Russ Parsons, author and newspaperman, took issue with some of the things I said in a recent post about farmer’s markets–in which I said that everyone should have access to hand grown produce and farm raised meat, not just those who can afford the boutique prices. He wrote back to say, “I find the idea that FMs are ‘elitist boutiques’ (my quote, not yours), to be frankly pretty funny. As a guy who lives in a distinctly working class neighborhood and shops frequently at my local grocery store, I really have a problem with the idea that spending an extra 50 cents a pound for something that tastes really good is much of an economic bar to entry.”
And: “the main reason so much produce in America sucks right now is because of the economic race to the bottom. Growing great food takes talent, time and a lot of sacrifice (literal and figurative—a good farmer thins his crop considerably through the season, resulting in lower yields). You simply cannot do it on a mass scale.”
And: “Why is it automatically assumed that farmers should be exempted from the idea that those who do better work should make more money? I mean, if I write better than someone else, I don’t have a problem getting paid more. Why should a farmer’s income be tied to the lowest common denominator?”
I of course have some things to say about this, but am smart enough at least to know when to keep my fat mouth shut. Russ is a man of unfailing wisdom and good sense, an indefatigable reporter for the LATimes, and he’s written two excellent books, How to Read a French Fry, and most recently How to Pick a Peach: The Search For Flavor From Farm To Table, which is practically a new form of cookbook, or at the very least, pushes the cookbook in a new and positive direction with good reporting about agribusiness and markets and ingredients, good stories and intriguing recipes. The book is an ode to farmers markets, great produce and knowing how to handle those ingredients once you’ve got them. If anyone is qualified to comment, it’s this guy. I asked to put his email in a post and, ever the over-achiever, he sent the following:
Thanks for the opportunity to offer my views on the farmers market situation. I’ll try to keep my remarks brief and temperate, appropriate to the august venue and my distinguished colleagues, like Bourdain.
Ruhlman, you ignorant slut.
Seriously, it is difficult to offer a simple and succinct explanation of how and why agriculture works and doesn’t work. There are too many factors at play. If you want a really good (and very readable) examination, I recommend Julie Guthman’s Agrarian Dreams. If you want recipes with that, there’s some book about something about a peach.
The first thing that needs to be said is that contrary to popular opinion, American agriculture is not a broken system. It is a system that is performing perfectly at what it is designed to do, which is deliver high quality (at least in terms of nutrition and safety) produce at the lowest possible price. While malnutrition was unfortunately common in this country a century ago, it has all but disappeared today. And we pay far less for food than any other industrialized nation (and about half what we paid before World War II). The problems that you and I find with it are the results of unintended consequences of this. Primarily, that it is very hard to grow fruits and vegetables with great flavor when everything is predicated on the lowest bid.
At this point, a brief side trip into the term “Agribusiness.” In the first place, of course, it is redundant. Agriculture that is not based on business is gardening. Farms need to be profitable in order to exist. Furthermore, contrary to the popular conception of corporate-based farming, in the state of California (which I continue to remind, grows more than half of all the fruits and vegetables in the country), more than 90% of all farms are owned by either families or single operators. Small farmers? In most cases. Despite the image of thousand-acre spreads, the average farm in California is less than 400 acres. And even this number is somewhat misleading because it is skewed by a few very large cattle and grain farms. Three-fourths of the farms in California are less than 200 acres.
As long as I’m going all wonky on you, let me throw in a couple of other statistics: the average fruit and vegetable farmer working in standard agriculture realizes about 20% of the retail price of the food they grow. And according to the most recent Census of Agriculture, 75% of farm family income today comes from non-ag sources. Think about that for a minute. That means that every farm family not only has one person working full-time off the farm, it means the other partner is working part-time as well. As you can imagine, with these tightening profit margins, more and more people are getting out of farming altogether. The size of farms is increasing as growers try to realize some advantage from scale. This cannot bode well for the future flavor of our fruits and vegetables.
Let’s talk about food for a minute. You are certainly right in pointing out that shopping at farmers markets is no guarantee of quality—farmers are “differently abled,” as we might say in California. Some are better than others. You still have to shop carefully. But at the same time, I don’t think you can argue with the fact that the chances of finding high-quality fruits and vegetables are far higher at farmers markets than at supermarkets. This makes sense: fruits and vegetables are fragile and the closer they’re grown, the more likely they are to be a) picked riper and b) be from varieties that are chosen for flavor, not for shippability.
OK, so what about your spending more money at the farmers market than at the supermarket. In part, of course, this is because of your ridiculously low threshold for resisting impulse purchases. I share your pain there. But mostly, this is because it is far more expensive to farm in the Cleveland area than it is in California—where most of those supermarket fruits and vegetables are grown. On reflection, this is probably obvious—that’s why there are so many farms in California and so few in northern Ohio. In the first place, farmers in Ohio get, at most two crops a year. That, as I constantly remind you, is what you get for living someplace that is buried in snow for 9 months of the year, or whatever. In California, farmers get 3, 4 and even 5 crops. Don’t hate us because we’re Mediterranean. But an Ohio farmer has to make enough money in that brief growing period to pay for his farm costs all year round (as always, the price of real estate is a major factor in agricultural economics—that’s why so much former farm land is now suburb). Furthermore, there’s the nature of summer in Ohio, which is humid. Humidity breeds problems for fruit and vegetable farmers—funguses, rots, bugs, etc. In California, it almost never rains between March and November. That’s one more reason for the state’s agricultural dominance.
So, simply put, it costs more money too grow good fruits and vegetables in Ohio than it does in California. If the farmers are to stay in business, they need to charge more. Is it worth it? Is the quality of produce at the farmers markets that much better than at the supermarket? That’s a decision you’re going to have to make for yourself. But one thing you ought to keep in mind—good farms and farmers markets are fragile things. There is no guarantee that they will be around forever. So some place in your calculations, you must include the fact that if you don’t shop at farmers markets and pay that extra cost, there is a very good chance that they will cease to exist. I know that altruism rarely figures in economic arguments, but there’s no getting around this fact. Remember that when you shop for fruits and vegetables, you are in effect voting for what kind of agricultural future you prefer."