Farming > baking?

Editor’s note: this post was drafted and lost for a long time.  It was found nearly five years later and published as a matter of record in it’s draft form. It’s not a finished product.

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What’s worth more to you — produce or baked goods? Right off the top of your head, what are you likely to pay more per pound for, zucchini or cookies? Remember your answer.

We were banking on a combination of both, which is why Allie went through the trouble of having a kitchen inspected so she could sell baked goods at the farmers’ market alongside our veggies. What we found out was more startling to Nick than Allie — baked goods are like saran-wrapped stacks of cash compared to the leafy green rolls of nickels that are produce. A pound of dollar bills gets you further than a pound of nickels.

Now, we never expected to get rich selling vegetables. Despite some friends’ protestations, we’re not growing the more significant cash crops that contain THC or opioid alkaloids. And I’ll also admit that one single week at one small-town farmers’ market is hardly a significant sample size. But consider this the preliminary results on which a much larger thesis may later be based. (Also consider it the end of sentences starting with conjunctions.)

Let’s take a look at what goes into vegetables. We started the plants from seeds weeks ago (many of them months ago), running grow lights 24/7 for a number of weeks. We plowed the ground, added amendment after amendment to the soil, and scraped off the rocks to plant. We’ve watered and weeded, watered and weeded, and set up deer fence. We’ve gotten up early to shoot at the groundhog who’s menacing the tomatoes. We’ve gotten up even earlier to pick, wash, and transport fresh produce to the market.

Baked goods’ turn. Allie’s all over this one, as Nick’s comparatively bumbling in the baking department. Basically, it’s about a day and a half worth of effort to buy the ingredients, put them all together, and bake up some deliciousness. To be fair, Allie also got up early to fresh-bake the scones on the day of the market. Tell me that’s not service.

The result of this labor? The net profit from selling vegetables last week was the same as the net profit from selling baked goods.

It took a little while for that to sink in for me, so I’ll say it again — we made as much profit from a day and a half of baking as we did from all of the labor involved with produce.

What this means is that we can more nearly charge a fair price for baked goods than we can for vegetables. Our bakery prices are set to cover ingredient costs and provide roughly minimum wage for the effort involved. I’ll agree that there’s some upper limit to how much time should go into a cookie, but if you’re not willing to pay someone minimum wage to make your food, you probably shouldn’t be buying it prepared. Allie’s done tons of practice batches and is plenty speedier at making a few dozen cookies today than she was when we were thinking about starting.

As we were sitting behind our booth during a slow hour at the market, were were contemplating our veggie prices. Another vegetable seller showed up this week, and they were undercutting us on zucchini and cucumbers. We worried briefly that we should drop our prices, but decided against it. Luckily, we’re in the position where we can eat or preserve nearly all of what we don’t sell at the market, so if it didn’t move, we weren’t really losing out. We barely make minimum wage for the time we spend at the farmers’ market, let alone the time put into growing everything.

As I write, I realize how very much there is to say about this. I’ll hold back a little for future posts, but the upshot is that it feels like Americans, as a society, greatly undervalue their whole foods. Maybe that’s generalizing about the herd based on one single cow (is that a common metaphor? eh, I’m going with it), but I’ll challenge any of you to provide a counter example (outside of the typical foodie cities). This isn’t really news for us, and it may not be for some of you. But if you’re reading this blog, and if you aren’t up on food politics, I hope you’ll think about it.

I usually try to have an improvement in mind when I set to complaining about something. If I’m complaining that my burger doesn’t have enough cheese on it, I’ll scheme about how to get more condensed dairy protein onto that sucker. So how can we get more cheese into farming? We’ve got a shortlist that we think would help.

  1. Health insurance. We simply couldn’t afford it if Nick didn’t have a consulting gig on the side. Heck, we can only afford what amounts to just-better-than-catastrophic coverage as it stands. There should be some kind of farmers’ union that we could join to get in on a group policy. I’m willing to wager that farmers, on the whole, are some of the healthier members of society, so the insurance companies should make out alright on the deal, too. Say what you will about Obamacare, but in the absence of such a union, some of its provisions may very positively impact the small farming community when they go into effect in a few years.
  2. Student loans. Teachers, firefighters, and other public servants are eligible for loan forgiveness. They work for about five years, pay their loans over that time, and are eligible to have the balance forgiven. If we could get in on deal like that, not only would it make more financial sense in the long term, but it would actually help attract people to farming, which is incredibly necessary in light of the fact that over 40% of farmers are over 55 years old.
  3. Education. More people should understand what we think our current customers do: high quality, responsibly produced local produce is worth the money. Rather than being afraid of cooking, it should be embraced by more people. This is a more significant cultural shift away from junk food to healthy food.
There’s plenty more that could be done. Subsidies? Who needs em? Apparently corn and dairy (among others). Food prices should reflect the true value of the food. Want to help people who can’t afford it? Revamp WIC or foodstamps.
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