Monday, October 25, 2010

Ridiculously Cheap - A Minor Rant

Last Thursday I went to the market to pick up an order of pumpkins and kabocha squash from one of my farmers.  I've been to this woman's tiny farm on the opposite side of our county.  I know how she operates and what's important to her, though I can't recall if she bothered with organic certification or not.  I'd emailed her to ask for half a dozen pumpkins, and half a dozen smallish winter squash to replace the crops that failed for us this year.  I had purchased a single pumpkin from her two weeks prior to that, so I thought I had an idea of what to expect in terms of cost for my bulk order.

When I arrived to pick up my order, it was all put together in a large cardboard box, and the farmer showed me a little receipt with the weights and totals for the two different crops.  She wanted something like $16 - total - for the dozen orbs in the box.  At first I didn't understand, thinking that was the charge for either the pumpkins or the kabocha.  But no, that was all she wanted for everything.  Thirty cents per pound, she said.  I pulled out $30 and told her she wasn't charging nearly enough money for her vegetables.  I was serious. That's about what I'd arrived expecting to pay, and I was shocked that she was asking so little for the fruits of her labor.  Of course she protested, but finally consented to take $20 for more than fifty pounds of her produce.  But only after adding a pepito pumpkin to the box.  She said it was a seed pumpkin, and then added apologetically that the flesh was not edible and that sadly, the pumpkin was a hybrid, so I couldn't save the seed.

Now I know my blog is ostensibly about frugality, and hey, I'm all for the stocking of larders with wholesome, local food purchased in season, when it should be cheapest.  October is certainly the time to stock up on winter squash if you have any storage space and didn't grow your own.  But this was ridiculous, and it has nagged at me ever since, even as I lugged my purchased bounty down into the root cellar.  I really feel this farmer should be charging more for her food.  I want her to stay in business and contribute to my foodshed more than I want to supplement my homegrown food for the lowest cost.  If she can't make a profit from her farm, she won't be around to help feed us in the future.

I suppose I should see this as a good thing, especially for those that are really struggling in this economy.  $20 for a dozen winter squash will give me the basis for at least 48 individual servings; less than 50 cents per serving.  For some people, the lower price per pound might mean the difference between kids going hungry or being fed.  But we can still afford to pay more.  I'd be happy to pay on a sliding scale for the few kinds of produce I still need to buy.  Last month I paid over $1.50 per pound for onions produced at a local farm incubator project, and was happy to do so.  So why should the squash cost so much less than the onions?  In fact, when I was in our local supermarket to buy tofu and some kosher salt the day after my farmers market purchase, I saw a whole display table of non-organic squash in the produce aisle.  You know what they were charging for winter squash?  79 cents per pound - more than 2 1/2x what the local farmer was asking.  The really big and impressive hubbards and pumpkins were going for $1/pound.

I feel like going back to the market this week and telling her about the supermarket pricing.  I don't know why this riles me so much.  Maybe it's because I know how much work it is to raise vegetable crops.  I certainly wouldn't sell my winter squash to anyone for thirty cents a pound.  It would seem downright insulting to accept that little.  I'd feel better about giving it as a gift than valuing it so cheaply.  I'm going to take that farmer a loaf of my bread the next time I have a big baking day.  It seems only fair to me.

Anyway, I'm not entirely sure where I was going with this rant.  Bottom line is, if you're worried about food security in the near term, now is an excellent time to ask a local grower about a bulk purchase of winter squash.  They are among the easiest vegetables to store.  Make sure those you buy for storage have stems intact, and don't pick them up or carry them by the stem.  Put them in a cold part of your house, (55-60F/13-16C is ideal) and use them up by spring.  For those of you concerned about long term food security without any immediate personal economic crisis looming, you might consider paying top dollar to your local farmers for what you need to get through the winter.  Food security is, after all, both personal and regional, both immediate and long term.


Anonymous said...

You should definitely tell her what her competition charges. She is cheating herself.

Anonymous said...

Does PA have a resource like the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association? MOFGA, among many other things, produces an organic price report which tracks crop prices from around the state.

In Maine, organically grown cooking pumpkins and squash are selling for $1+ per pound, $3/lb for Delicata Squash. If PA has something similar, it might be good to introduce this farmer to that resource so she could price her products in line with other farmers. Here's the MOFGA site:

becky3086 said...

