June 27th, 2010, by Lisa
June 18th, 2010, by Lisa
Here we’ll continue to think about the perception of higher prices at the farmers’ market by considering some social justice issues: fairness to farm workers and environmental costs.
“The average American farmer receives about 20 cents of every dollar spent on food. But when customers buy directly from the farm, the farmer gets the whole dollar.” -John Ikerd, Professor Emeritus of Agricultural Economics, University of Missouri
There are many people who think prices at a farmers’ market should be less than those at a grocery store. And why is that? After all, the farmer at a farmers’ market (or CSA) is acting as not only the farmer, but also as the middleman and the retailer. That farmer has costs associated with growing, packing, shipping (even if it is just to the neighboring town), and marketing his product, and must employ (or secondarily employ) any number of helpers to make that all happen – from the college students who help weed in the summer, to the manufacturer he buys his bags and marketing equipment from, to the farmers’ market helpers who help with retail sales. So, many of all those ‘extra’ pennies in the dollar get used up in one way or another. Asking a farmer to sell at less than grocery store prices just isn’t fair.
Not to mention that grocery store prices, as discussed in Part 1 (produce) and Part 2 (meat/cheeses) of this series, are reflective of a factory-style method of farming, which just does not produce the same healthy fresh food you can buy locally.
To produce the cheap food we are accustomed to, it often means that the commodity- or factory- style farmer is being paid very little for his efforts. One might argue that some farm families put up with that for the farming “lifestyle”. But what “lifestyle” is there to a farming family who cannot afford ANY health insurance? Or savings for retirement?
Those low prices trickle down to the agricultural workers in general. Big mega-farms (both conventional and organic), rely on low-wage workers in order to grow the cheap food Americans want. Middlin’-sized farms also rely on cheap migrant laborers, both legal and illegal, to keep prices low. Small diversified farms often struggle greatly to pay reasonable wages or may rely heavily on cheap intern laborers and volunteers to keep prices as low as possible.
Until just recently, there were NO minimum wage requirements for agriculture. As it stands now, small farms are exempt from minimum wage requirements. Large farms, while legally required to pay minimum wage, often employ illegal immigrants, to whom they can pay any little amount they wish. Because, of course, to whom would illegal immigrants complain?
Due to the strength of the agricultural lobbyists, there are still NO federal requirements that farms pay workers more for overtime, as there are for all other types of work. There are even 15 states that do not require farms to carry workers’ compensation insurance. So, an on-the-job injury to a farmworker leaves that worker without any help other than his own means of securing it. Keep in mind that farming is consistently listed as one of America’s top ten most dangerous jobs.
There are not many Americans willing to take on work such as that, so many farms employ migrants in droves. (This is not just in California or Arizona, folks, but nearby in New Jersey and here in good ol’ PA.)
Paying higher prices at the farmers’ market (or CSA) means that farmer just might be able to pay his help a little better. Just might be able to offer (gasp!) health insurance to fulltime employees. Just might be able to save for retirement. There are a lot of mights involved to make that all happen.
For more information, read:
- about Stephen Colbert’s challenge (in association with farm workers): Come on, take our jobs. (Watch the show airing July 8th)
- ‘Slowed Food Revolution‘ – explaining about the increased demand for organic food but the lack of support for the people who grow it.
And the environmental costs?
I’m not sure I really need to delve into that too greatly. You may have, through news reports or magazine articles, heard of some of the environmental costs associated with:
-Monocropping (acres and acres of a single crop, and its associated problems)
-Reliance on petrochemicals for crop protection and fertilization
-Relying on more and more mega farms in areas that are already water-stressed to the breaking point
-Concentrated Animal Finishing Operations (CAFOs) and other animal-intensive operations (even your local dairy farm), which usually produce a truly horrifying amount of waste product. Said product goes on to poison soil, streams, nearby fields (that’s where most of the e. coli scares in produce have started – at CAFOs), etc.
I could go on, but that’s enough for the moment. Rachel Carson (Silent Spring) was a whistle-blower, back in the early 60s, about the effects of commercial farming on the environment. If you haven’t actually read the book, I recommend you do; it’s still a good read. Some people listened, put up a fight, and worked to ban DDT and other chemicals.
Big corporations and big agriculture have lots of money and power in Congress (just like big Wall Street!). It is up to us, as eaters, to put up a fight against them and try to make our voices heard. We all want safe food which is grown in a sustainable manner (the 3 Ps: people – planet – profit). The growth of the Local Foods Movement is just starting to make those wishes known. Please continue to vote with your fork by shopping for sustainably grown food, and encourage your friends, neighbors, family, and coworkers to do likewise.
