Parsons_russ
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:How_to_pick_a_peach

"Michael,

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."

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90 Wonderful responses to “A Scolding from Russ Parsons”

  • kanani

    Oh, I wouldn’t tangle with Russ, either. Do I ever want to argue with newsapermen? Well, no. Never. Ever. But how wonderful to have him paying attention to you!

  • kanani

    Oh, I wouldn’t tangle with Russ, either. Do I ever want to argue with newsapermen? Well, no. Never. Ever. But how wonderful to have him paying attention to you!

  • j.l.

    Would I pay more for organic meat? No. I know all meat is humanly slaughtered. How many of you have actually BEEN in these places you speak of? Or is it just all the peta videos you watch? Ive been in dozens of packing plants over the years–about twenty this year alone. I find it amusing when people think their “organic” animals are slaughtered any differently–they all go through the same plants.

    I also believe that animals are raised by people who care about them. How many of you are farmers? Those who are, fine, talk about the other guys. Those who aren’t–how would you know? Most of you have probably never even been on a farm, much less know the difference between raising an animal organically or not. I’ve spent a lot of time on farms, from small ones to huge, vertically integrated ones, and I have met a lot of people who really love agriculture.

    When I can see some GC/MS data on “gases going into tissue” I will believe that. Since it doesn’t make an scientific sense, I’m not going to now.

  • Jeff Trainor

    From an Englishman in Paris…there’s a programme on TV in the UK (Jimmy’s Farm, I think) about a guy who started a pig farm from scratch, with no experience. Thankfully all has gone well. He rears and sells near extinct breeds both through markets and a farm shop. By all accounts the meat is of an extremely high quality & he has greatly expanded stocks of our indigenous, non-homogenised breeds. He was asked by a customer why his meat was so expensive. His response was to ask the customer not to think about why it was expensive but why supermarket meat was so cheap.
    For me, that summed the whole situation up rather neatly.

  • Sorcha

    Um, oooookay. I’m pretty sure we’re not some kind of hive mind here, Kay. People will give or withhold attention as they see fit, kthxbai.

  • Kay

    Russ Parsons has enough pathetic fanboys on eGullet; let’s not give him any more attention than he deserves.

  • countingapples

    First off… thank you ruhlman for having this blog. makes for great reading regardless of the topic at hand.

    Second… parsons, interesting article that brings up good points that don’t have any easy or obvious answers.

    I went to my local farmer’s market. (deserts of eastern WA) Surprisingly, the produce I purchased was all organic and cheaper than at the grocery stores. Most of the produce offered is of different varieties than anything at the grocery stores. My kids and I bought enough fruits and veggies for the week to feed a family of 5 or more for less than $30.

    That said, it’s because we love to cook and know what to do with what we bought. No one is going to buy something if they don’t know what to do with it or even what that something is. One point that I didn’t see mentioned in all the other threads although I think it was alluded to was that junk food is significantly cheaper than healthy food. Is there an easy answer? Is there anything that we as individuals or a collective can do to change this? Perhaps, perhaps not. We each should look at our local area and see how we can affect a positive change in our communities. Since we all seem to be foodies here, why not kill two birds with one stone? Shop at our local FM’s to the extent we are able and then donate that produce to the local food bank and/or soup kitchen? All of the talk is nothing but hot air if we are not moved to action.

  • Frances

    Warwich High, class of um…not 88. :D

    And to keep this on topic, I firmly support local farmers and Virginia apple butter.

  • Sorcha

    I have to admit, Frances, Gwaltney is the only bologna I really like. My mom stocks up on it when we come back to visit. Now, though, I don’t know that I could eat it, knowing how they do things.

  • Frances

    I know that everything isn’t all about me, but I’ll say this anyway. I thought what nosnob said was truly funny and the part about marketing very true. But I don’t agree with calling people names or labeling them. And I never for a moment thought that Nic was marketing pork in the way that made me laugh. But I have seen adds that do try that. Being close enough to Smithfield to smell it on certain days, I would be happy to pay a premium to get good pork from West Virginia! Above all, I would love to see Gualtney et all adopt humane, healthy, and sustainable means of producing pork.

    In the last 20 years, I’ve noticed an emergence of Farmer’s Markets and niche grocery stores that sell good stuff. It has increased rather than decreased. So I think that it is a growing trend and a positive thing for small growers even if the general population doesn’t patronize such places.

    I think things are just getting started. About 40% of people in this country are likely to want to purchase better than average stuff in all categories. That’s a lot of pie.

  • Tags

    My original point was that with recent presidential elections so close, any issue with momentum is going to be front and center.

    Maybe voters won’t be as moved by this issue, but contributors will. Alice Waters has been tirelessly campaigning for sustainability and student nutrition, not only raising awareness but also cash for those who support this agenda. Michael Pollan has made an enormous impact, and new champions roll up their sleeves or roll coins in the coffers every day.

    How did PBS become welfare for the rich? More accurate to say it is the atonement of the rich – for their endless pitching to the lowest common denominator because it’s cheaper and therefore more profitable. And contributing to PBS is a cheap way for them to mollify their consciences.

  • parkbench

    So is the farm bill, but I didn’t see you chime in on that.
    –parkbench

  • raoul duke

    So the other night my friends say “This is good shit”. Was it really bad or poor advertising on my part?

  • Tags

    With the razor-thin margins in the last two presidential elections, I beg to differ about the impact of food politics at this juncture. As someone who had voted straight Republican since 1980, I can personally tell you the impact it’s had on me.

    Food issues weren’t the most crucial element persuading me to vote straight Democratic in the ’06 elections, but they were a big part of a polypiphany that was exacerbated by a grassroots email campaign by Consumers Union that inspired me to look up my incumbent Republicans’ voting records on consumer issues. Of course, doddering over Katrina had its effect, but the main thing I saw was that the problem in Washington isn’t gridlock, but the hammerlock that lobbyists have on our public servants.

    And what if the Democrats don’t deliver? Well, have you ever taken a pair of pliers and tried to snap off a piece of metal? When something is stubborn, you have to twist it from one side to another until it snaps. It won’t be easy, but the alternative is to just let the malignant status quo grow, and I find that unacceptable.

  • French Laundry at Home

    Tags, I don’t want to minimize the impact this issue has on you as a voter. I like you. This issue does resonate for some — but on the whole, it hasn’t been a wedge issue. Doesn’t mean it won’t ever be, but I don’t foresee it happening in the next 8 years. Hasn’t been enough grassroots or grasstops outreach to make it happen. In 2004, the swing was about 10-12% of the total electorate. Most voted straight party line. 2008 we know will likely be a little wider — maybe 15-18% of the electorate are “gettable,” as they say. And you’re absolutely correct about the fact that lobbyists run this country, not our elected officials.

    And yes, Deacon, until the analog broadcast switch-off in 2009, here in the States, you can still get all your local affiliates, including PBS for free with an antenna on your roof or on the TV itself. Also, “free” technically menas that local PBS affiliates fall under the FCC’s must-carry category for cable and satellite providers.

  • Deacon

    I was just joking because it is partially funded by taxes, so it is not truly free. PBS is welfare for the rich.

  • French Laundry at Home

    What I love about this debate is whether it’s the pork argument or the original discussion on farmer’s markets vs. grocery store, you could go back to the comments section of the post/rant about Food Network and see a similar debate that pits food personalities against real chefs — the argument is really quite similar.

    The outcome is far different, though. To quote Russ, “Remember that when you shop for fruits and vegetables, you are in effect voting for what kind of agricultural future you prefer.” The reverse is true in the outcome: the free channel (PBS) is far superior to the one for which we pay a price (FN).

