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Paarlberg Says Farm Subsidies Don't Give Us Cheap Junk Food. I Disagree.

by: Jill Richardson

Tue Apr 05, 2011 at 16:36:16 PM PDT


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Robert "I Heart Monsanto" Paarlberg is at it again, with a new column called "The Inconvenient Truth About Cheap Food and Obesity: It's Not Farm Subsidies. First off, what's inconvenient about that? It'd be downright GREAT if the subsidies weren't our problem, given how dang hard it is to convince Congress to change them. Paarlberg says:

Any complaint that food prices are too low might seem bizarre today, since world grain prices hit their highest levels in 30 years in 2008 and are now back up again. Yet this did not stop columnist Mark Bittman from reminding his New York Times readers that the price we pay for corn, soy, chicken, pork, beef, and high-fructose corn syrup is "unjustifiably low" because of farm subsidies.

Nothing could be farther from the truth. Our federal farm programs are designed to supplement the income of farmers, not subsidize the production of food. Most federal farm support programs either give cash to farmers whether they grow more crops or not, or boost farm income by raising crop prices through import restrictions, market controls, or temporary land set-asides, all of which make food artificially expensive, not artificially cheap.

Much of what he says is true. This is typical of Paarlberg, to blend truth and BS seamlessly. Yes, commodity prices are at record highs, and they were in 2008 too. Prior to that, however, they were often quite low (years back, corn got down around $2/bushel... now it's up around $7/bushel). If Paarlberg had consulted researcher Timothy Wise of Tufts University, he would have received data proving that our subsidy system more or less provided savings of billions of dollars to the factory farm industry in the form of underpriced commodities over a recent period.

Jill Richardson :: Paarlberg Says Farm Subsidies Don't Give Us Cheap Junk Food. I Disagree.
As Paarlberg mentions, our subsidies consist of "direct payments" (money farmers get whether they need it or not, based on historic production), conservation programs (mostly programs that pay farmers to set aside marginal, environmentally sensitive land), and, in rare cases, import quotas. (Paarlberg's next paragraph after the ones I quoted is about our sugar quota system which keeps sugar prices artificially high. But that is a system that is ONLY for sugar, not for any other crop. It's a poor example since it's the exception and not the rule.)

As for the direct payments, since those are based on historic production, there is still an incentive for max yield and max production, it's just a less immediate one because you'll receive the benefits from it later. It depends on which years the USDA bases your direct payments on, and if they allow you to change which years they use to tabulate your payments.

But there are two subsidies Paarlberg fails to mention. First, there are the subsidies that are EXACTLY what Michael Pollan wrote about, that DO allow our food to be artificially cheap and DO encourage overproduction. Obviously, with high prices like we have now, farmers aren't receiving these. But that doesn't mean they never will again. Prices go up and down over time. Next time they go down, this subsidy will be there, encouraging farmers to grow as much corn, soy, and wheat, as they possibly can.

Second, there's crop insurance. Nobody calls this a subsidy. It's kind of the dirty little secret of agriculture right now. I like to defer to ag policy genius Daryll Ray on this one. He says:

We grew up at a time when the only kind of crop insurance available was hail insurance. In deciding on the purchase of this insurance, farmers decided on the chance that they would be hailed out against the cost of the premium. Farmers also had, and still have, of course, access to hail, wind, and fire insurance on their buildings and liability on their property...

These companies stayed away from insuring risks that were systemic, that is, risks that could affect all or a large share of their policy holders in a given year. Risks like these include crop prices and yield. If there were a drought, it is likely that it would affect most of the farmers in the county or even in the state or broader sections of the country. As a result, for a private insurance company to insure yield, the premiums would typically have to be higher than most farmers would be willing to pay.

The same is even more true for price because experience shows that crop agriculture has experienced long troughs of low prices punctuated by price bubbles and that-in contrast to hail-all farmers experience the price declines. There is virtually no way that insurance companies could build up large enough reserves to pay costs that could run into the billions of dollars for four or more years at a time.

Got that? Historically, insurance companies did not insure farmers against low yield or low prices because that would be stupid and unprofitable. Unless the insurance companies charged insanely high premiums. Now enter the government.

The WTO says that we can't have market-distorting subsidies so our government is trying to get away from our traditional subsidy system. So they essentially outsourced - privatized - their subsidies. The government now subsidizes crop insurance, which farmers can choose to buy (or not) but it seems like a good many - if not most - buy it. If you don't buy crop insurance, you're ineligible for any disaster relief from the government, should you need it.