And what about the prices at the farmers’ market? Indeed…what about them? Little changes make a huge difference in everyone’s budget. Give up a latte or two a week in order to buy good food. Buy a bag of potatoes instead of a bag of potato chips. Grow a tomato plant or two on your deck so you can feed your craving. Food is one of the most important things in our lives; surely a little adjustment in our regular behavior is worth it to make sure we can feed ourselves healthy food, protect the planet, and make sure the lives of farm workers are meaningful.
June 10th, 2010, by Lisa
Here we’ll continue to think about the perception of higher prices at the farmers’ market by considering the prices of meats and cheeses.
As in part 1 (about produce prices), I turned spy and sleuthed the products available at some grocery stores nearby. This was a rather difficult process. Firstly, as I haven’t bought meat at a store in over a dozen years, I had no idea what was available or not. Secondly, the meat items available at a farmers’ market often had no counterpoint at regular grocery stores to even compare them with.
Here’s what I found:
There were no organic OR sustainably-raised meats available at either Giant or Walmart. (although there were plenty of Saniwipe stations – which were definitely new since I last shopped for meat so long ago!)
At Giant: ‘Nature’s Promise’ boneless/skinless chicken breast was $5.49lb. (label read: all natural, no antibiotics, all-vegetarian diet, no growth stimulants or hormones) Regular meats (ie. not the Nature’s Promise brand): ground turkey $4.99lb. (label read: minimally processed, no artificial ingredients), split chicken breasts $2.89 (reading: fresh, all-natural, no hormones or steroids added)
At Walmart: organic eggs were $4.09 dozen (and those eggs were the only organic-labeled product I could find in the meat or egg case at either Walmart or Giant).
Now here, I agree: meats, cheeses, and eggs do cost more at the farmers market. The same chicken products I mentioned above are close to twice the price at the farmers’ market, although organic eggs are only $3.50 and ground turkey is only 50 cents a pound more. But really, how can we compare these prices at all? At the regular stores I went to, I couldn’t find organic, pasture-raised meat of any kind, which actually rather surprised me.
However, the euphemisms the meat industry is now using to make you feel good about grocery store meats were in abundance. But, they really don’t mean much of anything. Let’s consider some of the words on the labels I looked at:
“All natural” means nothing. There is no legal definition for the word. So, all that “all natural” meat means is, I guess, it came from an animal. It says nothing about how the animal was raised or what it was fed.
“All-vegetarian diet” means, presumably, that the animal was not fed any meat by-products. Which, in the case of cows, is a good thing, as they are herbivores (plant eaters). However, “all-vegetarian diet” doesn’t mean that the animal was fed what its body was built to eat. It may have been fed a high ration of GMO corn, rather than grass. And eating so much corn, by the way, is what makes cows sick and therefore they are given antibiotics to keep them going until slaughter.
“Minimally processed” also means absolutely nothing, legally. The food industry, at this time, can stamp that on anything they want to. But it’s supposed to make you feel good somehow. On closer inspection however, you may find that the meat was indeed injected with water or flavorings. “Minimally processed” is in the eyes of the beholder, and the industry is figuring you’ll think the best of the term.
“Grass fed” beef at a grocery store may indeed be grass-fed beef….but that does not mean the cows were out on the range grazing. They may have been in a space with many, many other cows and given hay bales to eat. Remember: to feed our desire for meat, a lot of it has to be produced. And there is no way to produce the quantity ‘we’ want at the price ‘we’ want it without using some sort of factory-style farming. Come to think of it, “grass fed” on a label could mean that the cow did indeed have some hay, but also had a huge ration of corn, which again, it is not able to properly digest.
Remember also, if you should happen to find certified organic meat in a store (likely a more high-end store like Whole Foods) that when ‘factory farms’ or ‘CAFOs’ claim to be certified organic, it does not necessarily mean that the meat was out in a natural environment for most of its life. Organic CAFO chicken farms legally have to provide yard space for the chickens, but access is often just a chicken-sized door opening out onto a tiny dirt-floor fenced-in yard, where few of the chickens ever, ever venture.
When you pay ‘more’ for your chicken, beef, cheese, and eggs from a local farmer, in most cases you are supporting a farmer whose animals truly do graze in a pasture, and who rarely are crowded in tiny spaces. But for a farmer to do that requires a lot of effort and land. It takes a lot of time to rotate herds from one field to another or collect and wash eggs by hand. It takes more land, obviously, to allow a herd or a flock to graze and do other normal animal-ly things (including reproducing in the old-fashioned way rather than by artificial insemination!). But land (and land management) is not cheap, and that counts for something in the price you pay at a farmers’ market. (Versus the confined chicken facility where they can raise thousands of birds in a small building).
