Tasty veggies…a zero-sum game?

Considered, thoughtful discussion of difficult issues is simply not a mainstay of modern American life. The Internet has accelerated this unfortunate trend toward unthinking pugilism, but pockets of sanity exist – even in Columbia’s online community.

A fine example today from a Columbia Tribune food forum exchange on the prices charged by farmer’s market vendors and how more lower-income families might be able to afford higher-quality food.
The author is the prolific farmer-philosopher, Eric Reuter of Chert Hollow Farm.

Prices: Economies of scale exist. It is generally cheaper to grow 1,000s of pounds of tomatoes in a single-purpose field using lots of mechanization, than it is to grow smaller quantities interplanted with other items, using less mechanization. Basic economics; mass-produced Chinese shoes cost less than hand-made ones from the local cobbler, mass-produced tomatoes cost less than those grown by a small farmer. So Grey Wolf is right that if Dole decided to set up some big tomato farm in mid-Missouri, they could undercut us all and get relatively fresher produce to market than the California stuff. What’s missing is any consideration of quality or side effects (see below).

In a way, that’s partly how it used to be. For example, many states around the country used to have a significant tomato industry that sourced local/regional canneries that sold to local/regional stores. Before WWII, California produced less than 20% of the nation’s tomatoes; now it’s 95%. (I’m sourcing from a recent article in The Ethicurean here.) These weren’t “small farmers” in the sense of several-acre market growers, these may have been 10,20,30+ acre fields of tomatoes, but they were still generally independant and a far cry from the current mega-corporate farms we have today.

Ethics and Quality

What often isn’t considered, when evaluating the price and efficiency difference between a large-scale, single-crop produce grower and a diversified small farmer, are all the other ancilliary factors. For example, perhaps one of the reasons Grey Wolf can’t find produce like (s)he remembers is because large-scale agriculture can’t grow fresher garden varieties. They have to grow varieties specially bred to take the abuse of mechanical harvest, shipping, packaging, storage, handling, and so on. The inevitable loss there is flavor and quality. You will never, ever get a tomato from a store, or even a market grower growing commercial varieties, that tastes like a vine-fresh heirloom picked the day before. The tomatoes I grow would never survive the odyssey a commercial tomato has to; they’re picked within a day or two of market and goes straight to the consumer with no middlemen and minimal handling.

Now consider the physical side effects. Many processes can be done more cleanly at a smaller scale; me butchering a few chickens on-farm is nothing like a CAFO, because the results of my actions occur at a scale that can be handled on-farm, whereas a CAFO has to have a complicated waste management system. A farm growing hundreds of acres of tomatoes is not going to be able to treat the land as well as a small diversified farm; it’s just not possible. Size may equal efficiency in some ways, but it also produces waste and inefficiencies in ways that are much harder to evaluate, at least for outsiders. When’s the last time you looked at a field and were able to tell how much topsoil had been lost that year? But it’s pretty easy to compare prices between Walmart and the Farmers Market. There’s little economic incentive to make long-term sustainable decisions when you’re caught in a vicious price war among consumers whose only standard is cheap.

Also, consider that even the big mechanized operations need labor; in the US that’s almost always low-wage immigrant labor. One of the big reasons your general produce is so cheap is that it’s mostly picked, prepared, packed, and so on by the sort of labor that conservatives love to rail against. Whenever I see someone fulminating against the Latino Scourge, I want to ask them where their food comes from, because most everything they buy in the store is directly encouraging the dynamic they’re so afraid of. Don’t want Mexicans in the US? Don’t buy produce, meat, or fruit from the grocery store, or at least stop insisting on the price being so low that companies feel forced to hire low-wage labor. America-first types often seem to be the same ones dismissing enterpreneurial free-market small farmers as liberal elitists while happily supporting immigrant-based corporations.

Consumer choices
Which leads me to a core point I want to make. All of the intertangled issues here lead back to a single source: Consumer behavior. Whatever is wrong or right with our food system is not a function of evil corporations or price-gouging hippie farmers. It’s consumer choice. Every purchase you make sends a direct message through the economy of what you really want, and businesses respond to that far more effectively than any law, policy, or advocacy. For example:

