(Note: the article ahead does not include many factual reference links. I was on a tear. If you want references to back up my statistics, I will be happy to provide them.)
Yesterday, I heard a furious woman complain that a “greedy” local supplier, who hand picked raspberries from his lovingly tended and mature bushes that morning, was charging the same price as she’d find at the mega grocery. He didn’t have to run a store front! And even if you called them “organic,” they were only half the price of the certified organic at the chain store heath grocery! Uncharitably, I mentally rolled my eyes, the same as I do when I hear complaints that farmer’s markets aren’t cheaper than canned goods on sale and field requests for places for cheaper corn on the cob than the peak season 6/$1 at the mega grocery.
I admit, it’s unfair of me. The average consumer is blissfully unaware of farming economics. Even the newbie to the notion of buying farm direct is not much more informed, if at all. They are vaguely aware of costs associated like storefronts and advertisements and marketing campaigns, but know little to nothing of fixed costs like land, taxes, investments in orchards, and the time spent on internet marketing that is cheaper than a direct mail ad but pushes the farm labor cycle into hours after dark when the typical consumer is relaxing after their own hard day at work… and oh yeah, they also have the same bills and expenses to pay that you do. The mental concept of “FARM” in America is still stuck on Little House on the Prairie, never dreaming of mega corporate farms with satellite monitoring and tax subsidies, or small farms where a married couple hopes someday to have a cabin instead of living in a tent.1
While upper middle class foodies revel over bringing a dish with local ingredients to a potluck, your average middle class and poorer household is focused on putting any food on the table, or at least food on the table with an acceptable amount of effort. It’s easy to be judgmental when your financial situation includes luxuries like a checking account, but the very ugly truth is that modern discretional “necessities” — like Cable TV, or smartphones, or a Netflix account, or a brand new backpack for school — have done a much better job of building a perception of value. American households are, broadly speaking, spending less money on food than they ever have since we became a country 200 and some odd years ago.
Yet, we still think that the value of the knowledge and labor of a farmer and his or her employees should be worth less than that of a third world farm using child labor for 10 cents a week2. But the lighting costs of the grocery store, and the full color ad — that totally adds value, right?
Regular readers might tell I’m a little hot under the collar on this subject. The conjunction of yet another price complaint, combined with this Op-Ed from a farmer in the New York Times (Don’t Let Your Children Grow Up To Be Farmers), has poked that sensitive nerve that I have developed about food value. I am sure I don’t need to tell anyone who reads this blog about the economic, nutritional and health value of local food systems. In a culture where fair wages for fruit pickers and fast food workers is a hot topic, who is responsible for letting our sense of priorities fall so low that we don’t think the quality of the food we eat is a concern for the average food buyer? Hot factoid: 91% of American farms operate at a loss.
Fault? Foodie culture, for starters. It’s important from a market perspective to build audience and reduce costs via volume by connecting to those with discretionary income, but the local food movement seems to have stalled there. We can’t seem to get beyond raw availability. The Op-Ed I linked to above acknowledges that the farms and farmers themselves have failed to both build new business models that work better in the 21st century AND campaigns for reasonable profits for the farm owners.
Foodie culture needs to become American culture. Like recycling or saving energy, high quality food needs to become part of our everyday lifestyle. It doesn’t have to be expensive artisanal cheese or breads, but it does need to be nutritious, fresh food that returns value to our community. Some foods will never be economically feasible for a region — and for that, the global food system is a huge benefit in our modern society. But there is no technical or environmental reason why Alabama should import it’s own native squash from thousands of miles away.
Do you think about food value? Do you consider the modern logistical empire that delivers fresh produce across the globe.3? Or do you just expect it to appear in your local Mega Grocery, Inc.? If you have never considered that local food might have tangible economic value beyond the retail price you pay, can you say why? Understanding the roadblocks is an important key to fixing to them, and I genuinely want to know your experience.