The Price is Wrong

July 14, 2017 in Home, Uncategorized

Screen Shot 2017-07-14 at 6.33.06 AMIt’s veggie season again and that means those of us who sell produce at market have to step away from the fields and weeds for a few minutes every week to research prices. Consumers look for the best deals and selling any commodity requires competitive pricing on the part of the seller. There’s a fine line, however, between asking too much and not enough, and that line changes from week to week as things come in and out of season.

For those of us who sell at farmers markets pricing is always a struggle. We want to offer consumers a fair deal and encourage them to buy from us instead of the big chain stores. But we also need to make a living, to pay for seeds, market fees, fuel, and all the other costs that come with growing and selling. It’s all too easy to undervalue a product just to sell, and that seems innocent enough on the surface. After all, customers love a great deal! In the grand scheme of things, however, under-pricing creates a vicious cycle that undermines everyone, especially when multiple vendors have the same product.

If vendors don’t charge enough for their items:

  • The market becomes unprofitable for the vendors and they don’t return. The market fails.
  • Consumers develop an expectation that the product has less value, and therefore become unwilling to pay a realistic price. Farms fail.
  • Consumers end up with less choice when it comes to buying local. The local food system fails.

Determining a realistic and fair price for an item doesn’t have to be an an onerous task. There are multiple ways to choose fair pricing:

  • Organicpricetracker.ca  averages regional prices for a multitude of produce types. It’s a quick and easy-to-use resource for up-to-date data on market, wholesale, and bulk pricing.
  • Looking around at supermarkets and other farmers markets can provide a guideline for the average price of items. Of course it’s important to compare organic to organic, weight to weight…  lettuce shipped from Mexico cannot be considered the same as no-spray lettuce picked from a farmer’s field an hour before market.
  • Talk to other vendors and agree on a fair price.
  • Consider the value that product has to you, the vendor! There comes a price point where I’d rather take an item home and feed it to the pigs than sell for less. After all, pig food costs money too. Don’t have pigs? If your tomatoes went ballistic and you have way too many, instead of selling them for nothing why not donate them to a food bank or soup kitchen?

Dumping of product at unrealistic prices isn’t good for the vendorship, it isn’t good for the market, and in the long run it isn’t good for the consumer, either. Farmers markets aren’t flea markets… they are venues for local producers to sell quality product at fair prices, and make a living in the process. We need to cooperate to ensure that we CAN make a living. We also need to engage consumers and make sure they understand how and why prices are determined, and why sometimes our products are worth a little more than the chain store “equivalents”. If we undersell ourselves we’re underselling a whole local economy, it’s that simple. Make sure the price is right!

 

Peas…and Thank You!

July 24, 2015 in Food, Uncategorized

peasA few weeks ago I started bringing veggies to market along with my soap products. I’m not bringing a ton- we already have great veggie sellers at market, and there are only so many tubs and coolers you can fit in a Matrix. Still, the produce has definitely spiked my market income. After all, people go to markets for veggies first. Everything else is an afterthought, it seems.

Two years ago when I finally took the plunge and went from well-paid employee to floundering farmer, the decision may have been somewhat provoked by midlife crisis. I loved aspects of what I was doing, but my day-to-day existence, immersed in bureaucratic  turmoil and  low morale, was not exactly fulfilling. I knew that food was my passion… not just any food, but clean, local food that has the ability to affect health and economy. My therapist always told me I am an idealist, and armed with those ideals and a stubborn belief that I am capable of doing just about anything I put my mind to, I did what seemed to be “the right thing”. I started growing food.

Ideals are easy to forget when money is tight, the work is hard, the days are long, and the aches and pains are never-ending. I never question that decision, it always feels like it was “the right thing” for me, but I often lose sight of the “why”. It becomes easier to worry about what needs to be done in the moment than to take time to remember why I’m doing it.

At market yesterday I sold a bag of snap peas to a dad and his two young sons. I didn’t think too much about it until I spotted one of the boys a few minutes later from across the square. He was ravenously stuffing those peas into his mouth with a big goofy grin on his face like most kids would gobble a chocolate bar. The choked up feeling that hit me like a Mack truck completely caught me off guard. Watching that kid eat something I’d grown, and watching him really enjoy it… that was worth every blister and frustration I’ve experienced so far. It made me stop and remember what I’m doing, and why.