    And, Tags, as someone who has worked in politics for the past two decades, I can tell you the only way this issue could even come into play at the level you’re describing is with regard a terrorist attack via agriculture or water supply. Subsidies have become permanent earmarks that are easily re-upped and approved in every omnibus budget, so they’re not going anywhere and not a campaign issue, because both parties support them. However, find a new way to scare America about how unsafe our food and water supply is… then you might have a campaign issue on your hands…. but not enough to swing an election. The issue doesn’t rank compared to other issues that research shows are proven swing vote getters (e.g. Social Security privatization, stem cell research, etc.).

  • Sorcha

    nosnob: “Instead, too many ‘elitists’ (self-described or otherwise) focus on bashing the products consumers already buy. “It tastes like shit.””

    First of all, what the hell is up with this continued name-calling? What purpose does peppering your comments with “snob” and “elitist” serve, other than to make you look smug? It actually smacks of reverse snobbery, to me anyway.

    Second, this isn’t an advertising firm. It’s a food blog, and people are here to talk about what they like and dislike about food. We’re not marketing professionals trying to sell a product. We’re laymen (in the sense of not being in the advertising business) having discussions. When you’re talking to your friends about something you like or dislike, do you honestly agonize over how you phrase it? Or do you, like most people, say, “That movie sucked because the plot was weak and not enough shit got blown up”?

  • Tags

    Let me see if I have grasped the concept here. Smithfield pioneered squeezing animals together in excruciating conditions, causing an environmental morass on the scale of Chernobyl, and nobody should say anything mean about them, but just point out how tasty sustainable pork is and things will work out for the best.

    You might have better luck with rocket science. Mr Heckett isn’t saying how shitty inferior pork tastes in his advertisements. He’s just making a point in a discussion with some well-informed food aficionados. At a time when awareness of the sorry state of US food production and distribution is gaining momentum that could swing the next presidential election, prepare yourself to hear a lot about how sewage and livestock are tied together.

  • nosnob

    Frances: exactly. What McDonald’s and most businesses with highly-paid ad firms know is that successful marketing is mostly aspirational. Advertising is more about the buyer than about the product.

    The way to say “my product is better” is not solely by saying, “my product is better”. You want to say that “YOU will be better” — you, the buyer. This is the aspirational hook. This hook can be backed with a few details about why the product itself may be better — an artisan food producer might include “hormone-free” or “grass-fed” or some other buzzwords that appeal to the target market.

    There’s nothing really novel or particularly “evil” about any of this. It’s how-to-win-friends-and-influence-people 101. Flattery will get you everywhere. Insulting people’s choices will alienate them.

    A small producer like Nic might say that he can’t afford a big budget advertising firm to scientifically tweak people’s psychological dials. But you don’t need to.

    Consider:

    “Buy my world-class pork because the crap you buy now tastes like shit!”

    vs.

    “Wow your friends with the best pork chops they’ve ever tasted!”

    Make the buyer feel like an idiot and he’ll walk; make him feel like a star and maybe he’ll buy. It’s not rocket science. Virtually everything is sold this way. For a good reason: it works.

    Personally, I’d rather see high quality artisans succeed. But it takes more than great product to ring up sales.

  • Frances

    nosnob: “hey, let me give you my money,” but instead, “screw you.”

    LMAO!!!!!! And regarding understanding of marketing and human psychology – frighteningly true. McDonalds is a prime example of a company with an eerie insight into what people want to see about themselves in their adds. Anyone remember seeing a PBS special years ago about adverstising. There was a segment that showed McDonald’s marketing strategy footage and it demonstrated just how deep in your head they are willing to go to sell you their food. It was scary.

    To market successfully, you have to say “I’m better” without saying “I’m better”. You have to convince people that your product is the smart choice or the better choice, without slating the choices they made previously. Has McDonald’s EVER compared their products to the competition? Or even to any other food? No. They rely on the mindf*ck. Yikes.

  • parkbench

    to ELS: Mr. Parsons has apparently survivied the LAT purge, errr..buyouts..but sadly Mark Arax did not. He’s a native of my fair town, and co-wrote, with Rick Wartzman, a great book about the J.G. Boswell cotton empire, “The King of California.” If you haven’t read it, do. I think it fits the subject of this thread, as the Boswell family literally dried up what was once the largest fresh water lake in the country, and certainly got their share of gummint-subsidized “farm bill” money to NOT grow the fruits and veggies Russ Parsons refers to upthread.

    –parkbench

  • nosnob

    Nic doesn’t really seem to get what pauper is saying, admittedly a bit awkwardly. Pauper’s point seems to be about marketing and psychology, it’s not even about the food. And it’s worth repeating.

    Forget for a moment all the artisan details about why your pork or apples or licorice or whatever you lovingly produce tastes better than average. Ultimately, artisan food producer needs to sell product, just like every other business. How do you sell product?

    You make consumers feel smart, not dumb. You market your product so that customers think, hey, I’m a genius for discovering this amazing pork.

    Instead, too many ‘elitists’ (self-described or otherwise) focus on bashing the products consumers already buy. “It tastes like shit.” If you tell people that what they’re buying now is shit, it’s no different than a marketing campaign that says, “Hey, you’re an idiot! Buy my product, moron!”

    This is not a recipe for success. The natural reaction to being told they are an idiot who buys shit will not be, “hey, let me give you my money,” but instead, “screw you.”

    Among the many reasons why large corporations are so successful is because they have developed a keen, nearly scientific understanding of marketing and human psychology. Sadly, many artisan producers, whether in food or any other niche, have not.

  • ELS

    Mr. Parsons: Bravo! Thank you for reminding me of the quality writing that sometimes accompanies the LAT. I will now spend a part of my mornings looking for your articles rather than tossing the paper straight in the recycle bin because I’ve been too preoccupied to cancel my subscription. I hope that the person(s) who hired you and Mark Arax are still at the paper and still doing recruiting, because the LAT could use more reporters like the two of you.

  • Carri

    I think all the dialog about whether or not we all deserve full access to quality food is a bit over indulgent when the bottom line is…if you want to eat well, take responsibility for that choice and seek out the sources for that food ie. grow your own, become friends with someone who does…whatever! My husband is a Halibut fisherman here in Alaska…when was the last time he brought halibut home? I can’t remember! It’s so regulated and expensive that it’s not worth the effort…we eat the rockfish bycatch instead! (much more versatile fish in my opinion) And we have friends who are oyster farmers and another who grows great potatoes…you’ve got to catch as catch can. And hey, if you don’t care then eat another egg mcmuffin that wasn’t made with eggs from an egg farm …

  • Nic Heckett

    Mr. Pauper – I cannot speak to the quality of your apple. But because the pork produced in the factory-farms of N. Carolina and Iowa from animals bred to put on weight as quickly as possible with no care given to their flavor – that breathe noxious methane and other foul gases for their entire lives, while confined in a space so small they cannot turn around, and eating the cheapest food available, yes, I believe they taste distinctly like shit. Call me an elitist snob, but I can taste the difference. Those gases build up in their tissue. And I also believe that if you had a blind taste test between a good quality pastured pork and an industrial one, you would too. If you cannot, consider yourself lucky – you can save yourself a lot of money. You have been blessed with a ‘color-blind palate’. If you don’t care either way, good for you, you saved some money. But why come here to insult me? Do I rattle your cage that much? Am I that asinine? Is my job to attract customers to Farmer’s Markets? My job is to educate the public that there is a difference in how our pork is raised, and that that difference can be tasted, and that that difference will cost more, because the cost of production is more.

  • FoodPuta

    David McAdory,

    You may not care right now about the Farmer, because you are actually getting the quality/price that you want. What happens when said farmer raises pricing beyond that limit you have set, because they can no longer survive within that range? Will you just stop buying food?