Now, when your field floods and you lose your crop, or when prices drop so low you are losing money, the insurance pays you back. Daryll Ray says:

Second, farmers in higher risk areas began to plant crops like corn. Without the insurance subsidy, the production of corn in a number of marginal areas was too risky, so farmers planted crops or pastures more appropriate for the area. With crop insurance they couldn't lose. If the crop survived, they had the more valuable corn to sell. If the crop failed, they could collect crop insurance. As a result, they had a guaranteed income that was higher than they would have with traditional crops for that area.

In other words, crop insurance - which is a bad deal for taxpayers - encourages farmers to grow more corn and soy. Even with the high prices we see now, the extra corn and soy they will grow will lower the prices from what they would have otherwise been.

Farmers are also kicking and screaming to get out of the conservation programs they are in because they want to grow corn and soy on their conservation lands as well. You sign up for a long period of time, like a decade, when you enroll in a conservation program in which you set aside environmentally sensitive land. Often that is land where the yields would not be great anyway, and in years with low prices, it wouldn't be profitable for the farmers to plant there. But with today's high prices, the farmers could make a killing, even if they don't get great yields.

Where I agree with Paarlberg (and it hurts me to say that) is that subsidies are not the ONLY thing that makes junk cheap. First of all, the cost of our food is a small percentage of what we pay for when we buy food. We pay for the commodities - corn, soy, etc - but we're also paying for advertising, packaging, grocery store slotting fees, corporate overhead, and stuff like that.

Second of all, part of the price has to do with perishability. The processed foods made with commodities can sit on the shelves forever. Fresh fruits and veg can't. Built into the prices of fresh fruits and vegetables are the refrigeration and the quick transportation required to get them from the field to the grocery store before they rot. Additionally, you pay for the percent of fruit and veg that DOES rot, that the grocery store throws away. That's not part of the price when you buy a bag of chips.

Another thing: the lack of environmental, animal welfare, and health regulations on both commodity farmers and factory farms contributes to the low cost of junk food. Meat was once a luxury. When you produce it sustainably, it's expensive. The factors that allow it to be cheap are 1) artificially cheap commodities and 2) allowing the farms to treat their animals poorly, drug them even when they aren't sick to promote growth and prevent disease, and dispose of manure irresponsibly. If you changed all of that, McDonald's wouldn't be so cheap, and people wouldn't be able to eat it so often. Maybe then it would be cheaper to eat a salad.

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ethanol tariff (4.00 / 2)
Corn prices are propped up by high tariffs on imported ethanol. Not the same as a sugar quota, I'm only pointing out that sugar is not the only special case.

true (4.00 / 2)
I did think about ethanol, and there are federal supports for that, which makes corn prices higher. Some 40% of U.S. corn goes to ethanol now.

"I can understand someone from Iowa promoting corn and soy, but we are not feeding the world, we are feeding animals and soft drink companies." - Jim Goodman

[ Parent ]
however, I should add (4.00 / 2)
the ethanol boom is VERY recent. Just like the high prices are recent. So historically, in the period of time when Americans got fatter, ethanol wasn't a major factor. And I think obesity has actually decreased in the past few years. Just slightly. Not sure if higher prices are why. I know in CA there was a ban on soda in school vending machines in the past several years and that really cut back the amt of soda the kids here drink.

"I can understand someone from Iowa promoting corn and soy, but we are not feeding the world, we are feeding animals and soft drink companies." - Jim Goodman

[ Parent ]
obesity still increasing? (0.00 / 0)
Adult Obesity

In 2009, about 2.4 million more adults were obese than in 2007.

More States Reach 30 Percent Obesity Rate

New data shows that nine states had an obesity rate of 30 percent or higher in 2009. In comparison, no state had an obesity rate of 30 percent or more in 2000, and only three states reached the 30 percent mark in 2007.



[ Parent ]
California (0.00 / 0)
but I didn't check the California stats.

[ Parent ]
California (0.00 / 0)
California was 24.8% obese in 2009, up from the 15-19% category in 2002.

[ Parent ]
childhood obesity (0.00 / 0)
Childhood Overweight and Obesity

Between 1999-2000 and 2007-2008 there was no significant trend in obesity prevalence.



[ Parent ]
other factors (4.00 / 2)
subsidies are not the ONLY thing that makes junk cheap

True, but I missed the point of what follows. You aren't implying that slotting fees, ads, etc. make food cheap, are you?


No I'm saying that commodity prices (4.00 / 2)
make up very little of packaged food prices because most of the price is paying for other things, like packaging and advertising. Very little goes to the farmer. That's one reason why we don't see the major price increases that the rest of the world is suffering from now.