I hope every person gets to have that feeling I had yesterday at least once in their life. We spend so many waking hours trying to make a buck, but it becomes so worth it when you know you’ve made something more. Weeding feels much less onerous today.

Thanks, kid!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What’s “Too Expensive”?

July 9, 2015 in Food, Uncategorized

imageOver the past month it seems I’ve been overhearing more comments than usual about the price of food – in particular the price of local and organic foods. Those comments bounce off my radar somewhere between  irksome and downright aggravating, but then I have to stop and remember that before I was in a position to call myself a “producer” I thought the same way.

So here’s why chemical, antibiotic, hormone, steroid, and abuse-free food costs more, and why you should dig deep and buy it, despite the price tag.

The easy answer is that it costs more to produce food without syntheimagetic chemical assistance. If bugs decide to make lunch out of a crop, the easy way out is to spray the heck out of them with poison. Often you can apply the pesticide once and the problem disappears for the rest of the season, but even if the infestation requires multiple sprayings, it’s a heck of a lot less time-consuming than the alternative. What’s the alternative?

Hand picking.

Non-spray growers have a limited tool kit for dealing with bad creepy crawlies, and hand picking is near the top of the list. While organic pesticides do exist, so do studies that show these may actually be more harmful in the long term than conventional pesticides. The only way to get rid of bad bugs and have absolutely no impact on the good ones is to pick them off the plants, with your fingers, one by one. Last year I picked hundreds (if not thousands) of squash bugs and cucumber beetles. It takes a lot of work. Covering plants with agricultural fabric before the bugs become a problem can save a lot of trouble, but then there’s the problem of monitoring for maturation so the plants can be uncovered at just the right times to let good bugs come and pollinate. Then everything gets covered up again, hopefully before anything bad gets in.

Diatomaceous Earth is another popular way to combat bugs. It consists of fossilized algae shells ground into a fine powder, and it’s abrasive to some bugs, cutting them as they crawl over it when dusted onto their favourite plants.That dusting is also labour-intensive; in order to be effective, leaves must be dusted top and bottom, and the DE has to be reapplied every time it rains.

imageSuccessfully growing produce without harmful pesticides require good soil- in other words, soil with an appropriate pH level for the particular crop in question, soil that retains moisture but also drains well, and soil with lots of nutrients. This miracle soil is easily attained by pouring on chemical fertilizers. Unfortunately, such fertilizers are often highly acidic and therefore kill the bacteria in the soil that help make nitrogen available to the plants. Organic fertilizers take longer to feed the plants, and are required in higher quantities to achieve the same results. Organic fertilizers are usually things like manure and kelp – things that take time to compost before they can even work as fertilizer. Unlike synthetic chemical fertilizers, however, organic fertilizers actually help to build good soil rather than simply providing an instant growth hit. Building good soil, like everything else about organic and no-spray growing, takes time.

imageAs if the intense labour required to grow no-spray food weren’t enough to raise prices, there is also a much higher rate of discarded product when growing without chemicals. When pesticides are implemented all the potential bad bugs (and most of the good ones) are killed, so there is no opportunity for an insect to cause blemishes or damage to the produce. Ugly produce doesn’t sell, so if bugs have the slightest opportunity to cause blemishes, that food will likely end up in the garbage instead of shopping carts. For this reason, a lot of organic and no-spray produce never makes it to the table, even though it’s perfectly good and nutritious food. I was told of a local broccoli producer who discards up to 60% of their crop each year because it doesn’t look perfect and the chains won’t buy it.

The typical supermarket peach is like a person who’s had a little too much plastic surgery. Sure it may look good, but those looks come at a cost (not a financial cost so much as a cost to the environment and personal health). Looks aren’t everything, especially when it comes to food. Unfortunately we’ve been conditioned to believe otherwise. The local no-spray peach that you get at a farmer’s market may not be as pretty, but it will likely taste fresher, every insect in a 5-mile radius won’t have died to put it in your basket, and you’ll be able to eat it without wondering what other things you’re ingesting at the same time.

Why is it that a plastic clamshell of “Spring Mix” lettuce which traveled from California or beyond, can easily fetch $6 at the grocery store, yet if someone at a farmer’s market asks $3 for a head of no-spray lettuce, pulled from the ground that very morning, they are accused of trying to rip the consumer off? With a shelf life of about 2 days before slime starts setting in, California should be paying us to take their lettuce. I have bags of greenery in my fridge that I harvested over a week ago and they still look as good as the day I picked them.