  • Big Red

    McAdory-

    Yes I do care how Drug Companies are set up, and how TV, and furniture manufactuerer’s make their product and where and how and how they come by their parts, and how their management is set up and who’s who in the companies. I actually read the business pages and I remember that kind of crap. I have a mind like a steel trap, and I forget things rarely. (OCD anyone? runs in the family) Except how to spell occasionally but I digress.
    Listen, just being a consumer is like being swing voter. You can’t just sit there and let other people care for you. If everyone was that way, then there would have been no fuss over the E.Coli in spinach that comes to the grocery stores in bags, and more people would have died. I make it my business to be an informed consumer.
    I realize that not everyone has the time and energy to do that. But I care because I am the consumer and I am the only one who is going to suffer if good things disappear and bad things rule the earth. Farms go, we are stuck eating crap made of old styrofoam, and supplemmenting with bottled vitamins and metamucil. (Some processed quick meals have me wondering)
    Don’t get me wrong, I buy my fruits in the dead of winter from the grocery store, owned by the conglomerate, nothing wrong with that! Large corporations got to be that way because they offer something the little guys can’t. CONVEINENCE! But you cannot be a sheep in the herd and keep your nose to the ground all the time. You should to come up and use your brain and educate yourself from time to time. But maybe food isn’t your thing. Maybe it is computers, or horses or cars. Whatever.
    But I am never one to say that your way of life is worse or better than mine. If buying from the grocery dept at the grocery store is good for you, fine. Enjoy with my blessing. But do not put down those of us that make it our business to care. You benefit from our diligence, as does everone else.

  • Tags

    I’m curious, I’ve read a lot about Chino Ranch in Ranch Santa Fe, CA but haven’t had a chance to go there yet. Do they charge a high premium for their produce? From all I’ve read, and it’s only been rapturous praise, they have every reason to charge more than anyone else, especially considering how much effort they put into propagating the best flavor in their crops.

  • russ parsons

    KJ raises interesting points. farmers in the central valley do pay a discounted rate for water. and they do benefit from a water distribution system that is paid with public funds. HOWEVER, it must be pointed out that fruit and vegetable farmers receive NO direct subsidies from the government. those checks go to so-called “program” crops such as cotton, field corn, rice, wheat and dairy. and since those are typically extremely cheap commodity crops, they tend to be dominated by large corporations, and therefore, yes, large corporations receive what seems like a disproportionate share of the subsidies.

  • KJ

    I will admit up front that I am not a) an economist, b)a geologist, or c) an ecologist. However, what seems to be missing from this conversation are questions that all three might be interested in, as well, of course, of ordinary folks like us.

    So, when the original post states that it is “far more expensive to farm in the Cleveland area than it is in California” and goes on to note that the Cleveland-area farmer is lucky to see 2 crops/year as opposed to the “3, 4, or even 5″ per year of the Central Valley farmer no one has seen fit to puzzle out those expenses. Specifically, without a good deal of irrigation (we were told, after all, that it “almost never rains between March and November”) the glories of the Central Valley touted here would be arid and verging on desert. So, what’s the cost of irrigation, of the holy water “rights” upon which Central Valley farming depends? Aren’t there costs associated with these “rights” in the form of government subsidies and grants? What about the evironmental costs, not only in CA but in the states to the east? Without irrigation and its associated costs how many crops/year would be hauled out of the Central Valley? And run-off from fertilizers and pesticides? Surely there’s an environmental cost there, no?

    In the same sense, what are the costs associated with farm subsidies? If I’m not mistaken the bulk of those subsidies go to large corporate farming. Don’t we, as taxpayers, pay these costs and shouldn’t they then be added to the calculations of that additional .50 cents/lb of farmer’s market prices? In addition to those irrigation and environmental costs noted above?

    And, finally, do we even need to get started on the health costs associated with a food industry that adheres to the lowest common denominator? And is able to achieve that lowest common denominator through the use of chemicals?

    My guess? If someone does the math, the price of run-of-the-mill produce is probably not significantly different than the good stuff.

  • the pauper

    this is a non-foodie trying to help you foodies make your point for you..

    nic,

    let me go find that gold star for you, so you can stand proud with your quality snobbery. there are three camps you can fall into:

    1. local farmers who produce quality goods are great. we can use more of them. the market can sustain more of them.

    2. local farmers who produce quality goods are great. we can use more of them, but quite frankly the rate of consumption for their goods has plateaued and the growth has halted.

    3. local farmers who produce quality goods are great. we are hemorrhaging in number of these great local farmers because consumer demand cannot sustain their business.

    Ok, I take what Russ says at face value most of the time, especially numbers because he prolly did his homework. “And according to the most recent Census of Agriculture, 75% of farm family income today comes from non-ag sources.” So obviously consumer demand is not growing exponentially to the point where these farmers will do so well that they can rely more on agriculture related income.

    With that in mind, wtf would you want to expound upon your snobbery on quality? Seriously, what kind of masochistic being would do that. It’s like stabbing your foot and watching it bleed just to say, “hell yea, pain is weakness leaving the body. this feels great.” meanwhile you can’t walk.

    When you say things that basically sound like “Oh I eat what is good. I buy quality things.” all you do is alienate potential customers. Hey buddy, look around… most ppl live in the suburbs and shop at supermarkets. And most people don’t like hearing what they buy is crap.

    Two ways to influence people:

    1. “Hey, look at my tasty apple!”

    2. “Hey, your apple is shit.”

    I’m just saying, for non-local farmers market shoppers, all this yappity yap sounds like #2. Reiterating your snobbery just robs local farmers of potential customers. That’s just a stupid marketing job. Downright asinine.

  • parkbench

    Very interesting thread.

    I live in the heart of the biggest agricultural county in the nation, and oddly enough (or maybe not, given the prevalence of factory/corporate farming in the area), I’m able to find only one farmer’s market that is made up of actual local family farmers. Even that operates only two days a week; one on Saturday mornings I’m able to hit. Others are around, but mainly comprise itinerant resellers. I’m totally envious of the Sacramento FM mentioned upthread.

    But here’s a look at the one non-resale FM in my city:

    http://www.vineyardfarmersmarket.com/

    Fortunately, it’s an outstanding FM and I am able to stock up for the week (raw milk for my lactose-intolerant S.O.!) and I find the prices comparable to those at my local GhettoMart — a nickname for supermarkets in the city’s main core that carry neither the selection nor quality of goods carried by the same chains’ suburban outposts, and at higher prices to boot.

    This is also in California, and apparently a different FM scene than Mr. Parsons sees in Los Angeles (seeing he writes for the LA Times, I may be making an incorrect assumption he lives there).

    Hey, I totally get that we’re spoiled here with the Mediterranean climate and year-round locally grown produce and all, but I don’t get the reasoning that just because everyone can’t keep themselves supplied locally, the concept is invalid. Those who can, should! I don’t see it as a “snob” thing. As a friend of mine would say, it don’t hurt no one. And with more incentive to grow locally, maybe more family farmers would set aside acreage for currently non-subsidized fresh fruit and veggies.

    During the recent runup to the Congressional consideration of the federal Farm Bill, Alice Waters wrote an opinion piece that ran in at least some of the McClatchy newspapers that really resonated with us. Part of her premise is that the subsidy of corn, wheat etc that makes “cheap food” possible, also enables Mickey D’s et al to serve up “dollar menus” that not only contribute to the obesity problem in the US but actually hurts the less affluent who can afford a $1 cheeseburger but not the ingredients to make one at home.

    She made a compelling argument, I think, that government subsidies have moved away from the family farmer to benefit the Archer Daniel Midlands and other corporations of the world — and let’s not even go into the outsourcing of operations and import of unfortunate products from overseas.

    So what does the bastardized, present-day version of the federal Farm Bill have to do with my little local farmer’s market, and almost certainly the higher prices experienced at FMs elsewhere?

    Absolutely, artisinal goods merit higher prices. No argument there. And no argument that more often than not, FM prices are higher than supermarkets, especially in less temperate/more urban regions. But why should a tomato that actually tastes like a tomato cost twice as much from a small local farmer as that unnaturally perfect-looking but tasteless beast in the local ghetto-mart?