"I can understand someone from Iowa promoting corn and soy, but we are not feeding the world, we are feeding animals and soft drink companies." - Jim Goodman

[ Parent ]
perishability (4.00 / 2)
part of the price has to do with perishability

True, but why did you choose to compare processed commodity foods with fresh fruit and veggies? I prefer fresh fruit and vegetables, but just from the perspective of improving national dietary habits (and school meals), I don't really care whether the fruit and vegetables are fresh, frozen, or canned.


very true (4.00 / 2)
only fresh fruit & veg have that problem.

"I can understand someone from Iowa promoting corn and soy, but we are not feeding the world, we are feeding animals and soft drink companies." - Jim Goodman

[ Parent ]
price comparisons fruits, veggies, grains (0.00 / 0)
One way to compare fruit, vegetable and commodity prices is to use parity.  You can get prices and parity prices for these individual items in USDA's Agricultural Statistics, chapter 9, "Farm Resources, Income and Expenses," in the table on "Farm Product Prices."  It's available online back to the 1994 issue, or in government documents sections of libraries going back farther.  You can then compute percent of parity, (price divided by parity  price) for each crop. I have some of the data going back at least into the 1940s, but I couldn't lay my hands on it today.  I did, however, find Dad's copy of the 1974 edition, and compared some storable commodities, and some fruits and vegetables, and found that between 1972 & 1973 VS. 2006 & 2007 an average (of the average parity percentages) for corn, 2 kinds of cotton, wheat, rice and soybeans was a 55 percentage point drop, while the fruits and vegetables (fresh pears, peaches, oranges, green peppers, cabbage, carrots, tomatoes plus processing pears, peaches, green peas, tomatoes, sweet corn) fell about 1/3 (33 percentage points) for the fruits and vegetables.  With more data from better years, (ie. 1950 vs. 2000?) and a focus on the main fruits and vegetables more meaningful results could be obtained.

You might also check out Scott Marlow's 2nd video in his farm bill series, on perishability, http://www.youtube.com/user/Fi...

"We're trying to warn this nation of a tidal wave ..., and it's coming your way, whether you want to know it or not...!"  female family farm activist in Iowa warning against agribusiness, Donahue Show, 1985


[ Parent ]
congressional ag subsidies (4.00 / 2)
Below the linked article, in a section titled "More Good Stuff", is a link with an interesting headline.

Since 1995, GOP Congresspeople Have Received More Than $5 Million in Farm Subsidies

I read the headline and immediately asked "So what? How much did Democrats receive?" Sure enough, that's the interesting part.

Put together by the Environmental Working Group, a research and advocacy nonprofit, the data shows that 23 Members of Congress, or their family members, have received nearly $6 million dollars in federal farm support payments over the past 15 years. And, as you might expect, there is a sharp political divide among the recipients:

Among the members of the 112th Congress who collect payments from USDA are six Democrats and 17 Republicans. The disparity between the parties is even greater in terms of dollar amounts: $489,856 went to Democrats, but more than 10 times as much, $5,334,565, to Republicans.

In fact, I did not expect that political divide, although EWG points out that it is partly because so many Dems left the House in the last election.

Something that whizzes right by interesting to downright stupefying is that 90.3% of the Dem slice of the pie went to one person - Senator Jon Tester.

Most recipients are in the House.

(The author of the linked article found the pie chart via M. Bittman.)


honestly (4.00 / 2)
it doesn't bother me at all if Tester's getting govt $. He's an organic farmer. It's not like he own lands but has no relation to what is growing on it.

"I can understand someone from Iowa promoting corn and soy, but we are not feeding the world, we are feeding animals and soft drink companies." - Jim Goodman

[ Parent ]
yes but (4.00 / 2)
it shows how miniscule is the share received by other Dems, less than $50,000. Granted, the Dem number would be larger if Blanche Lincoln were still there, but doesn't that surprise you?

[ Parent ]
Senate Ag Committee (4.00 / 2)
Of all the Democrats on Senate Ag, only one received USDA payments - Michael Bennet's wife received about $20,000 1995-2009.

I don't know what to make of this. It just seems odd.

Max Baucus is not listed as receiving USDA payments, and I think that's justifiable. He might well be interested in having his brother's farm (ranch) do well, but I do believe it is his brother's and Max does not have an ownership interest.


