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Over the past 40 years, Americans have eaten more and more produce. Consumption of both fresh and processed fruits and vegetables reached 675 pounds per capita in 2009, an increase of more than 8% since 1976. In fresh produce alone, the growth was even greater: in 2009, the typical American ate 54% more fresh vegetables than in 1976, and 25% more fresh fruit. These gains are driven in part by increasing awareness of the health benefits of fruits and vegetables, as well as by policy that supports access to healthier food. Technological advances like cheaper transportation and better warehousing also have contributed to wider produce availability. But behind this encouraging tale, there’s a story of consolidation that is negatively impacting farmers, farm-workers, and the environment.

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Middlemen—including retailers, railroads, and warehousing companies—have long played an important role in transporting produce from the field to the plate. But over the last generation, changes in antitrust policy have allowed many of these middlemen to consolidate vastly more power than ever before. The market share of the top four frozen fruit and vegetable manufacturers, for instance, grew from 27% to 41% between 1982 and 2007. The top five processed tomato firms controlled around 80% of that market in 2009. Walmart, the largest food retailer in the world, alone is responsible for about 15% of national produce sales. The implications of this concentrated market power are wide-ranging.

For farmers, consolidation in the manufacturing sector has made it more difficult to find competitive markets. Farmers hoping to sell their crops to processors or to wholesalers often have only one or two options in their region, making them susceptible to predatory contract relationships with those companies. As in other farm sectors, contract relationships generally favor the interests of the corporation. The percentage of vegetables grown under contract has grown steadily over the past two decades; in 2008, about 40% of all vegetables nationwide were grown under contract. Farmers have seen a steady decline in pay for their crops as consolidation as decreased the number of available buyers. Advocates and farmers have pressured chains like Whole Foods to purchase locally to offset some of their disruptive effect on produce markets, but the relative impact of these efforts is small.

Workers are also being affected by our increased reliance on imports, rather than domestic investment, to meet our national appetite for produce. Since the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993, US consumption of imported fruits and vegetables has nearly doubled. The trade deal brought down prices for consumers, but carried consequences for our domestic industry. This rise in imports resulted in the shuttering of about 12% of California’s fruit and vegetable processing plants between 1992 and 2007. Fewer plants meant fewer jobs: between 1982 and 2007, the number of workers at California fruit and vegetable processing plants dropped from 27,000 to 18,000, a 33% decrease. And it also means fewer buyers for farmers’ crops.

Retailers, too, play a large role in dictating farmers’ income and consumers’ prices for produce. For instance, Walmart’s immense market share allows it to exercise enormous power over pricing and production. Whole agricultural markets rest upon Walmart’s contracts. Walmart’s emphasis on low prices squeezes its distributors, and in turn, the growers and farmworkers who fill those distributors’ orders. The real wages of workers in the fruit and vegetable manufacturing sector dropped by 32% between 1992 and 2007. Though consumers may see a lower price at the store, the costs of those savings are significant.

Large-scale produce growing in the United States was first realized with the rise of cultivation of farmland in California. In part facilitated by the sudden wealth of the gold rush, California saw rapid expansion of its agriculture industry throughout the mid- to late-1800s. Wealthy landholders held thousands and sometimes millions of acres of fertile farmland, which was used to grow grain for export in enormous quantities. At the turn of the century, a growing number of those landholders began subcontracting their land to specialty crop growers, often immigrants, many of whom specialized in fruit production. Those and other labor-intensive crops necessitated a seasonal source of cheap labor, with the result that California farmland was primed to be the site of racial and labor struggles in the coming decades. Today, California farmland is some of the most productive and intensively cultivated farmland in the country.

As the intensive, mono-cropping model first seen in California has made its way to other agricultural regions, farmers and consumers have started recognizing the negative impacts of industrial growing on the land and environment. Mono-cropping strips the soil of its nutrient balance, requiring additional inputs in the form of fertilizer and other chemical additives. Those chemical additives create a cycle of dependency, where farmers are reliant on chemical companies to ensure their crop yield. For more information on mono-cropping and the “pesticide treadmill,” see our page on GMOs & Seeds.

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