    Here’s what Alice Waters said about it:

    http://www.sacbee.com/110/story/272049.html

    Again, interesting discussion. I’m glad Russ Parsons brought it up and that Ruhlman thought it was important enough to post on his blog. Thanks, guys.

    –parkbench

  • Nic Heckett

    David – McMuffins certainly are grown on farms, at least in their constituent parts. And snob is not an insult in my book. My point, however, is exactly yours, that small farmers cannot and should not try to replace, compete with or be compared in price to factory operations. They exist in a separate niche market, and should cost more. No large producer can market a pork that even remotely compares with ours. It can’t be done on any large scale at all. I know local market gardeners, I know the extra work that goes into producing their vegetables, and I am willing to pay more for the care they take of the land and the produce. I also care about the quality of my car, my clothes, my house etc. Would you be prepared to pay more for a hand-tailored suit than a Wallyworld sweatshop outfit? For a hand-made Appalachian chair by Brian Boggs of Berea KY than a High Point factory job, or a Made in China suite? I would.

  • David McAdory

    Nic, when McMuffins are grown on farms let me know, snob. The fact is the public determines an acceptable price, and its up to the farmer to meet the price point and deliver taste that is acceptable. I see no problem with people making smaller private gardens to sell high end vegetation, thats great, but as far as being in the business to feed the masses, I see no wrong with the large farming corporations. They provided me with cheap year round fruits and vegetables, and they taste good enough to me.

  • David McAdory

    Personally, I don’t give a damn about farmers. When I am purchasing food, I’m looking at quality at a certain price point and that is all. I am the consumer, I do not care about what it costs farmers to make what they make and it isn’t my job to, it is up to farmers to come to my price point at a quality I will accept and I am content with that.

    As for all of you, we must support the farmer people, let me ask to you care about the manufactures of other object in your life? Do you care how the prescription drug companies businesses are setup? What about the tv manufacturers, appliance makers, furniture makers, and etc. If not cut the bull crap people.

  • Nic Heckett

    Mr. McDory – the problem is that it is not the farmers who make the price points. The price points are set in the open market, and that market favors bulk production and cost savings at the expense of quality, and the environment. If the small farmers are not compensated for their work, as has been the case in the past decades, they go out of business, as has happened. This leaves the entire food supply in the hands of the large conglomerates. If you enjoy this food, go on, have another McMuffin. If you want to eat as well as you can, you will need to pay more. Without farmers you will not eat at all.

  • Nic Heckett

    Firstly, I am elitist. I went into this venture to produce the best pork in America. I intend to produce a range of American Charcuterie that will stand against the best that Europe has to offer, including the Jamon Bellota or Prosciutto di Cinta Senese. I am a few years away from realizing this goal.Specialty farming is not intended to, nor is it even possible for it to replace the commercial farm system that we currently have. None the less, there is a demand for better quality food than that produced by the conglomerate farm system. That food will, by necessity cost more than factory farm food. I never intended to sell our meat locally, and I have to grow our business to the point that it is self-sustaining. However, in the meantime, without the ability to ship fresh meat efficiently or develop local markets, we find ourself with severe growing pains. I am not here at Michael’s blog looking for sympathy, but I thought our predicament might be a useful case study to further this discussion. $2.75/# for a whole hog is a pretty fair price I would think, depending on the circumstance of the pig’s life. Does that include the head and offal? Flying Pig Farms of New York charges more than $4/# for a whole hog with on-farm pick-up, I think. Heritage Food would be similar. The local price would be more like $1.50/#. For those who claim that food needs to be as cheap as possible, and that elitists should not play a role in this discussion, I would reply “the leading cause of death in this country is too much food, or more precisely, too much bad food. We would be much better off eating much less, and much better. Cheap food is killing us, not slowly, but quickly. And from the point of view of the life quality of the animals we farm, it puts them through torture unimaginable 2 generations ago.”

  • Kdog

    I actually spend less at my local farmer’s market (Dekalb Farmer’s Market in Decatur, GA) than in the grocery store. And that’s even buying organic produce and Amish milk.

  • jamus

    I know that our local FM allows WIC usage – don’t know if its a state thing or not. I may be wrong, but some of this discussion would actually work to dissuade from “100 milers”, like ms. kingsolver, in favor of actually leveraging better production rates and resources as actual stewards of a bigger picture.

    Russ – Hate you because you’re (CA) Mediterranean? NEVER! Keep the good stuff coming!

    MR – Thanks for the thoughts and the venue!

    (long time lurker, first time poster)

  • rockandroller

    It might be time to coin a new phrase, since nobody likes “foodie” anyway: food slut.

  • Scotty

    “On the other hand, anyone remember Laura Palmer?”

    Only that she turned up dead in Twin Peaks.

    I had the good fortune to meet up with a local butcher – the old fashioned guy who will take care of that 4H raised beef you bought at the fair. By the end of the hour we were on a first name basis, he had taken my 6 and 8 year old daughters on a tour of his cooler. We ended up buying a whole strip loin, that a friend from Argentina said was the best beef she had had since she moved to the states. It was about 50 cents a pound more than feedlot beef.

    Even on our tight budget we deserve that kind of a treat occasionally . . .

  • the pauper

    Bob,

    It should probably be noted that immediate consequences matter a lot more and eventual consequences. How many people who commit first degree homicide doesn’t understand what the death penalty is? I’m not comparing supermarket shoppers to murderers obviously, since I love Krogers and Pathmark but that’s neither here nor there.

    You are right on about how the movement should be more about how it’s cool or whatever, to eat stuff if you know where it comes from.

    Most ppl like me who shop at supermarkets look at it like this, “Hey, this romaine lettuce looks green, (meaning it got its share of chlorophyll) and it has a chance to go into my stomach).

    Now suppose next to my targeted romaine is an organically, locally, sustainably grown romaine and it just costs 50 cents more. (Let’s assume magically we remove the barriers of buying in terms of locational availability).

    Now let’s also suppose that I can taste the difference (which in real life I cannot, and probably a lot of people cannot since some ppl have a lot more taste buds than others)

    Is it possible that I just don’t like the ‘better’ romaine? I mean, the concept of taste is so arbitrary. Food is great. But sometimes reading food blogs I feel like the whole world is in on the joke because I can’t find the porridge that tastes just right. This takes me into my point with…

    Russ,

    Your last paragraph has a line, “good farms and farmers markets are fragile things. There is no guarantee that they will be around forever.” And then you remind us that our consumer dollars are akin to votes towards what kind of agriculture we prefer. That makes it sound like if I prefer Krogers, Albertsons, and Pathmark, then I am again good farms.

    It’s not the case. I just eat what I like. It’s like what all these political blogs are going to fail to see in the upcoming year. My vote is not necessarily poised to be flagrantly against the opposition; it is more towards my belief of what a utopian society should look like. I am all for people who are small farms, but I’m also for placing the responsibility of being a sustainable BUSINESS, on the farm itself, and not on me for eating Nabisco fake chocolate dipped trans-fat laddened cookies.

    If you want to talk about writers and farmers being able to make a living for being abled at their jobs, well.. let’s place marketing ones business into the able-ness of an individual or a business.

  • russ parsons

    First, I’d like to thank Michael for allowing me the use of his space and I’d like to thank everyone who has contributed to the discussion. I don’t intend to extend my argument–I’ve had my say and I’m mostly interested in what others think. But I do want to clarify a couple of points that might have been sloppily phrased and prone to misinterpretation.

    In the first place, and most important, I am not one of “those Californians” who believe that because I love something, everyone else should, too. When I talk about being willing to pay an extra 50 cents a pound, it is with the understanding that this applies only to people who really care about flavor. If someone would rather indulge in another affordable luxury–classical recordings, good books, pipe tobacco–then they certainly should and they certainly should continue shopping at Big Box because that allows them the extra spending money. My point was that as luxuries go, really great peaches are extremely affordable … if you enjoy them. At the same time, if you really enjoy good food, I think it is misguided to complain that that extra 50 cents a pound is a barrier to your buying great peaches.

