FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

The Tale of the Onion

by P. SAINATH

“My onions are big, aren’t they?” Chris Pawelski asked our group of visitors at his farm 60 miles from New York City. “Any idea why?”

Because of consumer demand, we wondered? Perhaps bigger bulbs caught the customer’s eye better? “Nope,” said Pawelski, a fourth-generation farmer whose family arrived from Poland in 1903 and has worked this land for over a century. “The size is set by the retail chain stores. They dictate almost everything.”

That “almost everything” includes prices. While the Walmarts, Shop Rites and other chain stores sell his kind of onions for $1.49 to $1.89 a pound, Pawelski himself gets no more than 17 cents. And that’s an improvement. Between 1983 and 2010, the average price he got stayed around 12 cents a pound.

“All our input costs rose,” he points out. “Fertiliser, pesticide, just about everything went up. Except the price we got.” Which was about $6 a 50-pound bag. Retail prices though, soared in the same period. Distances are not the cause. The same chains sell cheap imports from Peru and China, driving down prices. And have branches not far from this farm in Goshen, Orange County, New York state.

“Anyone does any cooking?” he asked. A few hesitant hands went up. Pawelski held up the onion. “They want this size because they know you won’t use more than half of one of these in cooking a meal. And you’ll throw away the other half. The more you waste, the more you’ll buy.” The stores know this. So wastage is a strategy, not a by-product.

“For yellow onions,” says Pawelski, “we either grade on a 2 inch or 2/ inch standard. There are exceptions, but those are the norms. The re-packers dictate to us the sizes, which are in turn dictated to them by the chains. S*** rolls downhill, as it were …. Three decades ago our size standard was 1/ths inch.” Small farmers don’t get to bargain with Walmart. A huge pile of rotting onions — those that didn’t meet chain store norms — sits besides his fields.

Qualifying as one

Pawelski’s qualifies as a “small farm.” Which, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) tells us, is one with a “gross cash farm income (GCFI) of less than $250,000” a year. Which makes 91 per cent of U.S. farms “small.” About 60 per cent have a GCFI of less than $10,000. Pawelski, his father and brother jointly plant about a hundred acres. Of these, they own 60 and rent 40.

It’s not just the chain stores, however, that work against this exuberant and proud small farmer. Floods, hail and Hurricane Irene, have all claimed a toll. In 2009, he suffered crop losses of $1,150,000 but received just $6,000 from crop insurance. Far less than the $10,000 he had shelled out as premium. The losses drove the farm, which rests on some of the most fertile “muck soil” in the country, into debt.

Issue of labour

The whole agrarian structure and policy — transformed in these past decades — works against small family farms. The Pawelskis lived well for years off the fine farm they built. Chris himself went to college and has a Master’s in Communication Studies. His great-grandfather arrived in the United States with five dollars in his pocket. The great grandson is over $320,000 in debt. The entire edifice of U.S. agriculture is geared towards serving the corporate sector, not small family farms.

His wife being an assistant librarian in the school system helps. “She works to support my farming habit.” His brother, too, lives off non-farm income. His parents collect social security. Last year, he spent $1,60,000 and earned $2,000,000 on his 50 acres in the farm. “On that $40,000, I pay taxes.” The leaves him little to re-invest. The farm is pocked with old barns, aging tractors and trucks flogged off by the army.

Normally, he has four seasonal farm workers. “Three have left this year and I’m down to one guy.” The lack of labour hits harder as small farms take on more land on rent hoping to achieve economies of scale.

It’s an all-immigrant labour force now. “In the 1950s, it was mostly African-Americans,” says Pawelski. “In the 1970s it was Puerto Ricans. Now it’s mostly Guatemalans.” Some of them could be illegal. Checking that out is not within the farmer’s purview, though. “We follow all the laws we have to.”

Pawelski is a battler who has taken his cause to Capitol Hill. “I go maybe three times a year,” he says. And he’s met maybe “20-30 Congressmen and 10-12 Senators,” building up some selling skills in the process. Perhaps the Master’s in Communication helped. But he’s hopelessly outgunned. Large corporations spend hundreds of millions of dollars on lobbying to ensure agriculture remains their captive. A lot of that gets spent when the “Farm Bill” comes up every five years.

AP investigation

An Associated Press (AP) investigation in 2001 showed where the (public) money goes. Even if structured differently since then, the grip of the corporate world and the very rich remains firm. As AP’s scrutiny of over 22 million USDA cheques showed: “63 per cent of the money went to the top 10 per cent of recipients…”

Among those struggling farmsteads receiving huge sums of money were “at least 20 Fortune 500 companies.” Also billionaires like David Rockefeller (with a farm in the same Hudson Valley where Pawelski lives). Others getting farm subsidies that year included media mogul Ted Turner and basketball star Scottie Pippen. And prison farms got a cut, too.

