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The price to grow food is soaring with inflation

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Grocery store prices are up 8.5% from this time last year, but that doesn't necessarily mean the people who actually grow our food are getting rich. From New Mexico member station KUNM, Alice Fordham reports.

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: Outside a supermarket in Albuquerque, everyone says groceries are more expensive.

LAURA MIRAMONTES: Produce, that's, like, by the pound especially has gone up.

FORDHAM: Laura Miramontes says food prices are a frequent topic of family conversation.

MIRAMONTES: Oh, my gosh. My dad - yeah, my dad's always complaining.

FORDHAM: He's supporting a big family. Another customer, Estevan Romero, also has a family and says he's changed what he buys.

ESTEVAN ROMERO: I guess tone it down. Stick to more beans and chili instead of, you know, the more expensive cuts of meat and stuff like that, you know?

FORDHAM: New Mexico ranks 45th in the states for median household income, so price rises hit hard here. But that doesn't mean inflation is good for the people growing the food.

I meet Don Hartman on his farm outside the town of Deming, N.M.

DON HARTMAN: Listen how quiet it is, and the birds singing.

FORDHAM: He loves it here. Usually his crops include onions, melons, and New Mexico's beloved green chili on about 500 acres in this river basin. But times are hard. And as he shows me around, I start to see why. First, there's the fertilizer tanks hooked up to his drip irrigation system.

HARTMAN: They're almost empty. That's why I've been pricing around trying to see what it's going to cost to refill them.

FORDHAM: The numbers aren't pretty.

HARTMAN: A load of fertilizer right now is running - a semi-load is about $16,800. The same load last year was $6,000.

FORDHAM: So that cost has almost tripled. Then there's the tractor, which runs on diesel. He gets through 15,000 gallons of that a year.

HARTMAN: Right now, 15,000 gallons of diesel fuel is $66,750. Last year it was $27,000.

FORDHAM: His margins were already tight. Challenges include drought and labor shortages. He lost money last year. But now supply chain issues and the war in Eastern Europe have driven fuel and fertilizer prices way up, and that's forcing Hartman to make tough choices.

HARTMAN: We grew 150 acres of chili peppers. We're back to - I think we're down to 115.

FORDHAM: He's also using less fertilizer. Will it be enough to keep the farm afloat? He doesn't know.

HARTMAN: Everybody's sweating right now because we don't know what's going to happen. And we're all trying to do the best that we can - cut corners, cut cost - to survive it.

FORDHAM: The price he gets for the crops won't reflect his soaring costs, says agricultural economist Anne Schechinger of the nonprofit the Environmental Working Group.

ANNE SCHECHINGER: The share of a food dollar that a farmer gets is so small that when, you know, we're seeing these prices of food go up in the grocery store, that doesn't necessarily mean, you know, farmers are really getting any more money for their own products.

FORDHAM: And, Schechinger says, farmers growing things like corn or soybeans get more government help.

SCHECHINGER: A huge disparity between these major commodity crops and the farm subsidies they get and then the specialty crops like fruits and vegetables and nuts.

FORDHAM: So Jay Lillywhite, a professor of agricultural economics at New Mexico State University, says things look bleak for those growing produce here.

JAY LILLYWHITE: I suspect that we will lose some farmers because those costs are going up.

FORDHAM: As well as economic hardship. That could even accelerate a nationwide trend of depopulation in rural areas, which would change the nature of a state like New Mexico.

LILLYWHITE: If we lose farmers, a lot of our culture in the state, the chili growers and, you know, our state vegetable and what we identify as, as a state - so yeah, the more we lose that, that will be a challenge. So it's not just economics, but it's also cultural.

FORDHAM: Hartman, the farmer, says he could get a regular job, but he sure doesn't want to.

HARTMAN: I could have went anywhere. I could have done 100 other things, but I chose to farm because that's what I love.

FORDHAM: It's not just a livelihood that's under threat. It's his way of life. For NPR News, I'm Alice Fordham.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Alice Fordham is an NPR International Correspondent based in Beirut, Lebanon.