    My other point is that I am not a “localitarian.” My preference is for buying the best quality and it is my belief that in most cases that will involve shopping from local farmers. I am not, however, advocating that everyone should be required to do so. Or even that everyone who enjoys food should only shop locally. And, in fact, I think there probably would be–and probably should be–marches in the streets in Berkeley should such a thing come to pass, what with the effect the resulting increase in food prices would have on the poor.

    Finally, I want to point out that I was joking–Michael is not at all a slut, though he is easily led and does tend to fall in with slutty friends. He is kind of like the prom queen/valedictorian who is a sucker for guys in black leather jackets. At least I think so. On the other hand, anyone remember Laura Palmer?

  • t-scape

    The suggestion that we don’t spend enough on food is, as has been touched on above, probably one very good argument that might explain why some people may feel that people who are “into food” are elitist. There are realities that we have to face here: that not everyone is as into food as some may be on this forum; that many people are looking to feed families on a limited budget; that if we are here talking about how we are able to get these ingredients that are pricier than what you’d find at your local supermarket then perhaps we are not the best people suited to be telling others what they should and shouldn’t be able to afford; that simply saying “an extra 50 cents a lb shouldn’t bar anyone from entry” doesn’t take into account that you don’t go to a FM to pay 50 more cents for just one item, but that those 50 cents are multiplied by the several items one would likely buy and yes, that does add up fast. I find this kind of dialogue to be pretty exclusionary and not at all conducive to attracting people who may indeed be able to afford 50 cents more per lb for a few items, even if just on a sporadic basis, but haven’t yet done so.

  • Art

    Most of the US-farmed winter fruits and vegetables sold in Ohio come from Florida, not California.

  • ryan

    How are some of you arriving at the idea we don’t spend enough on food?

    If it’s based, as I suspect, on percentage of GDP or something similiar that seems faulty.

    Question for Nic Heckett: Bless you, sounds like you raise a truly wonderful product.

    Going into this start-up venture did you know locals weren’t willing to spend more for what you percieve has higher quality?

    To get $100 per pig what does that mean per pound to me as a consumer. Just curious, I’m in Michigan and can get a whole pig (160-220#) for $2.75/lb.

    Apologies to others if this is off-topic, but I didn’t know of any other way to ask Nic my questions.

  • Bob delGrosso

    The notion that consumers should be paying more for food is just the kind of rhetoric that invites charges of elitism from people who are not as food and cooking obsessed as many of us here appear to be.

    What I’m driving at here is that while it is obvious to many chefs and home cooks who devote significant portions of their lives to the craft of cooking that cheap food usually means tasteless food, how might this sound to someone who doesn’t cook, doesn’t want to cook, and thinks that a great meal is a cheese steak and can of Bud Lite? I think that if we are going to have any success bringing high-quality organically grown produce and meat into the mass market it is not going to be accompanied by slogans like “It costs more, but it’s worth it and the farmers deserve more money too.”

    It is this kind of stuff that gets us branded as food snobs and elitist (and occasionally socialists) when the reality is that many of us are just people who like to cook and eat good food and are willing to do the work required to grow or source the best tasting stuff.

    And what the heck, we already are paying more for the tasteless stuff in the supermarket in the form of money spent to clean up environmental damage, manage immigrant labor related problems and a host of other collateral costs that do not get factored into the price of a head of lettuce but need to be paid for just the same.

    I like the Alice Waters approach to opening up larger markets to high quality foodstuffs. Always talk about taste, and how cool it is to know where the food comes from, and never talk about money.

    That’s my 2 cents for the day.

  • Jack

    Russ says, “And we pay far less for food than any other industrialized nation” – and why shouldn’t we be paying much more? Why should US consumers pay the least for food of any industrialized nation. Shouldn’t we be paying the most instead, as we have the most income to pay for it? Ahhhhh!

    Simply put, we need to pay a lot more and get Real Food. Why, just see the comment above from Nic Heckett.

  • Tags

    Let’s not forget about chicanery -

    Food companies that lobby to call candy swapping hydrogenated shortening for cocoa butter “chocolate.”

    High Fructose Corn Syrup being represented as “healthier” than sugar, and hydrogenated fats represented as “healthier” than butter or animal fat.

    Just try looking for 100% Whole Grains items ( http://www.wholegrainscouncil.org/WholeGrainStamp.html ) in your supermarket. You’ll find 100% Whole Wheat (meaningless), “Whole Grains Bread” (containing from 1-99% Whole Grains, whichever is cheapest), and 100% Natural (wins the Nobel Pointlessness Prize).

    Don’t forget “farm markets” that sell cheap produce that the supermarkets wouldn’t touch, or expensive produce that isn’t local (or as good as you’d expect it to be).

    Of course, you can’t top “Organics” at WalMart.

  • Nic Heckett

    I am involved with a start-up pork business based in Mason Co. West Virginia. We can’t sell at the local farmer’s market, as our break even cost of production is higher than the local supermarket or Wal-Mart. The local population will not pay more for better produce. I have to schlep the meat all the way to the cities of the east coast or Kentucky to get even close to the amount needed to break even. Even the Farmer’s Market in Charleston mentioned above will not let us sell there, as there is a meat vendor who will be upset if we hurt their business. The economics are fairly simple, if Neiman Ranch will pay a return to farmer of $20 per hog, you need 1000 hogs a year to make a subsistence wage. Our farm would be an environmental wasteland if we put out that many pigs. If we ring their noses, or keep them in ‘deep-bedding’ as many ‘natural’ pork producers do, we could increase the numbers. But the flavor of the meat is greatly enhanced by giving them access to the subterranean biomass, so we will not ring the noses. To ensure the best quality, and avoid damaging the environment, we need a return closer to $100 per hog. That means very expensive meat. We suggest eating less of it – biggest problem this country faces is too much cheap food. It is fine for Wolfgang Puck to write an article in Newsweek championing organic and natural meat, but he forgot to mention that people need to pay more for it too!

  • FoodPuta

    What Farmers Markets can’t overcome:

    1. A large portion of the American population, are lazy when it comes to food. As little effort that it may seem to some, to shop at a FM, most others find unacceptable waste of time.

    2. People don’t trust their own judgement. They think that if the potato is in a package labeled “Select” that a army of potato experts spent hours of scientific study to determine the precise potato in that package. Where if they go to a open bin filled with potatos, that they must all be the rejects that the experts tossed to the side, not suitable for the “select” package.

    Sorry, but it’s the painful truth, on both counts.

  • nosnob

    Mr. Parsons makes some very good points, as have many commenters. One angle worth further exploration is the shift away from agrarianism. Just the other day there was a report in the news that, for the first time, the majority of people in the world are no longer dependent on agricultural work. Of course, this shift happened in the U.S. and other developed nations a long time ago.

    There is a tension — sometimes spoken, sometimes unspoken — at the intersection of food enthusiasts’ and farmer’s markets and similar small-scale agri-producers. As several commenters here have noted, farming is hard. Really hard. When given the choice and the chance, most people choose not to do it, not for a living anyway. (Cue Mr. Parsons’ excellent point about business vs. gardening.)

    Sure, there will always be boutique farmers motivated by more than money. But by and large, as experience in the U.S. has demonstrated and this latest news report about the world population reinforces, people do not want to be farmers. For many legitimate reasons.

    But we still need food. What to do? In this sense, large agricultural businesses may be inevitable, even in the light of Mr. Parsons point about smaller producers still thriving in the blessed California climate.