Yes, buying locally produced products costs money. Buying anything costs money. The difference is that the money spent on local products goes right back into the community instead of getting transferred to California or Mexico. If people supported the small businesses in their communities they might not have to fly to Alberta to get a job. They might not have to ask why rural economies suck. They might not have to wonder why businesses are closing and forcing them to drive further and further to get what they need.

Next time you think a spray-free cucumber is a rip off, think of me on my knees between rows of plants surrounded by hundreds of beetles which I’m squishing between my fingers, one at a time. Think about how many hours you’d be willing to do that to avoid blasting your plants with poison. How much would you be willing to pay NOT to spend time doing that?

Probably more than the price of an organic cucumber.

 

 

To Market, To Market

March 6, 2014 in Food, Uncategorized

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The  Local  Food Movement is suffering from a paradox of sorts, and that paradox lies in the problem of distribution. Food is expensive, and there is a common belief that eating organic, healthy, sustainable and locally produced food is financially unattainable. Perhaps this misconception is driven by the supermarkets, where produce in the organic section and meats labeled as “ethically raised” or “grass fed” are priced as boutique items.  The truth is that locally produced foods of this nature can be obtained at what most consumers would view to be bargain basement prices… you just have to know where to look, and perhaps settle for a little inconvenience… Sobeys, Superstore and Costco are NOT the best deals going.

Yesterday I took my soaps to sell at a local farm market. It was my first time at this market and I was shocked at how few customers wandered through. The atmosphere was jovial, the vendors were friendly, there was hot food to munch on, coffee, and baked goods, and most importantly there were carrots for $1 a bag,  free range brown eggs for $4 a dozen, and squash for $1 each. Try finding prices like that at a supermarket!

By cutting out the middle man and selling at farm gate and market, farmers can offer very competitive pricing, yet it seems the public hasn’t quite caught on. A friend of ours sells grass fed beef for $3 a pound and lamb for $5 a pound. Yes, you have to buy a box of beef (you pick the amount) and you don’t get to pick the cuts, but he ensures a good mix and even the worst cuts are tastier than supermarket meat. Plus, it comes wrapped in butcher paper! No styrofoam trays  and plastic to cart to the curb.

Supermarkets have become one more symbol of complacency and laziness. We assume they have the best deals because they purchase in bulk, we relegate all our shopping to their aisles because it’s one-stop shopping. Most people never stop to consider that there might be a better alternative, although they’re plenty happy to complain about how much money they’re spending at the checkout and the tasteless nature of the Mexican berries.

It’s amazing how much our society is willing to sacrifice for the sake of convenience. The same people who are outraged by dogs left in hot cars to die have no problem buying feedlot beef and eggs from chickens raised in battery cages because it’s easy to get and they think it’s cheap.  The same people who complain that healthy food is too expensive are unwilling to  go to a farmer’s market because they might have to park a block away and walk.

I’m hoping that next week when I go to the market it will turn out that this week was just a bad one. Unfortunately,  I know that’s probably not the case. I’m fairly certain there are lots of people who go to the big farmer’s markets like Wolfville and the Seaport because it’s the cool thing to do. I wonder how many people go because it’s the right thing to do? I suspect that if there was a larger contingent buying on principle, the smaller markets would have better turnouts. Am I just cynical,  or am I right? For once I’d love to be proven wrong. I’m realizing that ahead of crop failure, disease, harsh winters and fluctuating market prices, distribution might be the biggest challenge in farming.

I’d like to think that people are going to come to their senses and start making smarter choices about where their food comes from. It’s most likely, however, that change will only come when the entire system implodes. When gas prices are so high that nobody can afford spinach trucked from California, when there are no bees left to pollinate things because they’ve been wiped out by hectares of  pesticide-sprayed  monoculture, when we can’t afford to provide health care for free because so many people have eaten themselves sick… maybe then the system will reset itself and we’ll go back to a time when citizens and governments put more effort into supporting small food producers. I firmly believe the wakeup call is going to come one way or the other. Here’s hoping it comes of our own doing and not because we have no choice.

You don’t need Jamie Oliver to tell you what food is fit to eat. Go to a farmer’s market and talk to the real experts.  The real bargain is knowing where your food comes from… and I don’t mean whether it came from the Superstore or  from Sobeys.

See you there? I hope so.

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is food?!?

