Sunday, November 27, 2011

Apples to Oranges


I need to rant. It doesn’t happen often… No, I take that back…it happens almost every time I read an article about local, organic, sustainable food. I would like to take the time right here, right now to educate SOMEONE…anyone.

Just last week, in an effort to cover the “local food movement”, one of the local TV stations sent a reporter to the Market, covered a chef shopping local and featured the story on the nightly news. In an attempt to make a price comparison, they also checked prices at one of the local grocery stores. The upshot of the story ended up being that “local” food is twice as expensive as the “other stuff”.

WAIT A MINUTE! Wait just one daggone minute here! Not to go all “Herman Cain”, but this is like comparing apples to oranges!

This brought to mind my reaction to a letter to the editor in the local paper during the summer regarding high prices at the Farmers’ Market. I knew I should have posted that one earlier. The discussion about local food cannot be summed up in a discussion about cheap prices.

Bear with me…I’ve just gotta get this one out there…

Before I get rolling, I want to say…I think, no, I know that we need corporate farms to feed the world. I don’t even want to get into the discussion of superiority of any type of farming or food. My intention is merely to point out that comparison between grocery and Market is bogus.

Anyone who does any amount of grocery shopping knows what kind of prices one might pay for produce. There are stores that have a reputation for being “high-end” and others where you can get a “bargain”. Both definitions are highly subjective and open to personal interpretation. Ultimately, personal tastes and priorities make the basis for purchase decisions.

While I will concede that there are prices at the Market that seem steep. There are also products at the Market that cannot be found elsewhere. You will never get anything in the grocery that is even remotely as fresh as the produce from the Market! Thus, I don’t believe an accurate comparison can be made at all.

Most the folks who feel that the Farmers’ market prices are MUCH TOO high have never even shopped the farmers’ market (in Staunton or anywhere else). Most times, the prices are close to the grocery prices, as the vendors realize what the public is willing to pay. Although, lower prices do not always mean more sales, and there is a point when it is no longer profitable to sell an item. Many times, farmers don’t know exactly what they put into a crop, what they should get out of it, so they go by the grocery, check the price and either use that price or something slightly higher. This is not a necessarily a good plan, as vegetables are often the “loss leader” (the low price that gets the shopper in the store, only to have them spend far more on other things).

During the “holiday season”, turkeys and hams are priced cheaply to promote their sales. The turkeys and hams have been produced by farmers working for the big names in the food industry. The producers have grown out HUGE numbers and the most basic tenets of economics state that the larger number produced, the smaller the investment in each unit, and ultimately the higher profit per unit. This is one reason a Geo is far cheaper than a Bentley. The stores get quantity discounting and know that when they get the shoppers in for a DEAL they will also buy the rest of their holiday food at regular or in some cases, inflated prices.

In all fairness to farmers, they should be able to make a good living growing food for other folks’ consumption! They are professionals, after all. They possess a knowledge that most do not when it comes to producing food in a safe, economical and delicious manner. Try farming, just for a day, you’ll come away with a new appreciation.

Years ago, I had a conversation with my father as he was watching me prepare beans for canning. He said, “Why should I bother to put up any green beans when I can buy them for 29cents at Rack and Sack (a local grocery)?” I attempted to argue freshness and food safety, knowing full well that the almighty dollar was always the deciding factor to him. I conceded that if price alone was the criterion, then, by all the beans. A side note...apparently Rack and Sack found that cheap wasn’t sustainable...they went out of business. On the other hand, I still put up beans, and know exactly where those beans grew, how they were processed, and that there are ONLY beans in my jars or freezer containers.

If the “bottom line” is the only deciding factor, then everyone would eat the very cheapest thing they could. Flavor, nutrition and personal preference would no longer matter. However, freshness, quality, food safety, and investment in the community are some other issues that shoppers at the Farmers market consider. Most shoppers find those attributes very important, and are willing to make the commitment to shop the market in order to obtain them.

Food in the grocery has often travelled across the continent, if not the world to get to the shelves. There is no way this can be considered “fresh” when Market produce has been picked just the day prior to its sale. Most “fresh” produce in the grocery is at least a week old before it lands on the consumer’s table. For the record, “local” and “organic” do not mean what a lot of folks assume. Do a little research, you will be amazed.

When a shopper buys from Homestead Hill Farm, they are assured that the food they have chosen has only traveled the 12 miles to town from our farm. The only exception is the lamb, which had to travel north of H’burg to be processed in a USDA facility. This is federally mandated, not simply our choice. The entire market is held to a 50-mile radius to keep us truly “LOCAL”. One note about the Farmers’ market…everything there is NOT organic…the consumers really need to educate themselves. (do not rely on the media)

When shopping for the food you put in your body, your fuel as it were, there is far more at stake than “cheap” produce. Your own health and well-being may well be affected by your choices. As produce ages, it loses its precious nutritive value.

If you are concerned about freshness or safety, I can personally assure you an answer. Try that one at the grocery; I can almost assure you a blank look and a “I dunno!” The Boss and I have had personal involvement with everything we offer for sale.

If you value the rural beauty of our area,
if you wish to have the ability to share this with your children and grandchildren,an investment in the fabric of the community is necessary. The effort put forth by the farmers in our area to maintain their crops and fields is part of the reason that folks travel from around the world to enjoy the loveliness that is our own Shenandoah Valley.

Farming is hard physically, mentally, and sometimes emotionally. When the farmers’ investment is considered, particularly of time and effort, no one would ever say prices are too high. One summer day, SiL#1 was picking beans with me and daughter #1. He had never done it before, and wasn’t too thrilled at the idea. He picked a while, and then said...”you need to charge more for your beans!” WHY? “You work HARD!” (yep, he sure scored points with the old mother-in-law!) He just chuckled when I told him to come to the Market and tell people that. A little personal experience goes a long way in promoting a consumer’s appreciation for farm products.

Don’t get me wrong…I love what I do! I would actually do this type of work regardless of the return; it is so deeply ingrained in my very being. However, to compare the products offered for sale from here on the hill and those in the grocery is just wrong. There is NO comparison plain and simple.

Food choices are intensely personal. Leave it at that. Let’s not attempt to make them simply a matter of economy.

Thanks for listening!

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