    The tension, though, comes when people ‘of privilege’ suggest that others should do the hard work they themselves would not want to do. I recently saw a documentary about Alice Waters. She strongly advocated a highly distributed agricultural model, with lots of small producers spread across many communities, versus a centralized model. And on one level, her argument makes sense. But who’s going to bear the burden of cultivating all these farms? The manual labor, the economic and climactic fragility, etc.? Not her, that’s who.

    In the end, I find myself torn: as a foodie, I appreciate the freshness and quality of local produce and support hard-working farmers to the extent I can. But at the same time, if they all quit farming tomorrow, how could I begrudge them? I can’t demand they do the work I, and now the majority of the world, doesn’t want to do.

  • Darcie

    One last thing I forgot to add: some of the world’s best food is from very poor areas. However, there is a great food tradition in those cultures that is passed down through the generations. Here in the U.S., and to some extent all affluent Western societies, we have lost that to a great degree.

  • Hillary

    Thanks for sharing this conversation with us! I agree with your original point that farm-fresh produce should we readily available to all – not at boutique prices! Very very good point.

  • Frances

    Eating healthy does not necessarily cost more. It requires more effort. It requires basic knowledge of good nutrition and home econmics. It requires kids who watch/help Mom or Dad or Grandma as they cook or at least see something homemade on their dinner plates. There is little hope for someone who grows up not knowing the difference between the cheap orange mystery beverage in the gallon jug, and orange juice.

    It requires learning. Just having the opportunity to learn is a start.

    I hope I don’t sound harsh or anything. :/

  • Claire

    Mr. Parsons should not be so quick to dis his gracious host on this blog. While I thought he had some interesting things to say, I take umbrage at several of his comments. First of all, he goes out of his way to mention that he resides in a working-class neighborhood and deigns to shop at his local market. How admirably proletarian of him. Then he says he has a problem with the idea that the proles can’t pay a little extra for good food. News flash- many working people truly struggle to put food on their table, let alone food that tastes good. We’re talking subsistance here. That extra 50 cents per pound may not seem like a big deal to you, Mr. Parsons, but believe me- it is for some people. I found your comment to be insensitive and elitist with a capital E.

    Secondly, stating that malnutrition has all but disappeared in this country is just plain wrong. Yes, rickets and scurvy may not be so common these days, but a good percentage of Americans are still undernourshed one way or another. 1 in 10 households in this country experience hunger or the risk of hunger- that’s 10 percent, folks. Wake up and smell the foie gras.

    Although I enjoy and appreciate good food as much as anyone on this blog, I try to bear in mind that this is largely a pursuit of the privileged. As for Ruhlman being an “ignorant slut”, methinks the pot should not call the kettle black.

    So endeth my self-righteous rant. Have a nice day.

  • Darcie

    quotes from above:
    >It is a sad reality that impoverished people are of the most obese because it is much cheaper to shop for carbohydrate based foods like Mac and cheese, or hamburger helper where one box can be stretched to feed high energy teens.And how does living in a working class neighborhood lead to having trouble understanding why anyone would have trouble paying 50 cents extra a pound for something?<

    I must respectfully disagee. It is not lack of funds that keeps most people There are probably some desperately poor folk who are lucky to have any food, but I’m talking about those who have somewhere to live and some money for food, whether in the form of food stamps or a limited income.

    As to understanding the situation, I have been both a farmer (grew up on a farm in North Dakota) and very poor (which extended past the farm years). I lived at or below the poverty line for a long time. However, I always ate well and healthily, because I knew how to shop and cook and because it was a priority for me. I am the queen of stretching a budget to make ends meet – but I didn’t need to use Hamburger Helper. I fed two big eaters on $35/week (adjusted for inflation) with plenty of veggies and meat in addition to carbs (I was a vegetarian at the time but BF wasn’t).

    I still contend it comes down to choices but please don’t misread this as condescension to those who make different choices, or indifference to someone’s plight. Mostly it is because people don’t understand the options available, and sometimes it just isn’t important to them. Both conditions are valid, but the former condition is where we can make the most difference. Volunteer in a school and teach kids how you can cook well for little money, and perhaps they will pester their parents to do so. Of course first you have to convince the school to do something like that. It is difficult to get teachers to take time away from teaching to the standardized tests, because that is how they are evaluated. It would also be nice if agencies providing food stamps and other relief would offer classes in shopping, cooking (and perhaps gardening) as well, but politics make that unlikely.

    I really would like answers to the questions of how we can change people’s priorities and how we can inform them in a way short of preaching in a condescending manner. These problems are not easily solved.

    I think there is a food revolution in America with the rise of celebrity chefs, increased interest in things like ‘heirloom’ pork and so on, but it is still limited to the middle and upper classes. I don’t think the talk in the WIC line is focused on Thomas Keller and Eric Ripert or even Emeril or Rachael Ray. However, it would be nice to find a way to extend some of the concepts to those nearer the bottom of the economic ladder. After all, we all have to eat, and I contend that we could all eat well.

  • Hank

    I’ve already posted on how the markets in Stockton and Citrus Heights, CA, are no more expensive than the supermarket, but I would add to Darcie’s point: Bottom line is that most Americans *simply cannot cook.* And vegetables can be difficult to cook in a way that “the haters” would enjoy. We have all had wretchedly cooked veggies, and no farmer’s market product will survive such harsh treatment. Elitism lies in what people do with the vegetables they buy once they’re home in the kitchen; by and large, poor Americans (as opposed to immigrants) lack cooking skills. Look up the studies if you don’t believe me.

    Really really good cooks all love veggies because they require the same sort of skill to make sing as does a pig’s knuckle or tongue or kidney. Just look at Thomas Keller, whose book you co-wrote, Michael. Now *he* knows how to cook veggies. (and knuckles and tongues and kidneys)

    Anyway, that’s my $0.02.

    Oh, and Tim – Minnesota apples are invariably better than California apples because we lack the cooling time good apples need. Gravenstein is really our only good variety. And never forget that the finest eating apple on the planet (IMHO) is the Honeycrisp, developed by…the University of Minnesota!

  • Natalie Sztern

    Define ‘working class neighborhood’. There exists people in cities that live below the poverty line, perhaps in the United States they are called ‘inner cities’, but where I live these people are not referred to as working class, but impoverished with too much pride to go on welfare. To these people 50 cents a pound can mean the difference of 3-4 dollars, which for the majority of us is couch change, but can buy a treat for one of the kids during a week…it is hard to comprehend but not every neighborhood that has people who work are called ‘working class.’

  • Jeremy

    If you can afford it, buy extra produce at your farmer’s market when it’s in season and freeze or can it to use over the winter.

    First, you’ll get the produce for much cheaper than you’ll have to pay at the grocery store during the off-season.

    Secondly, you’ll put money in your local farmers’ pockets and encourage them to come back next year. At the end of the day, they can’t sell the leftover produce that piles up in August–they’re investment turns to mush. But if you buy extra, you’ve saved them from having to waste good food and you’ve banked yourself some great tomatoes for pasta or berries for oatmeal come winter.

  • Kevin

    Remind me never to argue with Russ. He will win. All I have to offer is: thank god for my garden. Saves me the stress of debating this one.

  • Bob delGrosso

    One of the principal barriers to the availability of high quality locally grown produce in supermarkets is that the buying is typically conducted by a single centralized office, that has to supply stores that are in many cases dispersed over several states. This is not a system that is conducive to purchasing locally produced stuff for one store and not another. It’s also not a system that is going to be open to change because buying large quantities from a few suppliers is cheaper and more efficient than the converse.

    Another barrier is that even when a supermarket wants to buy local, they don’t want to pay the farmer a price that the farmer can live with. I know several farmers here in PA. who used to sell direct to supermarkets and restaurants but can no longer afford to do it. So they sell in the green markets or form CSAs.

