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.
If you liked this post, take a look at these links:
- My past post on Farm Transparency v. Farm Secrecy.
- Mark Bittman's opinion article 11 Trillion Reasons to eat your vegetables.
- Family Farm Defenders is a nonprofit organization supporting our family famers.
- Looking for the closest farmers and farmers’ markets to you? Visit Local Harvest.
- Civil Eats keeps up to date with all the politics in the American food system.
© 2013 Michael Ruhlman. Photo © 2013 Donna Turner Ruhlman. All rights reserved.