Well, I won't pay the prices they are asking for them in the stores. It just isn't worth it to me. They are asking $ .78 lb for a pie pumpkin(you'll need at least two for a pie) and a dollar a pound for the squash(they aren't organic by the way), since they aren't organic and with all the work you have to put into processing them, you might as well go get a can of pumpkin. Now after Thanksgiving, I can buy pumpkins and squash real cheap here and that is when I will buy any that I want.

Aimee said...

you don't think for a minute that the farmers actually get that 79 cents per pound that you pay at the grocery, do you? They are getting the same 30 cents that she is, if they are lucky. ALL farmers should be getting more for their labor, I'll agree with that, but this particular lady was probably getting the same as any other farmer selling wholesale.

Kate said...

Aimee, yes, I realize the supermarket pays wholesale. But the whole point of farmers selling at markets is to capture more of the buyer's dollar. It's a significant expense for them to buy the insurance required to sell at markets, and takes a lot more of their time too. She should be getting a good bit more for that than those who save those expenses by selling wholesale.

becky3086 said...

I imagine those who sell wholesale have their own expenses as well. And I also imagine that if the people selling at the farmers market weren't making something they wouldn't be doing it. I wonder if the thing that worries people the most is that if one person's price is low, the rest of them will have to sell at that price as well.

meemsnyc said...

Wow it's shocking to read this. I totally agree with you that she should charge more. It is like giving it away and there is so much work involved. My husband's father is a farmer and one of the things he complains about at farmer's markets is that his prices are dictated by the committee. So sometimes he doesn't have a choice in the pricing. I agree with you that they should value the work of farmers more and have the prices reflect as such. How does she make enough profit to sustain their farm? It makes you wonder.

Lynda said...

I would think your farmer is very aware of the prices her produce could sell for. I sell my produce below super market price...I know what my bottom line is. I know the power of word of mouth and a great client base. The people that buy from me become *family* and will remember how well they were treated when a hailstorm or drought force me to raise my prices. You need to refer EVERYONE you know to her farm and if you plan on picking up produce at the farm get an order together from your fiends...volume is great!

Anonymous said...

I had a similar experience this summer with a great farmer who set up a produce stand around the corner. All open-pollinated, no-chemical stuff, with really high quality. He charged $1/lb for no-spray green beans. Those go for $3/lb at the farmers market. and he figured he was making $3/hr. I'd happily pay twice what he was charging...I sure hope he stays in business.

karen said...

I think that your idea to bring bread to the farmer on your next big baking day is a fantastic idea. And if you really think you got more than your money's worth, bring her a jar of your preserves to go with the bread.

I love that you know that you need to pay more than what she was charging, and I love the comment above from the farmer about being family. At our Thanksgiving dinner two weeks ago I was able to itemise the food on our table and thank the farmers and food processors both on my blog and in person because I believe they are a part of my family.

ps. Supermarkets consider the produce they bring in to be "loss leaders", designed to bring shoppers into their stores where they will be "tricked" oops ... marketed into buying the processed foods that make the grocery store their real money.

Aurora said...

I remember the first time we went to the pumpkin farm and bought about 15 large pumpkins and squashes of different varieties. We were charged the price of about 6 or 7 supermarket pumpkins. I too argued, but the guy said that that was the going rate, they had lower overheads in terms of distribution by getting customers to come to them (which is a challenge in itself) and they are not at the mercy of supermarket quality assessors who will send a whole crop back if the stalks are too long or they aren't the right shade of orange. I guess that is the market price in the UK where most people don't even take their kids to pick-your-own fruit farms anymore.

We are going to buy our pumpkins today. Sooo excited.

Wendy said...

I completely agree with you, and I would have done the same thing.

I get milk from a local farmer friend, and I pay more than the farmer is asking - I just give a bit extra each time - because something comparable in the grocery store would cost two to three times what I pay, and it's important, to me, that this farmer stay in business, because when you work in all of the variables (that I can visit the farm, that we have a working relationship with the farmer, etc) there really is no comparable in the usual consumer venues to what he's providing my family. And, frankly, I get a little annoyed that he's asking so little :).

I think, though, as the customers, we do have some control, and if you want to slip her a little extra cash or bake her some bread, that's an awesome idea! I'm sure she'd appreciate it, and even more, appreciate your appeciation of what she does for a living.

arlene said...

I read your post with great interest and I am in agreement with you, that if the produce is good, then it makes sense to give the farmer a little extra, I have often given folks a bonus if I am pleased with product and price..