[ Parent ]
How much does it matter? (4.00 / 3)
Jill, is there any data, or has anyone done an analysis of how much all these subsidies affect price? I remember when the price of food spiked a couple years back, someone was able to do an analysis of how much ethanol production contributed to the mess, and it ended up being like 4%. If we are going to fight bad subsidies, we need to know not just that they matter, but how much they matter to the consumer price. Thanks!

good call (4.00 / 2)
I'd say that the subsidy fight should be based more on their impact on farmers, both here and abroad, as well as their impact on supply, price, and environmental impact (i.e. do they encourage irresponsible planting practices are farmers kill themselves to grow as much as possible?), so it's not just price.

As for ethanol... there were conflicting reports on that. Some found that it had a huge impact on price, and some said it had a minor impact on price. The jury is still out there. Speculation has also been a recent factor in price and that might really be what's to blame for high prices.

"I can understand someone from Iowa promoting corn and soy, but we are not feeding the world, we are feeding animals and soft drink companies." - Jim Goodman


[ Parent ]
commodity markets (4.00 / 2)
Jill, I was thinking about something related to this today. Not about government market manipulation specifically, but about commodity markets generally. How do they work? I asked Brad Wilson to write a diary about this a few months ago. He didn't and neither did anyone else, so I'm as woefully ignorant now as I was then. It seems to me, though, that we need to know more about the skeleton of the beast before we flesh out the picture with discussions about quotas, tariffs, and government payments.

What fractions of corn, wheat, and soybeans are subject to pre-planting contracts? What fractions of those crops are pre-committed to ADM, Cargill, Tyson, ethanol plants, etc.? What fraction of those crops are planted with seeds bought from a supplier whose contracts specify to whom the harvested crop must be sold (here I wonder about Monsanto and Cargill)? How and when are sales prices under pre-planting contracts determined? Are sales prices in such contracts the exchange price at harvest time? Does the exchange price at harvest time determine what farmers receive for a very large proportion of the crops, or a lesser fraction? Do farmers receive the exchange price or only a fraction of it? Do grain elevators play a role in determining the prices received by farmers?

Many questions, no answers. If you know of a good primer on the subject, please share.


[ Parent ]
you know I don't know well (4.00 / 2)
very good questions.

"I can understand someone from Iowa promoting corn and soy, but we are not feeding the world, we are feeding animals and soft drink companies." - Jim Goodman

[ Parent ]
commodity price examples (4.00 / 1)
US corn reserves expected to fall to 15-year low

Fri Apr 8, 2011

C{orn} prices rose about 1 percent to $7.67 during morning trading, shortly after the report was released. The price of soybean rose 1 percent to $13.80 a bushel. Wheat was virtually unchanged at $7.76 a bushel.

Corn prices affect most products in supermarkets. Corn is used to feed the cattle, hogs and chickens that fill the meat case, and it is the main ingredient in cereals and soft drinks.

Just guessing, I assume those prices could be related to prices charged by Cargill to buyers in Mexico, Morocco, or Mauritania, but pretty much for sure U.S. farmers aren't receiving them. They sold corn, soybeans, and spring wheat last fall, right?


[ Parent ]
farm prices (4.00 / 1)
Farmers who still have corn can get the current high prices. I've heard that many farmers sold corn for around $4, for example, in order to refinance with banks, they locked in prices before they rose. See my other comment to count above

"We're trying to warn this nation of a tidal wave ..., and it's coming your way, whether you want to know it or not...!"  female family farm activist in Iowa warning against agribusiness, Donahue Show, 1985

[ Parent ]
pre planting contracts (4.00 / 1)
I'm not the best one to ask on this. Farmers often forward contract part of their crop based upon futures prices, if they think the price is better than what they will get at harvest or later, especially by late summer when they have a good idea of the amount of their production. I don't know how this then feeds in to ADM and Cargill. Farmers also probably contract specialty corn, where they get a certain seed, and then get a premium.  

Yes, farmers surely contract for premiums to ethanol plants, especially if they are part owners.  If they lose on corn (ie. in 2005, the lowest price year on record, adjusted for inflation,) then they hope to make something on ethanol investments.  I think, (unlike poultry in Food Inc.?) there are many other options for raising and selling corn, wheat, soybeans, etc.  I don't think it's like poultry, with corporations telling you how you must farm, how much you must invest in infrastructure/machinery, etc. Trends are moving toward these authoritarian systems, however, ("authoritarian technics," of agribusiness "megamachines" Lewis Mumford).  

You might check IATP's documents on speculation, or ask the staff who write them.

I think the big justice issue regarding the agribusiness output complex and CAFO complex for crop farmers is the domination of federal farm policy leading to zero price floors and below cost gains in the multibillions, (much bigger than the compensatory farm subsidies of the largest rice co-op in the Farm subsidy database).  They don't get those gains based upon any standard of need. They get them in spite of record profits.

