Dining

Food: Are You Paying for Organic Gourmet Chic?

The Advocate talks with CISA's Margaret Christie about the pricing of the Valley's choicest produce.

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Thursday, October 20, 2011
Photo By Paul Shoul
Northampton Farmers' market

Strolling between the tables at a local farmers' market, you may notice that those big, beautiful organic tomatoes—not the heirloom varieties that are fluted like hoopskirts or sport exciting stripes, but basic tomatoes—cost as much as or more than the organic tomatoes at Stop and Shop, even in midsummer. Organic kale and big bunches of tasty organic collards may be going for about the same price as the organic kale and collards at the mainstream supermarket, maybe a little less, maybe a little more.

And there are dandelion greens, a cook's dream if your family likes the gamey but adaptable leaves. These are five times larger and no doubt more robust than the ones that pop up uninvited in your lawn, to be sure—but do the greens from a weed that's unstoppable even growing wild really have to cost $2.59 a bunch?

You know you're at the farmers' market because buying local produce, especially locally grown organic produce, is a cause you believe in. It keeps you healthier. It keeps soil healthier. It keeps pollutants out of the groundwater. It makes the area less dependent on food that has to be trucked from far away; after all, a lot of that organic fruit and veg at the supermarkets has to travel from California, some even from foreign countries.

But why isn't proximity giving you a price break?

Why aren't the savings on expensive chemical fertilizers that aren't used by organic farmers, and that aren't used much even by non-organic-certified local farmers, giving you a price break?

Why isn't the lack of an elaborate retail structure like the ones the mainstream supermarkets have to maintain—the removal of the entrepreneurial hand reaching into the farm basket for its share of the profits—giving you a price break?

Then you notice the busker who's playing to add atmosphere to the market as people wearing uncharacteristic straw hats and faux country outfits circle between the tables buying artisanal pastries and other novelty items, and a skeptical thought takes root.

Is there such a thing as organic gourmet chic?

And am I paying for it?

To help answer these questions, the Advocate spoke with Margaret Christie, special projects director and past executive director of Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture, an organization whose mission is to build connections between farmers and the community.

"This is a complicated question," said Christie, who was not offended when we raised the issue. "It gets us into a lot of bigger questions about what our food system looks like and how much of our income we expect to spend on food.

"First, I think it is not always the case that it's more expensive at the farmers' market. Prices vary from market to market. They vary from point to point in the season. Tomatoes—at the height of tomato season, when everybody has a lot of great tomatoes, the price is going to be lower. When the winter squash is all rotting in the field and only a few people have it, possibly the price will be a little bit higher.

"It can feel like you're comparing tomato with tomato, but the products [in the supermarket] may have come a long way," she pointed out. "The variety may have been chosen to ship well rather than because it tastes great.

"I just got [the price question] in reverse," she added. "A student came in and said, 'How come the broccoli at the Greenfield Farmers' Market is so much less than the broccoli at Big Y?'"

*

Christie acknowledged that people trying to buy organic and local on a modest income may have to develop special purchasing strategies. "When we talk to people about how to buy local or local and organic on a budget, we say, pay attention to the time, to the season, talk to [the vendor] about buying in bulk if that would work for you," she explained.

It's well known that organic farms are labor-intensive, and consumers expect to pay for that. But conventional farmers complain that chemical fertilizers, chemical pesticides and the special seeds that can survive doses of pesticides are expensive as well. Organic farms don't use those inputs, so what happens to the savings that should result, the Advocate asked Christie. She noted that labor is, after all, "the biggest input in terms of cost." (That includes, she explained, the price of labor to promote and sell produce: "It's certainly true that it costs money to stand at the farmers' markets and sell your products.")

And it's an oversimplification to think that organic farmers use no other inputs, she pointed out. "Though they may not buy [chemical] fertilizer, they're often buying compost, and they may be buying organic fertilizer," she said, adding that they're buying it without the economics of scale: "Smaller, more diversified local farms don't see some of the advantage in input costs of larger farms out west."

*

Perhaps the most complicated issue we brought up had to do with why produce trucked from Amherst, South Deerfield, Hampden County and other points seldom more than 30 miles from the market weren't noticeably cheaper than fruits and vegetables from Florida, California and even farther away. Said Christie, "Transportation and the cost of moving items around the globe is so out of whack that the true cost of moving an item thousands of miles is not reflected in the price. I don't think there is a direct correlation between how far something travels and how much it costs."