You need to read labels, think about what particular words actually do and don’t mean, and ask questions that get to the heart of the issue. Asking questions at the grocery store is rather difficult, but study those packages and think about what the words mean. In many cases, they don’t legally mean a thing. At the farmers’ market, ask the meat/cheese farmer questions. Many are not certified organic, but they’ll tell you about how they raise their animals if you ask. They are proud of their products and take pride in the way they raise their animals. I am not an animal farmer, so I’m sure they’ll have a lot more info and answers regarding this issue than I have! Unless there are a lot of folks in line, most farmers are more than willing to answer your questions.
Although I didn’t study cheese prices at the store vs. farmers’ markets, certainly many of the same issues apply. Remember, a local cheesemaker is usually, first and foremost, an expert in animal husbandry. (BTW, one person who commented on the Part 1 post (produce) said she has found local specialty cheeses to be a bargain compared to store specialty cheeses)
What you’re paying for at the farmers’ market, in most cases, is meat/cheese/eggs from healthier and happier animals, which in turn usually taste better, are better for you nutritionally, and are better for the environment. You’re paying for the health of the land those animals are raised on, versus the veritable toxicity that comes along with CAFO operations.
You get what you pay for.
Remember, we’re eating way more meat now than we were just 25 years ago. Cut down on the consumption a little and buy what’s good for you, the animals, the farmer, and the planet.
(For more graphic arguments on this issue, watch Food, Inc. or Earthlings, both available via Netflix. Caution: Earthlings is so astoundingly graphic, I couldn’t get through it – so don’t show it to the kids. Food, Inc. on the other hand, should be viewed by anyone who eats!)
Stay tuned for part 3: Social justice (the human price)
Read part 1: Produce
There is a notion out there that prices at the farmers’ markets are higher than those in the grocery store. I was made aware of this a couple months ago when I was the guest speaker for a “Buying Local” class. Quite frankly, the notion that there are such classes nowadays sends a thrill through me. Absolutely fantastic!
One of the class members said she tries to encourage her friends to shop at the farmers’ market, but often is rebuffed with the “it’s too expensive” notion.
So, I’d like to address this issue in a three-part series, which will hopefully give you some food for thought (!?!) about farmers’ markets prices, which you can then use as arguments to sway your friends who say “But the farmers’ market is too expensive.” The subjects? Produce prices, meat/cheese prices, and social justice (the human price).
For today, let’s talk produce. I actually went out with pen and paper and did a little sleuthing at a couple of grocery stores. I felt like a spy, really, and was taking my notes very surreptitiously, lest a store manager demand what I was up to. Here’s what I found:
At Genaurdi’s: tomatoes $3.99lb.(from Mexico), apples $1.99lb (except for Red Delicious, which were dirt cheap as most people won’t buy them). Most of the produce I saw there were at prices more or less like market prices, but the quality was generally inferior. Some items in the store were priced higher, like colored peppers at $3.99 (and those tomatoes).
At Giant: peppers 3.99lb., beans 2.99lb., tomatoes 3.99 (Mexico and ‘product of USA) mixed greens were between 7.38 and $11.81 per pound, depending on mix and company. Apples $1.99lb. for Golden Delicious, Red Delicious (go figure), and Granny Smith, and $2.49 lb. for ‘premium’ varieties like Fuji, Braeburn, etc.
At many farmers’ markets, tomatoes average about $2.50 a pound. Sometimes you’ll find them for less in the height of the season, and sometimes you’ll find them for more ($4.00lb.) for certified organic growers’ heirlooms. Apples tend to range from $1.50 to $2.00 a pound. Many veggies are less than grocery store prices: colored sweet peppers for $2.50 a pound or less, salad mixes for $7 or $8 a pound.
So….why do some people have a notion that produce is more expensive at the farmers’ market? I think it’s simple: there is a big disconnect between selecting and paying for produce in the grocery store which blinds folks as to what they’re actually paying. It’s a much different thing to pick out a few apples, put them in your cart, and then not even notice how much they are at checkout because you’re busy loading things onto the belt or packing your bags. On the other hand, at the farmers’ market, you pick out apples (or whatever) and pay for them right away – so sometimes ‘sticker shock’ ensues. But think about it: last year’s $3.99 (for real!!) a pound grocery-store Honeycrisp apples actually cost twice as much as those at the farmers’ market – but you just don’t notice it when you’re dealing with a whole cartful of other items.
Certainly there will be times when things cost a bit more in the grocery store or a bit more at the farmers’ market – prices are not static and depend on a number of variables. But in general, if you really study it, I think you’ll find that most prices at the farmers’ market for produce are pretty much on par with those at a regular (or high end) grocery store. But….you get a bonus! The produce at a producer-only farmers’ market is usually MUCH more fresh and flavorful and comes in many more varieties.
It’s definitely something to keep in mind next time you’re shopping.
Stay tuned for part 2: meat and cheese prices