“All I want to do is make a living,” Pawelski testified before Congress during one of his forays there. “I’m not trying to be an Elmer Fudd-type millionaire (the grumpy character in the Looney Tunes/Bugs Bunny comics).” He’s in no danger of being Elmer Fudd, for sure. And his free spirit is much closer to that of Bugs. The question is whether the next generation on this century-old farm can make a living off it. You don’t want to know the answer.

P. SAINATH is the rural affairs editor of The Hindu, where this piece appears, and is the author of Everybody Loves a Good Drought. Sainath is presently in the US teaching for the (Fall) semester. He can be reached at: Sainath@princeton.edu.

P. SAINATH is the rural affairs editor of The Hindu, and is the author of Everybody Loves a Good Drought. He can be reached at: psainath@mtnl.net.in

More articles by:
June 30, 2016
Richard Moser
Clinton and Trump, Fear and Fascism
Pepe Escobar
The Three Harpies are Back!
Ramzy Baroud
Searching for a ‘Responsible Adult’: ‘Is Brexit Good for Israel?’
Dave Lindorff
What is Bernie Up To?
Thomas Barker
Saving Labour From Blairism: the Dangers of Confining the Debate to Existing Members
Jan Oberg
Why is NATO So Irrational Today?
John Stauber
The Debate We Need: Gary Johnson vs Jill Stein
Steve Horn
Obama Administration Approved Over 1,500 Offshore Fracking Permits
Rob Hager
Supreme Court Legalizes Influence Peddling: McDonnell v. United States
Norman Pollack
Economic Nationalism vs. Globalization: Janus-Faced Monopoly Capital
Binoy Kampmark
Railroaded by the Supreme Court: the US Problem with Immigration
Howard Lisnoff
Of Kiddie Crusades and Disregarding the First Amendment in a Public Space
Vijay Prashad
Economic Liberalization Ignores India’s Rural Misery
Caroline Hurley
We Are All Syrians
June 29, 2016
Diana Johnstone
European Unification Divides Europeans: How Forcing People Together Tears Them Apart
Andrew Smolski
To My Less-Evilism Haters: A Rejoinder to Halle and Chomsky
Jeffrey St. Clair
Noam Chomsky, John Halle and a Confederacy of Lampreys: a Note on Lesser Evil Voting
David Rosen
Birth-Control Wars: Two Centuries of Struggle
Sheldon Richman
Brexit: What Kind of Dependence Now?
Yves Engler
“Canadian” Corporate Capitalism
Lawrence Davidson
Return to the Gilded Age: Paul Ryan’s Deregulated Dystopia
Priti Gulati Cox
All That Glitters is Feardom: Whatever Happens, Don’t Blame Jill Stein
Franklin Lamb
About the Accusation that Syrian and Russian Troops are Looting Palmyra
Binoy Kampmark
Texas, Abortion and the US Supreme Court
Anhvinh Doanvo
Justice Thomas’s Abortion Dissent Tolerates Discrimination
Victor Grossman
Brexit Pro and Con: the View From Germany
Manuel E. Yepe
Brazil: the Southern Giant Will Have to Fight
Rivera Sun
The Nonviolent History of American Independence
Adjoa Agyeiwaa
Is Western Aid Destroying Nigeria’s Future?
Jesse Jackson
What Clinton Should Learn From Brexit
Mel Gurtov
Is Brexit the End of the World?
June 28, 2016
Jonathan Cook
The Neoliberal Prison: Brexit Hysteria and the Liberal Mind
Paul Street
Bernie, Bakken, and Electoral Delusion: Letting Rich Guys Ruin Iowa and the World
Anthony DiMaggio
Fatally Flawed: the Bi-Partisan Travesty of American Health Care Reform
Mike King
The “Free State of Jones” in Trump’s America: Freedom Beyond White Imagination
Antonis Vradis
Stop Shedding Tears for the EU Monster: Brexit, the View From the Peloponnese
Omar Kassem
The End of the Atlantic Project: Slamming the Brakes on the Neoliberal Order
Binoy Kampmark
Brexit and the Neoliberal Revolt Against Jeremy Corbyn
Doug Johnson Hatlem
Alabama Democratic Primary Proves New York Times’ Nate Cohn Wrong about Exit Polling
Ruth Hopkins
Save Bear Butte: Mecca of the Lakota
Celestino Gusmao
Time to End Impunity for Suharto’’s Crimes in Indonesia and Timor-Leste
Thomas Knapp
SCOTUS: Amply Serving Law Enforcement’s Interests versus Society’s
Manuel E. Yepe
Capitalism is the Opposite of Democracy
Winslow Myers
Up Against the Wall
Chris Ernesto
Bernie’s “Political Revolution” = Vote for Clinton and the Neocons
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail