Forrest Pritchard.

Forrest Pritchard at his honor system farm store.

Toward the end of Forrest Pritchard‘s memoir Gaining Ground, about his becoming a livestock farmer, he writes a chapter that I want to call attention to, and expand on, as we are now at the height of farmers’ markets, and this is in fact national farmers market week. I requested a Q&A to address continual questions he gets from friends and customers.

Forrest, why is food at the farmers’ market so expensive?!

On our farm, the food we raise reflects our true cost of organic production. When we set our prices, we do exactly what every other business in America does: we factor in our expenses, and establish a modest profit margin. That way, we’ll always be around to farm the following year. It’s Economics 101.

Everywhere we go, there’s a price-quality association in our culture: cars, houses, clothing. But for some reason, food operates independently of this reality. Dom Perignon aside, food is more or less food. Society has conditioned us to expect bargains when we enter the supermarket, placing price above freshness and quality. My free-range sausages might cost only a dollar more per pound, but for many people, it might as well be a million. When it comes to food, the price tag was where the story often begins and ends. But for someone trying to save his family’s farm, and do it sustainably, the conversation runs so much deeper than that.

So why isn’t the food at my grocery store similarly expensive?

Much of this food is already discounted, paid for in advance by government subsidies. Tax dollars—the same taxes that are taken out of all of our paychecks before we ever receive them—are used to partially pay for this food before it ever arrives at the supermarket. This “cheap” food is expensive, too. Unbeknownst to most of us, we’re simply purchasing it on an installment plan.

Then if I’m already subsidizing the food, I might as well finish paying at the grocery store, yes?

Sure. If you think a hamburger is just a hamburger, or that all apples are the same, then absolutely. But if you believe there’s a difference between a burger made from a single cow versus a burger made from a thousand cows, or apple juice squeezed from a local farm versus barrels of concentrate shipped from China . . . then the conversation becomes more complex.

Government policies hand out advantages to big farms that small farms can only dream of. The more corn and soybeans these big operation plant, the more tax money they can receive. Even crop insurance, money paid out in case of catastrophe, is subsidized. This reliable flow of cash gives owners confidence to build the infrastructure they need to support their operations, making these large farms hum with the highest modern efficiencies.

In the end, the owners of large farms are secure in the knowledge that huge sums of money are electronically transferring into their bank accounts while they sleep. They become the preferred partners of billion-dollar food companies, each with their own massive, nationwide processing and distribution centers. It’s all an economy of scale, and the scale is often gigantic.

Small farms like mine never have the economic firepower to match our larger counterparts. Our acreage is too small to adopt the efficiencies of big agriculture, and though we are entitled to subsidies as well, these payments are a pittance compared to what larger operations receive. As one secretary of agriculture famously proclaimed in the middle of the twentieth century, American farmers needed to either “get big, or get out.” By selling at farmers’ markets, and finding customers who truly valued the philosophies behind our sustainable practices, we were able to carve out just enough of a niche to save our seventh-generation family farm.

I don’t have time to shop at the farmers’ market, given when they’re open.

Understandable. Not everyone’s schedule can (or should) revolve around farmers’ markets. Fortunately, there are more options out there than ever.

For example, on our own farm I decided to create a 24-hour, self-service store. Folks drive in, take what they like, and drop their money in a little lockbox. It’s the ultimate win-win: customers are free to shop on their own schedule, and we run the store with minimal staffing, keeping our farmhands out in the field growing more great food. If our community truly wants to shop local, then we’re a year-round resource.

If your local farmer doesn’t have a storefront (certainly, not all farms do), then join a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture), a buying club, or a home-delivery service. Better yet, start your own garden, or participate in an urban farming plot. Presently, the opportunities for eating local and organic range far beyond simply shopping at farmers’ markets.

Any other questions you get tired of answering?

Despite penning a blog titled “4 Questions You Should Never Ask at Farmers’ Market,” I’m a firm believer that markets are the place where customers should expect to have all their questions answered. If I had a clicker at market, I would guess that on an average day I answer over 100 food/cooking/farming questions.

That’s a great post, Forrest, I hope people read it.

I never get tired of answering questions per se. But if I never get asked, “How can a hen lay eggs without a rooster?” again, then that would be fine with me. We all took sex ed, people. Don’t make your farmer blush.

Did you see the New York Times op-ed arguing that raising grass-fed beef was not sustainable, and that the only way to move forward is to drastically reduce consumption?

Yes, I always try to stay on top of what’s in the headlines when it comes to sustainable farming. The gist of the op-ed was that there’s not enough grass “out there” to replace the grain that we currently feed to confinement cattle, and as such, conventional production will continue in perpetuity. Cleverly, the writer cites no statistics whatsoever, so allow me to fill in the blanks.

In 2013, roughly 95 million acres of corn has been planted. Around 85% of this acreage will go to “animal feed,” destined for chickens, pigs, household pets (check the ingredient label on the bag, folks), and cattle. So, without knowing precisely how much acreage is devoted solely to grain-fed cattle, let’s safely assume that the number is less than 80 million acres. Currently, according to USDA surveys, there are over 600 million acres of underutilized pasture, range, and grassland. Stated another way, these aren’t pastures that are currently in use; rather, these are sustainable resources that are currently languishing.

So let’s break down the math: It takes 6.5 pounds of corn to make 1 pound of confinement beef and (on average) 2 acres of grass to finish one grass-fed steer each year. In 2011, the United States slaughtered 34 million grain-fed cattle, yet 600 million acres of pasture, divided by two, is 300 million potential grass-finished cattle. So my question is this: with over 10 times potential upside from a grass-finished production standpoint, what exactly is the point of this op-ed? I would respond by saying that we need more grass-farmers out there, plain and simple.

What’s your final message to people who buy fresh food?

Meet your farmer. Take a single hour out of your entire year, and visit the people who grow your food. When you see the farm, breathe the fresh air, and taste a tomato picked straight from the vine, concerns about price, quality, and time constraints quickly fall by the wayside.

This is something we can all value: healthy food, sustainable growing practices, and a living wage for our farmers. And the taste blows away anything you’ll get at the supermarket. So what are you waiting for? Go meet your farmers. They’ll be happy to see you.

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© 2013 Michael Ruhlman. Photo © 2013 Donna Turner Ruhlman. All rights reserved.





16 Wonderful responses to “Farmers’ Market Q&A with Forrest Pritchard”

  • Arlene

    Mr. Pritchard,
    There are not many books that I have read twice but your book was one of them (thank you, Michael, for your suggestion). I can say honestly that it has changed how I look at food, shop, buy, and eat. I also recommend it to anyone who will listen to me. Thank you for sharing this fantastic insight – I laughed, cried, and found myself silently hoping for you at every turn.

  • former butcher

    For someone who has spent a good portion of his life slaughtering, processing, selling, and otherwise handling meat, I know relatively little about raising meat animals, other than what I’ve picked up from the farmers I’ve dealt with.Starting in the late 70’s the term “grass fed” started turning up as a positive description, as opposed to a synonym for “tougher than shoe leather”.
    I’ve been to Argentina and Uruguay, and had mouth-watering, flavorful steaks (and poultry too), that I’m sure came from beef fed mostly on grass. We, the general public, have had mixed reactions to the current “grass fed” campaign. I’m still waiting for the “Cue the angelic choir” moment.
    The meat vendors I usually see at farmers markets seem to have a lot of literature to hand out, some of it quite impressive ( a dead give away that you’re dealing with a gentleman “hobby” farmer). And every so often I’ll hand over what I consider to be an ungodly amount of money for a couple of steaks (usually frozen), only to have my suspicions confirmed….That same $16 or more per pound could have bought beautifully marbled rib eye steaks from my local butcher, albeit from cattle raised in the “unsustainable” mode. Rant over.

    • Mantonat

      I think the variety of cattle and the type of forage have as much or more to do with the end flavor as grass vs. grain. I’ve had plenty of grain-fed beef that’s fatty and juicy but devoid of flavor. I’ve also had American grass-fed beef that tastes amazing. One thing many consumers don’t realize is that cooking technique is a little different for grass-fed beef. One local rancher suggests cutting cooking time in half, especially when braising or roasting. I’ve noticed that most home cooks vastly overcook their steaks and burgers. The only thing that saves them is all that extra (nutrient-poor) fat created by feeding cows corn, soy, and even left-over candy bars. Cow get plenty fat enough eating the stuff they’re supposed to eat.

      • former butcher

        Agreed! As I’ve said before on this site, there’s grass, and then there’s grass! And the breed of cattle makes a huge difference, as some do better on a diet of mostly grass than others. I used to buy Jersey heifers from one farmer to sell as sides of beef. He would “finish” them with a grain supplement to their usual forage. The high carotene, yellow fat of these animals made for some wonderful meat. I would buy a whole heifer (unbred or “maiden”) just for myself. Cut steaks as thick as you like and grill them next to any supermarket beef and there was no comparison. Another farmer who had Aquitaine beef cattle produced amazing beef; and if he wasn’t such a miserable old cuss I could have sold a whole herd of his beef.

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  • John Cochran

    I’m sorry, but when you say, “free-range sausages” I just get this mental picture of little sausage links placidly roaming through a green pasture

  • Amelia Saltsman

    As you might expect, I love this Q & A with Forrest about the true cost of our food. I’d like to add that although the prices for food at farmers’ markets are more accurately based on the actual cost of production than their industrial counterparts, those foods don’t always cost more. We would do well to include this fact in the conversation about direct-marketed foods.
    Using another example from Econ 101, prices drop dramatically when a farmer has a lot of supply to move. Yesterday at my local farmers’ market, I found amazing Rosa Bianca eggplants for $1 per pound and ripe Early Girl tomatoes at 3 pounds for $5. When you factor in flavor and overall quality, this becomes a real bargain for many consumers. Sadly, not enough people who can support small farmers realize that a) not everything is always more expensive, and b) even when the dollar price is higher, the quality, preservation of ag land and topsoil, plus improving our health makes well-raised, farmer-direct food a bargain we can’t afford to pass up. Happy National Farmers’ Market Week!