However on the flip side, I have been very sad going to the farmers markets locally, I don't even bother going to the big one as the prices are way out of line, but the two smaller ones that I do go to, I very carefully check out the stalls for what I am after and normally pass by one after another because of the prices they ARE asking is out of line with what most farm folks would pay, until I get to my favorite stall, where the ladies greet me, and not only know that I will buy but depending on how my own crops have done, buy in bulk for canning and processing.

I am glad that I still can find one farmer that will discount those buying in bulk, and also keeps their regular prices down overall.

It is possable that the prices are as high as they are because of where I live, but as I have a habit of going to farmers markets on my travels, it does seem to be wide trend in my area.

Kate said...

Anon, I plan to do just that in a few hours!

Ali, I don't know if such a resource exists for PA. But thank you for the reminder of MOFGA's price index. I will be sure to refer her to it.

Becky, just out of curiosity, do you find organic canned pumpkin? And if so, what does it cost? I'm not aware of any costs incurred by farmers who sell wholesale which are not also borne by those who sell retail. But I'm always interested in learning more about how farmers operate, so if you know of any, please let me know.

meemsnyc, indeed. This farmer has such a small amount of acreage that she can't possibly be making her profit on volume. I do wonder how or whether she'll stay in business.

Lynda, I do give great word of mouth for "my" farmers. I do consider them an important part of my life, even if I wouldn't call them family. They deserve better than rock bottom prices for top quality food. It's not that I think she has to charge what the supermarket does, but I don't think charging, say, 2/3 or 3/4 of what they charge - for her superior product - would be at all out of line. She ought to because she can't possibly have the volume to make up for a low asking price.

Emily, $3/hour for raising wholesome food is an insult. I hope you let him know that you value his produce more highly than that.

Karen, I'm hosting Thanksgiving this year, but my relatives always contribute their signature dishes. I'm going to try to find a non-overbearing way to encourage them to source their ingredients locally. I'd love to have a Thanksgiving meal such as you describe, where every ingredient is "known."

Aurora, so your farmer got almost half what the supermarket charges, and for his entire crop. That's encouraging, I suppose. It seems the better option, for both eaters and farmers, is to cut out the middleman to the extent possible.

Wendy, I'm glad to hear I'm not the only one who feels this way. I think I appreciate what she does for a living precisely because I do the same thing she does - just not at a commercial scale. I know the value of those squash precisely because I lost my own crop this year. I had (almost) all the work and none of the gain, so the value of a harvested, ready to eat (or store) crop is very apparent.

arlene, sounds like you've got a market near a major metropolitan and wealthy area if the stall prices are truly out of line. That said, I think most Americans undervalue quality food. If you truly can't afford to pay its true value, then I sympathize and say shop around for the best quality produce you can afford. But as a nation, we spend the lowest percentage of our income on food compared to any society in the history of the world. We can do better by the farmers who are committed to producing the wholesome foods we want.

Anonymous said...

Hmmmmm, Wonder if the people I used to (USED TO) purchase pie pumpkins from for an affordable price read your blog. I showed up this year like every year to get 5 or 6 pie pumpkins that I use to get for about 16 to 20 dollars and she wanted 45. I walked away telling her I could no longer afford her sugar pumpkins. I was a bit surprised that the older couple still had so many pumpkins left but I am sure it is because the price is to high. So as a result of being to high priced it seems they are no longer selling their pumpkins and that means NO MONEY FOR THEIR LABORS. I actually feel sorry for them. I am growing my own from now on as well as many others are and now a couple who used to get some monies to supplement their income now have none.

Anonymous said...

I just wanted to add that I do agree that Farmers should make decent money for their product but should not charge what the supermarket is charging. They do not have the overhead and while many of you are fortunate enough to pay whatever and then some many of us are not. The Supermarket is overpriced on many items and they THROW AWAY SO MUCH IT WOULD MAKE YOUR HEAD SPIN. While most grocery stores throw it in the dumpster because they are not allowed to mark it down or donate Publix does donate. I have seen the donations and many of it is still good but not good enough to sell in their store. My sister donates her time at a Wildlife refuge and Publix brings it to the Wildlife center once a week by the TRUCKLOAD. So much of it is in excellent edible condition. My point being is just cause it is what the supermarket is charging does not mean it is selling. The farmers can hurt themselves like the couple I will no longer buy pie pumpkins from by being overpriced. Just for the record if I feel someone is selling me something at a very low price, yes I also will give them a few extra dollars but I never advise them to overcharge or charge what the supermarket is charging because the goal is to sell the product.