    And how does living in a working class neighborhood lead to having trouble understanding why anyone would have trouble paying 50 cents extra a pound for something? I grew up in a working class neighborhood and have experienced poverty following the loss everything my parents had saved when my father lost his job following a protracted (and expensive!) illness. I’m mostly passed the point of worrying about how much food costs but my mother still clips coupons and always buys the cheapest food she can even though she really doesn’t have to worry about money anymore. I don’t know, maybe I’m missing something. It could be that I’m so far removed from contemporary working class people that I have missed the fact that they like to pay top price for quality food.

  • Natalie Sztern

    I know very little about farming, but I do know that since reading this blog and other food blogs I have been introduced to the program called CSA. after researching members in and around Montreal, I have found a farm that I will be contributing to and this coming March will be my first payment.

    I am ashamed to say that i have been shopping fruits and vegetables for the past “Unhum” years and it wasn’t until this past summer that I read of this program.

    I do want to make a point, since I deal with this in my work…people of limited financial resources find it financially difficult to buy fresh fruits, fresh vegetables for their kids. Many of them shy away from meat because of the cost in feeding a family and fish doesn’t even factor in to their shopping because of cost. It is a sad reality that impoverished people are of the most obese because it is much cheaper to shop for carbohydrate based foods like Mac and cheese, or hamburger helper where one box can be stretched to feed high energy teens.

    So, while we debate Farmers market vs supermarket, keep in mind we can enter the debate, others cannot.

  • krysta

    If I could add my two cents in this discussion… an extra 50 cents per pound in anything I could buy would put a dent in my household budget and I wouldn’t be able to shop at my local farmers market as much as I’d like to… BUT… I live in Stockton, Ca. in the heart of the San Joaquin Valley. Our farmers market was written about in Saveur magazine and is so much cheaper than going to the grocery store. All I can do is spread the word to as many people I know that the tomato, melon, cherries,asparagus, and whatever they are picking up in the store can be had for alot less money and will taste alot better than what they are buying at the local grocery store. Everyday I am thankful for what I have and where I live because I know what a luxury it is.

  • French Laundry at Home

    The low-income/working-class food cost/access debate will continue until the processed foods lobby is stopped, and federal legislation overrides state laws forbidding WIC and other supplemental food programs to cover the costs of fresh produce… whether in the grocery store or in the markets. This entire debate stems largely from what our elected officials protect, subsidize and fund — good or bad. I know, because, as they say, I get to see that “sausage” made every day on the Hill… and sometimes it really bums me out.

    As for middle America and everyone else, I’m glad we have the choices we do.

    Hailing from the farmlands of PA where we diid very little grocery store shopping growing up and got most of our food from local folks, I loved Russ’ latest book. I like its tone, direction and tenor, and it’s something I refer to regularly.

  • Big Red

    Very good points here. However, are any of us farmers? I can honestly say that I laugh at this banter back and forth on some issues.

    I grew up on a working farm. A 365 day 20 hour work day farm. We got up at the butt crack of dawn, and didn’t go to bed until late at night. Us kids were worked to the bone just like Mom and Dad. We sold the farm when I was 12. Partially cause my brother has autism, just like my own kids do and he required so much care, it was not feasible to do it anymore. But the money was a big one too. We were paid the same 20 cents per pound for berries, just like the commercial growers, but ours were high quality and organic before it was fashionable to be so. And in VERY Upstate NY, (We are talking further north than where Rachel Ray grew up, which was in Lake George in the aditrondacks. We were in freakin’ Potsdam ok?) that was a feat because our winters were without a lot of snowfall, so the freezing wind kicked the crap out of the bushes and the summers were short and humid. I feel the pain of the local farmer, but having been in the situation of that, I can also feel the pain of the blue collar worker, as we all know, farmers are blue collar workers. They may have quality food, but they are shopping at Walmart for the other stuff because they have to pinch every penny. So that 50 cents a lb may not mean much to them in food but in cotton for their shirts and socks, it means A LOT!!

    So what does this say about the state of the US today? Nothing really other than we have gotten away from an isolated agrarian society to more of a global one, which demands constant change and instant gratification. Does it suck to be a farmer? Hell yeah. It is a thank less job just like being a mother in many cases. But if you can spend the money, seek out the best at the FM and reward the farmer who grew it with a thank you and keep up the good work. Be a loyal client and seek them out if there is one that is consistently good. Show you appreciate them and what effort they put forth. Support their unions and bills from the government to keep them a float. They are the backbone of our society. We all need food. No matter how snooty we make it, it all comes back to that farmer, who could give a shit about what table at Les Halles that the beef tenderloin he raised is going to. Just try to remember that everytime you sit down to a meal. And don’t look down on those who have no choice but to buy frozen if any at all. We all do what we can with the money and resources we have. Some people make stupid choices, some people spend their money on stereos rather than food for their kids, but there are those of us out there at are doing what we can with what we got. And I am by no means hard up, my husband makes a good buck. But most of our money goes to medical expenses so from time to time I have to buy frozen broccoli rather than fresh. I have to for-go the FM beacuse my kids cannot handle the noise, unless I can get a sitter which is few and far between.

    Ok now that my tribute to middle america and the lower middle class is over, I am going to have a beer and eat my bernaise asparagus. But be sure…I will be thankful for it.

  • Charlotte

    Hey — just a word for California Farmer’s Markets in non-swanky neighborhoods — I lived in Hayward for a few years. It’s definitely working class with large immigrant populations (particularly from India, Pakistan and Afghanistan). We had a great market, populated with real farmers who sold Asian produce that I certainly didn’t see in the stores. And it was affordable too — all those canny immigrant grandmothers were there for the choice, but for the price too. My favorite moment was the day I saw a woman who appeared to have been a war bride burst into tears — she tugged her husband’s elbow and said “Look! I haven’t seen these chiles since I left Vietnam!”

  • Sorcha

    I have nothing at all constructive to contribute to this discussion, though I’m really enjoying it and learning from it. I just wanted to say that “Ruhlman, you ignorant slut” is the best line EVER. Apparently, Russ Parsons has been hanging around Tony. (Yeah, I know, it’s originally from SNL, but c’mon. If ever there was a line you can just *hear* Tony saying, that’s it.)

  • michael in DC

    The cover story in the Washington Post food section today was about cooking food purchased on a budget at farmer’s markets.
    “A Lesson in Market Economy”

  • Darcie

    I think that whether it costs more to shop at a farmers’ market isn’t the problem. In fact, I would argue that there are very few people who cannot afford to shop at one. It is, for the vast majority, a matter of choice. There is a farmer’s market here (Charleston WV), within walking distance for many poor urban folk, and with a bus stop right at the door. In fact, where a substantial portion of the poor live, it is MORE convenient, and about the same cost, to shop there than at the grocery store. Even with this access, most people with limited incomes still don’t shop there. The parking lot is full of Hummers, not beat-up Escorts. Nor do the poor buy produce at the mega-mart. But most of them certainly could if it were a priority. How many shopping carts have you seen laden with chips, sodas, and other junk foods? It is not that they can’t afford to buy fresh produce; it’s that they choose not to.

    However, since cost is touted as a factor, would people buy more fresh produce if it were cheaper? I bet if we gave arugula away, we would find few takers. Many people don’t know what to do with fresh produce, and to me that’s the problem. A large segment of our population hasn’t a clue about how to cook.

    A related problem to overall cost is the quantity vs. quality issue. In America we have become focused on price. ‘Hey, I can get these totally tasteless and nearly colorless tomatoes for half the price of tomatoes that actually taste like something! What a deal!’ What will it take to reverse this trend? I wish I knew.

    On to the next question: can we change people’s priorities? I know I talk about food to anyone who will listen. Sometimes I wonder if I’m like the guy standing outside the DMV, reading aloud passages of salvation to the vexation of passersby. We have spent the last 150 years making the acquisition of food a NON-priority. It was progress! Now that we have let that cat out of the bag, how can we put it back?

