in the 1980s, has allowed America to not just feed itself, but the world. There have been massive increases in agricultural yields in this era. However, not unlike the big-box retail model, Big Food is focused on volume over quality. Products are grown for shipment durability and shelf life, not taste. To keep cost down and volume high, workers are largely unskilled, often undocumented, and compensated similarly.
But now, Covid-19 has shaken up Big Food, and quickly. I think food prices will continue to rise through the pandemic, if only because the mega-processors will have to pay more for labor to either operate with social distancing (fewer people per shift) or to get workers to even show up in the first place (even an undocumented immigrant worker will opt for personal safety at some point).
This could be a beneficial outcome to small producers. Narrowing the price gap between industrially produced food and locally produced food could result in more opportunities and growth for small farmers, ranchers and processors. And I think more choice in the food we eat is affordable for most. American household spending on food Is far lower than our neighbors in Canada and Mexico. According to the Farm Bureau we spend less than 5% of our disposable income of food consumed at home. Canadian homes spend almost 10% and Mexico nearly 20%. 2019 EU statistics show the average for European Union households is 12.8%.
Have you had Irish butter? It’s amazing and far superior to our U.S. supermarket brands. Irish and other European butters are not produced on anywhere close to the same industrial scale as those in this country. Grass-fed beef has a wonderful flavor, and I am a sucker for any beef processed in the kosher manner.
We are fortunate to live in an agricultural state during a crisis. It might not always be as easy as throwing a shrink-wrapped valu-pak of boneless, skinless chicken in your grocery cart, but we have some great options. Even in rural New Mexico, there are some specialty items no household does without. Everyone takes their chile seriously and has a favorite, whether the raw crop itself, or a local processor. Schwebach corn (in season), CSA delivery from Skarsgaard Farms, and amazing green chile sausage from Polk’s Folly Farm are readily available and affordable. Even better, NM Harvest CSA in Cedar Crest and the Cedar Crest Farmer’s Market offer double credit for customers using their SNAP/EBT benefits. That’s a great way to stretch your food dollar.
It may seem like I am at grasping at straws to find an opportunity in the hot mess that is 2020. I totally am. But do check out the New Mexico CowBelles for information on local beef. Every county has a Cooperative Extension Service Office with resources about local growers. Let’s eat better and support New Mexico agriculture.
Merritt Hamilton Allen is a PR executive and a former Navy officer. She lives amicably with her Democratic husband and Republican mother north of I-40 where they run two head of dog, and two of cat.