Monday, October 25, 2010
Posted by Kate at 9:48 AM
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.