    And now to play devil’s advocate: Is it not a form of elitism that we feel we must elevate everyone to our lofty standards of food and cookery? There are a lot of people out there who eat to live, and not vice-versa. Maybe we should just leave them alone and enjoy the good stuff ourselves. Viva Applebee’s!

    Oh ick, I just threw up in my mouth a little….

  • t-scape

    I think this is a great topic, a great conversation, and would say that a scolding wasn’t really necessary. I’m glad this was brought up and I’m glad that it opened up a discussion, because it’s important to address issues that some may have misgivings about. That’s how good things get even better – when we keep an eye on them and bring up potential or perceived flaws. It’s clearly an issue that’s on people’s minds – if it weren’t, I doubt anyone would have taken the time to write about it.

    My main concern is whether it is indeed impossible to improve on taste and quality when growing things on a bigger scale (and hence, lower prices). As Jim pointed out above, I have also noticed that my local supermarket’s produce selection has impoved over the last 2-3 years. It’s not all on par with what I have found at some FM’s, but certainly a big improvement on years past. Is it truly considered impossible to produce flavorful produce on such a scale that could help keep prices more affordable and within more people’s reach? Because that extra 50 cents a lb may not be a big deal to some, even in working class neighborhoods, but I know it indeed is an issue to many others.

  • lisa the waitress

    I will just argue with his statement that there are “few” farms in Northern Ohio. There are lots of farms in Northern Ohio. There are agriculture auctions in Northern Ohio. Hello, the Chef’s Garden is in Northern Ohio. And, as someone who buys lots of produce from all over Ohio, I daresay that Northern Ohio has some of the best fruit & veggie terrior in the entire country. California included.

    Sorry to sound snarky, maybe it’s just that I’m getting tired of this debate. This person says it’s more expensive, that person says it isn’t, he says it’s better, she says she can’t afford it, It’s the topic du jour, and everyone has to weigh in on it.

  • ryan

    Well, I have family members who ran a family farm as I grew up (I’m 38).

    My cousin, who was a few years older, worked his ass off. My little soft city-ass would come over for Thanksgiving and he’d have been up since 5:00 AM (cows don’t take Holidays).

    For several reasons the family farm my cousin was going to inherit ceased to exist. He now works for a larger farm where he has ‘normal’ work hours, vacations, some holidays, etc.

    I asked if he missed, or longed for, the family farm.

    “Hell no”, was his reply.

    Yes, there are some who love the life and appreciate the admiration.

    But, you know, their kids might not like it.

    It’s damn hard work and comes off as a little condescending when some seem to think others are just there to serve them their pleasures on a plate.

  • Jim

    Russ – very insightful. As always. I love your line about agribusiness and really think you make an excellent point about the huge impact California’s climate has on this entire issue. It’s not one that people think about enough.

    The most thought-provoking comment, however was your noting that American agriculture was not a broken system. It is delivering what it is designed to deliver – high quality food at the lowest possible price. You are absolutely correct and that point should be repeated (which I just did).

    The nuance, however, is that the definition of “high quality” is not static. Currently, it is primarily defined as nutritious, safe and good looking. But the definition of what agriculture should produce is constantly changing based on customer demand. Three years ago you simply couldn’t find a decent tomato in a supermarket. Today, you can go into a standard Safeway and buy great-tasting heirloom tomatoes. Three years ago, the retail experts were saying organic was a fad. Today, it’s in WalMart.

    And the reason for this change is because people in the country are talking and thinking about food. There has been a significant change in the food world over the last three to five years. What began as a discussion among the foodie elite has evolved into mainstream America thinking about what they eat and where it comes from and producers at all levels are responding.

    So, where I would disagree with you is the assumption that the chances of finding high-quality fruits and vegetable is far higher at farmers markets than at supermarkets. That’s not always true today and is becoming less-and-less true each year.

    California has a well-organized system of certified farmers markets and a wealthy customer base that supports the highest levels of production. No store in the country could match Santa Monica, the Ferry Plaza or the San Rafael markets for the range and quality of the produce.

    But go to a non-certified (meaning no guarantee that the seller grew the food) market in a rougher neighborhood and they’re selling boxes of supermarket rejects.

    That same variation exists at supermarkets as well. Some are buying the cheapest product they can get and others insist on the highest quality. And that’s the key. As more customers define high-quality in terms of flavor, more flavorful food will be available.

  • tim

    @rockandroller

    “where” and “why” and “how” are difficult questions and I would answer “it depends”. Is the apple grown in my home state of minnesota “better” than the apple grown in CA? Doubtful.

    Is it produced “cheaper” just because its local? No.

    Are we using less energy and resources in growing that apple in minnesota than in CA? Doubtful. I would argue because of the efficiency of our transport system that less energy is used to make that apple in CA and transport it to Minnesota than to grow it in Minnesota.

    So its a lot to ask someone in a grocery store staring at the apple how much that apple cost to produce and how good it is by any other means than just by looking at it.

  • Carri

    Rock and roller,I agree! People have gotten so far away from what it takes to produce the food they consume every day, not to mention the amount wasted along the way. I’m not sure what the answer is, but buying as locally as you can and supporting small business has got to be a good start.

  • Daaaaave

    I agree with basically everything Russ writes, but I find it to be incomplete in 2 areas.

    First, he may “live in a distinctly working class neighborhood”, but that hardly means he shares the same concerns as working class families where that .50/lb can be a big deal (not even taking into account the number of families who, sadly, have all but eliminated produce entirely from their budget). While “elitist” may be overinflated, it’s disingenuous to presume that the cost which is inconsequential to him and acceptable to me is both to many other people.

    And secondly, while you may have intended (and Parsons seems certainly to have read) “elitism” to be pointed toward the markets, I would point it at the customers instead. I’ve had multiple vendors confess frustration at the condescension and snobbiness of many of their customers. People walking around so assured of their enlightenment you’d assume they singlehandedly started the Renaissance. These people have no problem not sharing their food with the great unwashed and for them the Farmers Markets do take on an elitist cache to be traded upon with their friends.

    The pricepoint the farmers put on their goods is ultimately less important to me than getting back to an economic sense of fairness where working families don’t have to think of local, organic produce as a luxury item and building the movements towards the fresh and the local so people get away from their pre-packaged foods and seek out the freshest and the best.

  • rockandroller

    I think it depends on what you think of as “better” produce. I prefer to do my best to spend locally but your argument that because it travels less of a distance, it’s “better” produce could be easily argued away by the average consumer, who I think shops based on size and looks as the test for “quality,” as well as price, not “where” and “why” and “how.” They care little that the taste is often better with local produce because it’s grown differently, picked more recently, etc. To them, if it’s cheap and sold at Marc’s, it’s good simply by definition, as good = cheap.

    I go to a farmer’s market every week that I can during the season they’re available, but sometimes the produce is really sad looking. It certainly doesn’t last as long as that produced by the giants and trucked in from CA (or further). But I buy it because I want to support them and I understand that I need to schedule my life around eating it as soon as I can instead of “in the next few days” because by then it may be really falling apart. Sometimes it IS better looking than what’s in the grocery, but that’s inconsistent and hard to plan for. And when my neighbor goes to shop for produce, they don’t shop to eat what’s available, they shop based on what they always get, all year – apples, bananas, watermelon, tomatoes, romaine, whatever. There are no “seasons” to them as it’s all there, all the time.

    Most of the people my age look at an apple and want to see it looking giant and flawless and costing very little. They don’t look at it and think “where are my dollars going?” “do I really need an apple as big as my baby’s head?” and “where was this grown?” let alone “what impact does my money have in buying this apple?” They really, really don’t get that the taste is better on an apple that has been grown differently and picked more recently; all they see is that it’s more expensive and to them, it tastes “the same” so why would they pay more? Plus they can’t get bananas and oranges at the local market, so now they have to make 2 trips.

    In some ways I think the year-round availability of “grocery store produce” as I call it is one of the worst things to happen to both American palates and American farmers.