She's right, according to Lars Perner, a marketing professor at the University of Southern California, and other experts who have dealt with the question of when fuel costs start to affect the prices consumers pay for transported products. Perner points to the economics of scale, which are powerful in the shipping business. And the costs of shipping have many variables: when fuel prices rise, the shippers, growers and retailers may accept a certain margin of loss to prevent the market at the consumer end from shrinking due to high prices; shippers are always developing lighter packaging and new fuel economies; and in short, while there have been food price fluctuations due to increased fuel costs, the catastrophic fuel-related rises in food costs predicted by many advocates of regional food self-sufficiency aren't upon us yet, though there's good reason to believe they will come.

And delivering relatively small amounts of produce within an area like the Valley—not just to farmers' markets, but to restaurants, stores and coops—isn't without costs to farms that aren't making profits on the scale of the big southern and western growers, including the large organic growers.

"Several years ago, when the price of gas was high," Christie recalled, "I had a farmer tell me a story of delivering produce to a restaurant. As he was leaving, the person who was receiving said, 'Aren't you going to add a freight charge?' The grower said to me, 'I had never heard of that, but maybe if the price of gas stays high, we will be able to see some cost differential because of our proximity to our buyers.'"

Economies of scale and the competition between very large growers—as well as competition between large shippers, and between retailers—can create a situation that skews the real price of food, because any or all of those parties may take losses on one commodity that they make up on another. The supermarket chain, for example, may take a few cents off the price of an organic vegetable and make it up on some other product, even a nonfood product: dishwashing detergent, paper towels. The local farmer, selling nothing but a relatively few varieties of fruits and vegetables, can't juggle the prices of thousands of items in order to offer targeted reductions.

Christie put it this way: "Often the real costs of producing food are more directly reflected in the food we buy from local growers than in the food we buy from large growers far away."

*

Then, too, as most purchasers of local produce realize, you're paying for intangibles when you buy directly from growers. "You're not only buying good food for your family," said Christie, "but you're supporting local agriculture, you're supporting rural life in open spaces, you're preserving our vistas."

And you may be paying for extra nutrition at a food bank or school. "Our farmers donate a lot of food," said Christie, "and farmers' market growers are a very important example. If in the last hour you have two carrots left in a bin, people don't want to buy the last two carrots. People bring more than they're going to sell, and very often they donate it to food pantries and other organizations."

Christie was good-humored in her response to the question of whether a certain chic has attached itself to farmers' markets and is stealing pennies—or dollars—from customers' pockets.

"It largely comes down to your choice," she said. "Are you buying the strawberry-rhubarb popsicle, or are you sticking to the basics?"

Christie pointed out that some local growers and farmers' market organizers donate time for the accounting work required to sell produce to people who use food stamps. To help the cause of making locally grown produce available to people with financial constraints, she suggested that consumers can make sure their local farmers' market takes food stamps, and even volunteer to help with the administrative tasks that entails.

"The big questions are, if we want our food to be grown in a different way, maybe we have to expect to pay a higher percentage of our income on food," Christie said. "But it's one thing for a person with a good job to shift how much they pay. If you don't have enough money to begin with, you can't pay more for food."

*

Vegetables Get HIP

This fall, a pilot program called the Healthy Incentives Program, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, will give 7,500 randomly selected households in the Springfield area that use food stamps a chance to get a big discount—and provide the government with information about whether having easier access to fresh fruits and vegetables makes a difference in people's eating habits.

For every dollar those participating spend on fresh fruits and vegetables, including what they spend at farmers' markets that can process EBT (electronic benefit transfer) cards, 30 cents will be added to the participants' benefit balances on the card; that adds up to a discount of almost a third of the price of the produce.

CISA special projects director Margaret Christie is enthusiastic about the program. "The idea is that if this helps change how people eat," said Christie, "they might change the national food stamp program. They might incorporate something like this." It's refreshing, she added, to have a federal program that favors healthy food and smaller growing operations: "Since many of our food programs are encouraging corn syrup, let them encourage vegetables!"

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