In the supermarket, thank a farmer

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It’s hard to write about anything around the holidays that doesn’t focus on food. The bounty on our tables at this time of year is worth anticipating and savoring (especially if you’re talking about my mother’s date nut pudding).

Harvesttime is the one time of the year when the average consumer might give the people who raise their food a passing thought, perhaps a quick thought of thanks.

The biggest contribution agriculture makes to the U.S. economy and society, however, isn’t the availability or abundance of food in this country, although that contribution is a mighty one.

I would rather salute farmers across this country because they have put more dollars in your pocket.

Consumers should be particularly thankful for food prices this Thanksgiving. Even in the wake of this summer’s drought and resulting lower production of many farm goods, retail food prices are rising less this year than other consumer prices.

The American Farm Bureau annual survey of the cost of a traditional Thanksgiving turkey dinner for a family of 10 found that this year’s feast dipped slightly from last year’s cost to $34.56, or about $3.50 per person.

Money talks. In 1930, families and individuals spent more than 24 percent of their disposable personal income on food. A quarter out of every dollar went to put food on your table.

Ten years later, in 1940, that cost had dropped to 20.7 percent. See, you already saved a nickel.

Food expenditures wavered in that next decade, falling to 18.4 percent of disposable income, but by 1950, food expenses rose back to 20.5 percent.

Since then, however, your pockets have been lined with even more steady savings.

The average food expenses in 1960 were 17.5 percent of disposable income; in 1970, 13.8 percent. In 1980, you spent only 13.2 percent on food, and in 1990, only 11.6 percent. Ten years later, in 2000, food purchases totaled only 10.1 percent of your disposable income.

The dollars you saved on food made it easier for you to buy homes or cars, DVD players or Nikes. Agriculture’s role as an economic driver is immense.

Good news. Looking ahead, the USDA predicts that food prices will increase at a rate below the general inflation rate for the next decade.

The Consumer Price Index for food is expected to grown an average of 2.1 percent annually through 2011, compared to the 2.5 percent average increase expected in the index for all items.

As the American Farm Bureau reminds us, “in sharp contrast to the 39 days it takes the average American to pay for his or her food, it took Americans more than 120 days to pay their federal, state and local taxes last year.”

Of course, from the farmer’s perspective, news about food prices is bittersweet – positive because it highlights a producer’s contributions, negative because so little of the retail food dollar filters back to the farm.

The USDA reported in March that the farm value of consumers’ expenditures for farm food was only 19 percent. The other chunk, 81 percent, is attributed to marketing and processing.

It is no accident that National Farm-City observances are celebrated during this harvest season of November. The link is stronger than we recognize. Farmers need consumers and consumers need farmers. It is a relationship to nurture and to be thankful for.

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