Consider the Detroit autoworkers bemoaning the fact that more Americans don’t buy Detroit, to show American pride and so on. Now consider, as a narrow analogy, that Missouri used to be a pretty major shoe manufacturing center. There were shoe producers of all sizes in rural and urban Missouri alike, all churning out shoes for sale and providing jobs to folks. Now, when the first cheap Chinese shoes starting showing up in Michigan, you know those autoworkers jumped at the chance to buy shoes they percieved to be equivalent at 1/3 the price. Who can blame them; it’s the rational economic choice for an individual. And thus, the Missouri shoe industry slowly dried up, and all those folks around the state earning decent wages at the shoe manufacturers suddenly didn’t have jobs, and guess what? Probably weren’t buying as many Detroit autos. Expand that dynamic across the country and you see why we have lost so many good jobs. The economic incentives that operate on individuals to maximize their savings have a deeply perverse impact on the economy as a whole, because it drives manufacturers and merchants to continually seek cost savings to the point of wiping out the jobs and incomes that allowed Americans to afford each others’ products in the first place.
So while any given consumers’ economic situation may drive them to seek out the most affordable food, collectively that impulse undercuts any other value than cheap, diluting the system of choices until there really are none.

Local foods and market prices
So how does that tie into the actual question here? From my perspective, I’m a businessman. I am attempting to make a living as a self-employed enterpreneur. I am not a non-profit, a charity, or some other organization whose prime goal is service. My prime goal is to sell quality produce to those who value it enough to pay a price that keeps me in business. I wish everyone could afford my products, but I’m not about to sacrifice my living for a socialist ideal.

Americans, generally a pretty free-market lot, are weirdly socialist about things like food and gas. They understand that a $1,000 flat-screen is a better product than a $100 Radio shack 9incher, and that the price reflects that. But they somehow have reached the conclusion that food is different, that all food is equivalent, that it is somehow a latent commoditity like air and not a specific product that has to be produced by work and cost, and that it should all be as cheap as possible regardless of other factors. People who don’t blink at the cost difference between a BMW and a Kia flip out when some elitist organic farmer dares to charge a living wage for their fresher, higher-quality produce. Maybe someday everyone will be able to afford a BMW, but in the meantime I don’t hear too many calls for BMW to lower its prices so everyone can have one.

Perhaps I’m being harsh here, but really, I’m continually amazed at how many people don’t consider farming an actual business. They seem to think that farms just sort of exist, like forests or rivers, and that people don’t actually have to make a living keeping them in existence so that people can eat food and drive through pretty countrysides with pretty barns and pretty animals. Sorry, but I’d rather go out of business than to give my product and my labor away for less than it’s worth.

I really do agree that it’s a shame our system is such that people cannot afford to pay a living, fair wage to farmers for their goods. I really wish everyone in Columbia had good enough jobs to allow them to buy my produce, and lots of other farmers’ produce. But I’m not going to sacrifice myself and my farm on the altar of good intentions. If selling to “wealthy” people is what it takes to keep my business going and my family supported, I’m going to do so.

Think of it like hybrid cars, or new iPods. It would be great if every American family, right now, could afford to trade in their old inefficient car for a hybrid. We would all benefit immensely. But Toyota is not about to go bankrupt offering hybrids at $7,000 each, and no one should expect them to. Toyota sells to those who CAN afford them, or who make concious life choices that allow them to, and hopefully that dynamic will slowly bring more hybrids on line and make them more accessible. But they’re always going to cost a certain amount and no sane businessperson would go below that for any length of time.

The final factor here is that I believe most folks, no matter their economic situation, have SOME form of discretionary income. Very few of us really have no choices whatsoever. Two of my best customers this year were a college student and an EBT-using person. They were clearly making choices that allowed them to have the extra money to afford really good produce. When I was in grad school, living on very little, I still made a point of buying local and high-quality food. There were other grad students who thought I was nuts, or couldn’t understand how I did it on the wages we earned, but they tended to be folks who insisted on having a cell phone, shopping for new clothes, driving nicer cars, drinking heavily, going to concerts, etc. I had no car, no cell phone, used clothes, etc. and used my spare money primarily on food and the few others things that were important to me. The point is not whether or not I was “better” than them, the point is just that we each made economic choices that related to what was really important to us.

So I don’t market myself to wealthy people, I market myself to people who value food enough to make it one of their top priorities and will pay a fair price to support me providing them with what is very important to them. Now, obviously, as economic times worsen, that dynamic may have to shift some. If no one can afford my produce because our economy is based on smoke, mirrors, and coupons, I may have to swallow some principles. But I want to make it clear where I’m coming from first.

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Author: Scott

I am a married father of two. I graduated from Rock Bridge High School and then Mizzou before spending six years in the Washington, D.C. area. We returned to Columbia, Missouri in 2006.

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