“It’s more expensive!”
My last post focused on a side by side comparison of price tags, farmer’s market vs. the next closest (light years away really) option at the grocery store. Now let’s look at why that little number on the tag at the store isn’t helping your wallet or your gastrointestinal tract. When you head off to the market and peruse the many crates of vegetables, coolers of chicken, eggs, beef, pork, buckets of cut flowers and baked goods galore you see prices that may make your eyebrows rise in alarm. Hopefully, my last post can help bring them down sharply, at least a little. The thing to know about those prices is that you’re getting the full picture all wrapped up in one number. You can see it. You can ask about how it came to be and what lead to it. Not so at the grocery store. When you head to the grocery store and walk the hollow alleys beneath flourescent lighting your genes haven’t yet adapted to you will also find prices. But here you don’t get the whole story nor even the whole price. More often than not, when you pick up a ‘vegetable’, package of ‘meat’ or processed ‘food’ (that’s right…those are sarcastic quotation marks) you have already paid for it. Now your eyebrows are knitted in confusion no? In an effort to spare them further exertion I’ll explain. Taxes.
Nearly everything that exists within the stream of the industrial, globally sourced ‘food’ chain only exists because of your tax dollars, indeed would collapse instantly without them and the subsidies they support. I am not talking about the farming subsidies everyone knows about (or thinks they do). I’m not talking about subsidies to huge corporate corn and soybean farmers. I’m not talking about government programs to keep farmers from planting fields or encourage them to plant others to different crops. Those certainly merit lots of attention but are beyond the scope of what I’m interested in discussing here at Eat Real. I’m talking about the subsidies that are involved in the production of that bag of pre-washed, baby salad mix you just tossed into your cart. Did you know that in many states large farms pay a lower price for electricity than all other customers in those states? Did you know those same farmers pay a different price for water, used for both irrigation and washing? Did you know that, in the case of irrigation at least that water used on a privately owned farm comes from a river or lake that belongs to everyone and no one? Did you know that very water travels to that privately owned farm through treatment facilities, miles of irrigation ditches and piping that was built (and is often maintained) at public expense? These are not insignificant numbers either.
According to a recent article in “The Economist” farmers in the south west have paid only 15% of the cost of the federal water delivery systems they utilize. While the price tag for creation and maintenance of these systems is staggering, it doesn’t end there. According to the same article President Obama traveled this winter to California’s Central Valley (suffering the worst drought in recorded history) and offered up 183 million dollars in federal drought relief aid (the state government pledged another $687 million). And the south-west is not the only cup at the federal drought relief faucet.
When I show up to the farmer’s market with tomatoes, carrots, squash, cucumbers, lettuce or anything else, you can rest assured it did not all arrive there filled to the skin with federally subsidized water from federally subsidized irrigation systems. Please don’t misunderstand my intent in this post. I am not, repeat, am not against federal subsidies for the common good. In fact that’s why I think federal subsidies should exist. And the production of food could, without too much argument, be considered a common good. But, in my opinion, in order for something to qualify as a common good it should be necessary. Growing all of our food in one central place and shipping it around the world is certainly not necessary. Especially considering that place is mostly desert and rapidly becoming more so. (Ever try to grow vegetables in the desert? Takes a lot of water.)
The truth is that many of those super cheap items you purchase at the grocery store only have the appearance of super cheapness (hope my high school English teachers don’t read that – if you do I wrote it that way for whit and effect!). In reality there are so many hidden costs, many of which are extremely difficult to quantify on a per consumer basis, that the industrial version of a tomato turns out to be much more expensive than that one on my farmer’s market table. And this applies across the spectrum from beef to lettuce. But at the farmer’s market you’re buying a tomato from a farmer who irrigated with water from the same well from which he or she draws water to shower and get a cool drink. In many cases said farmer paid to have the well drilled, bought the pump, tank and other equipment needed (or purchased the farm where those things already existed). The farmer also goes to the local hardware store frequently for hoses, fittings, adapters, sprinklers, drip tape, etc all purchased with the money he or she earns from the sale of his or her vegetables. If there are greenhouses involved it is often (though decreasingly so) the case that said farmer bought the house with his or her own farm income or had to apply for an expensive loan whose repayment is dependent upon a crop that might never materialize or make it to market.
The local dairy farmer bringing that delicious, amazingly healthy real milk, butter, cheese to market probably isn’t big enough to qualify for reduced prices on electricity. One dairy farming family I know was spending $700 a month for electricity a couple years ago and they only had 20-40 head at a time. $700 a month just for electricity? Seven dollars a gallon seems like you’re stealing from them once you know that. This makes my last post even more salient. In many cases local farmers win the price tag war. But the industrial players aren’t even playing with all their cards on the table. When you see their full hand local food becomes even less expensive. And we haven’t even touched on the effects of the industrial food on our bodies, our communities and our surroundings all of which are, as I’ll discuss in a future post (I’d better stop promising that) costs.
In other words, yes that’s how much it costs. Yes you can get it at the grocery store if you don’t like that price. But the reality is you’re paying a higher price there whether you read it on a label or not. At the farmer’s market you’re paying and can see all together what it costs to produce that vegetable, animal, cookie. Those hidden costs the industrial trough are going to catch up with us all sooner or later. I suggest it will be much less of a shock if we become aware of what it actually costs to keep ourselves fed. Local Food. Eat well – be well.