November 15, 2013 in Food, Us

I am not a fake food virgin. I grew up with Lik’em Dips, Bottle Cap Candy,  Pixie Stix, and Kikapoo Joy Juice. And yes, I liked those things and even today I have nostalgic reverence for their sugary flavours and novelty.

But that was then, and this is now. When I was growing up smoking was cool, not deadly.  Nobody was allergic to peanut butter, and cancer, diabetes, heart disease, ADHD (did that even exist?) and  other maladies were not linked undeniably to the food choices we make.

Now things are different. Now we know. Yet it appears that we are still hellbent on killing ourselves with food.  I don’t understand.

imageFeast your eyes on this abomination, which showed up today on my Facebook feed. This, apparently, is the “Crunchy Cheesy Bites Pizza” from Pizza Hut. (Note that they had to use the word “cheesy” instead of “cheese”. I wonder why. )

I’ve witnessed the Baconator and the 14 patty T-Rex from Wendys, the KFC Double Down, and Taco Bell’s Fries Supreme  (with only 32 grams of fat per serving). I shouldn’t be surprised. But for some reason this thing disgusts me beyond belief. The perfect slivers of green pepper could be nail clippings from Shrek. Those things around the edge look like diseased sexual appendages from some alien life form, with crusty growth on the outside and ooey gooey processed blaghhhh oozing from within. How does anyone consider this food?!?

Is this what it takes nowadays for parents to get kids to eat?  It’s no wonder that today’s kids don’t know where milk and eggs come from… nothing they eat resembles anything that grows in the natural world. Would it be such a crime to put something on a plate that looks like a vegetable and tastes like it, too? Does cheese really have to come as strings? Does fruit really have to be rolled up?  Why are people so afraid of real food?

To every parent who’s ever purchased a Crunchy Cheesy Bites Pizza (or reasonable facsimile), I offer you this challenge.  Take one hour this weekend and go to a farmer’s market. Buy real cheese, buy pepperoni, buy a green pepper and some mushrooms ( yes, you’ll have to cut them up yourself, I’m sorry). If you can find someone who makes pesto, BUY IT! Heck, even buy some spinach. Talk to the people who produced it and find out what goes into making wholesome food. Take your bounty home. Get the family together and MAKE a pizza (don’t worry, I’ll give you an easy recipe for the dough). Load it up with the good things you bought at the market, including the spinach. Savour the time you spend with your kids; shopping for the ingredients, learning from the producers, getting your hands dirty and making your own food. Let your kids tear smiley faces into the pepperoni. Eat your pizza together with the TV turned off. I double dog dare you!

Your kids won’t go to school the next day and talk about how awesome that Pizza Hut pizza was. It will be long forgotten before it even makes its way through the digestive tract (if they’re lucky not to suffer the consequences). But the trip to the market and the cooking lesson, now those are things they’ll remember. Teach your kids that food doesn’t come from a box. They have a right to know, and so do you.

Easy Peasy No-Rise Pizza Dough

Preheat the oven to 475°

Ingredients

  • 3/4 cups warm water (warm, not hot)
  • 1 tsp honey
  • 1/2 teaspoon yeast
  • 2 cups  unbleached all-purpose flour (you can also use 1 1/2 cups of white and 1/2 cup of whole wheat if you’re really adventurous)
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp dried basil

How to make it happen

  1. Stir the honey into the water. Sprinkle the yeast on top.
  2. Put all the other ingredients in a big bowl and mix together.
  3. When the yeast is frothy (and it will get frothy), stir it into the water.
  4. Stir the yeast mixture into the dry ingredients.
  5. Get your kids to stick their hands in the bowl and mix everything together like crazy.
  6. Turn the dough out onto a floured surface and knead it some more. When all the lumps are gone and it feels nice and even and stretchy, it’s ready.
  7. Roll the dough out nice and thin, place it on a pizza pan or cookie sheet and then top with pizza sauce or basil pesto.Grate some cheese and place half of it on the dough, throw on the toppings of your choice (or arrange artistically, up to you), then sprinkle with the remaining cheese. NOTE: Unless you absolutely insist on drowning the pizza in cheese, you can get away with a lot less by layering like this.
  8. Put the pizza in the oven on a middle rack and bake for about 12 minutes. Turn  the pizza around at about the 6 minute mark so it can cook more evenly.
  9. Let your pizza cool a few minutes before slicing. Pour yourself a locally brewed craft beer. Enjoy!