Farmers can choose what they sell at harvest, but one impact of LDP is that you'll get the subsidy right away, so there is less incentive store and sell later.  We also lost the Farmer Owned Reserve.  We have marketing loans, (which do not serve as price floors,) where you can get money in the fall, then sell later.  Previously (pre-1996, especially pre 1985, and at fair trade price levels prior to 1953) we had price floor loans to do that.

I think the role of elevators has changed (and Co-ops are bigger). They mainly buy for ADM (Corn Sweeteners in Cedar Rapids) here, which has slightly higher prices, but they have choices.

"We're trying to warn this nation of a tidal wave ..., and it's coming your way, whether you want to know it or not...!"  female family farm activist in Iowa warning against agribusiness, Donahue Show, 1985


[ Parent ]
Paarlberg is wrong that the farm bill raises prices, but (0.00 / 0)
he's correct that subsidies are not what lowers them.

Ok, it's great that this is being explored.  If the food movement misunderstands this, as I've long argued, then they are NOT advocating against cheap farm commodities.  Subsidy elimination alone is a cheap commodity policy.  I've seen very little willingness to examine this in dozens of online comments.

Jill deals with this better than about anyone else in the food movement in her book, but I guess she still believes that subsidies are the cause.  My 4 proofs against this, (See my YouTube video, "Michael Pollan Rebuttal" linked through my profile):  

1. Economically farm commodities do not self correct in free markets so they've usually been low, see Daryll E. Ray at my zspace, and Dale Cochrane, The Development of American Agriculture, (p. 371 summary, and previous). This is counterintuitive to non farmers, but see the 5 videos of Scott Marlow of RAFI, linked at my channel, expecially #3, http://www.youtube.com/user/Fi... though Scott gets a few things wrong, so see my comments on several of the videos).

2. Historical evidence shows zero correlation between subsidies and the lowering of farm prices for corn commodity subsidies, (& feedgrains and wheat) until 1961, cotton until 1964, soybeans 1998, as there were no such subsidies. This was usually falsely reported in footnoted documents for the 2008 farm bill, and in food books, and on blogs and in videos. The lowering of Price floors caused the lowering of prices.  For later years, subsidies correlate, as they were always given in larger amounts AFTER it was found that prices were lower (ie. when price floors were lower in 1986 and prices fell).

3. Econometric studies typically find practically insignificant price changes, up or down, from subsidy elimination for corn and other commodities. (ie. corn gets even cheaper, Daryll E. Ray POLYSYS).  See Tim Wise, "The Paradox of Agricultural Subsidies, p. 21 for examples from 5 major econometric studies.

4. Real world data from Canada, Mexico and Austrialia shows that subsidy elimination did not reduce supply (which would raise prices). (Daryll E. Ray, Rethinking US Agricultural Policy, pp. 40-42, and also 37-40 on #3 above).

Note:  Jill here cites Tim Wise at Tufts on "data proving that our subsidy system more or less provided savings of billions of dollars to the factory farm industry," and you can say the same, at lesser levels for sugar ("Sweetening the Pot"). This is a FALSE interpretation of the work of Tim Wise.  Note that Bittman cited Tom Philpott on Tim Wise in the same way.  Bittman and Philpott are wrong.  Wise knows that subsidies are NOT the cause, but rather the cause is the lowering of price floors, as I've long argued.  (I've written to Wise about this, and heard back, and spoken to co-author Alicia Harvie.) Wise is weak on telling people how to support the solution, the Food from Family Farms Act of the National Family Farm Coalition.

Note:  Wenonah Hauter's (Food and Water Watch) recent piece (No Quick Subsidies Fix for Food System) is like Wise, weak on clearing his up, and therefore is misunderstood in this very way, (in comments at Civil Eats, Huffington Post, Common Dreams, which I've tried to fix,) though she knows better (I met with her in Iowa recently on this issue, prior to the article, and I've met with 6 other FWW staff in the past 9 months and spoken with another via phone.) IATP is also weak about explaining this well enough.  Perhaps people will see me as less obnoxious in this context:  I work hard not to be misinterpreted.

Ok, prove me wrong folks, or stop claiming that subsidies cause cheap prices.  Let's discuss this, and then get the food movement on board.  It's getting late.  (2008 farm bill advocacy is long gone, so it's too late there.)

"We're trying to warn this nation of a tidal wave ..., and it's coming your way, whether you want to know it or not...!"  female family farm activist in Iowa warning against agribusiness, Donahue Show, 1985


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