  • Paul Kobulnicky

    Amelia is right … it is true market costs and not always more expensive. I grow, and sell at a Farmer’s Market. I sell french filet beans @ $2.50 for 4oz. Sound expensive? Try picking 4 oz of tiny french filet beans and then ask your back how much they should sell for. But, also ask how much you would pay for them, if you can get them at all, at Whole Foods. Plus, mine are untreated and only hours off of the plant. This is the high end of the market but with my labor to pick and sort those babies it is a real cost.

    At the same time, last week I sold beautiful dark green, intensely flavored, perfect leaves, basil for $5.00 for a half pound ($10/lb) … a half pound with almost no extraneous stems. The wan, bland, full of stems stuff that you buy in the supermarket was at least $16.00 a lb. With all this rain and heat basil is growing very well indeed. Try getting my deal anywhere.

    Finally, small scale, untreated growing is riskier. You lose crops to unusual weather and pests. You have to charge so that, ON AVERAGE, you don’t lose money.

    It’s all about the numbers.

    • Amelia Saltsman

      You raise a good point, Paul. Herbs are a perfect example of value for dollar. The per pound price may look high, but the volume by weight is so great that most home cooks only need an ounce or two at a time. That’s $1 or $2 for “the good stuff” versus $2.99 or more for a few limp leaves.

      Of course no matter how well-priced, great basil is an optional luxury. When it comes to getting meals on the table and staying within the family budget, farmers’ markets also offer the necessary components for everyday cooking that are a shopper’s bargain but don’t hurt the farmer, since it’s the farmer who has set the price.

  • Matt

    Appreciate the Q&A.

    I wish those in the “food world” would take on our “beloved” politicians for the ridiculous arcane rules and regulations and outright harassment by the government in our food and food production.

    My point is that too often the term, “food politics,” is bifurcated from the idea of “government reform.” The food community waxes endlessly against pesticides and protests the large corporations such as Cargill and Monsanto, and I’m not supporting or defending them, but never seems to want to take on the politicians (meaning call them out on the carpet) for the very policies that are setting us back from truly great food and truly great production methods. I suspect this is because this would put many in the food community at odds with the politicians they have supported for other causes—the definition of hypocritical.

  • HLC

    Thank you for the interesting information about the availability of grasslands relative to beef demand. What is the source of that data? Does the analysis account for the costs and possible barriers related to the ownership of the land, e.g., transaction costs for leasing, managing grazed livestock on other than small farms?

    In order for me to feed my family 20 (or, more typically, 21) home-cooked meals per week using all organic ingredients and sustainably-raised meat/poultry and sustainably-harvested fish, I have had to reduce our meat/poultry consumption to once per week. We eat heart-healthy fish twice per week. All other meals are vegan. Other than berries from our bushes and jams that I put up — about 75 jars per year — we eat no processed foods, except for organic condiments, sugar for my preserves, the occasional jar of marinated artichoke hearts, and frozen spinach and edamame (for convenience). Everything dry, and as many other ingredients as I can, I buy in bulk.

    Do you think a day will come when people of limited means will be able to afford to buy “good” meat, poultry and fish more than just occasionally? At the moment, the best quality food seems to be a privilege of the well-to-do, or the people who grow or raise it. Thank you.

  • DJK

    FP: “Cleverly, the writer cites no statistics whatsoever, so allow me to fill in the blanks.”

    I think the commenter above mis-linked. Here’s the NYT piece I assume is being referred to:

    The writer actually does appear to cite statistics:

    “It requires 2 to 20 acres to raise a cow on grass. If we raised all the cows in the United States on grass (all 100 million of them), cattle would require (using the figure of 10 acres per cow) almost half the country’s land (and this figure excludes space needed for pastured chicken and pigs). A tract of land just larger than France has been carved out of the Brazilian rain forest and turned over to grazing cattle. Nothing about this is sustainable.”

    I’m all shrugs as to whose numbers are more accurate, but I’d be very interested in reading some impartial analysis.

    Also, RE:

    “Currently, according to USDA surveys, there are over 600 million acres of underutilized pasture, range, and grassland. Stated another way, these aren’t pastures that are currently in use; rather, these are sustainable resources that are currently languishing.”

    Admittedly not knowing what constitutes “underutilized pasture, range, and grassland,” it seems strange to me to call any un-cowed grass “languishing,” kind of in the way it’d seem strange to me to read someone claim that going back to paper letters instead of emails & texts would be sustainable, because, hey, look at all those trees we haven’t cut down.

  • Karin

    Thank you for bringing Forrest and his farm to our/my attention. After your first post about him, I discovered that he is 14 east of me! A quick joy ride out here in the hinterlands. I have since visited the farm and the store and am so glad to have another farmer to support rather than the “mega mart”.

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