FARMER'S DIARY: IF YOU GROW IT THEY WILL COME
Ifyou grow it they will come, or so the thought goes. But apparently it just isn’t so. The line should have been: If you grow it well, price it right, and promote it properly, maybe they will come. This is a difficult chemistry to master for most of us in the farming business. Farming has probably never been simply the art of production. When I was a child, dairying was the proverbial "iron rice pot"(as guaranteed sales were referred to in Communist China—the state bought all of the production and distributed just enough to keep the peasants from death’s door). All of the farmers on our road sold all of their milk to the local creamery and received a modest check every couple of weeks. Every family tapped out (gathered sap) and then sold their maple syrup retail. On a good year, syrup sales would cover your real estate tax bill. No marketing, no promotion involved. Just produce enough and hope to prosper.
We may think we have a virtuous food culture revival now but I am not too sure of its depth. While we do have an “all food matters” ethic, an always-nascent Slow Food movement, and a lot of locavore language, the fact remains that for most farmers, the price of beans (or peas or cauliflower or whatever) is, in fact, (like the price of milk) essentially “set” somewhere else and it is relatively inelastic. Most of our friends and neighbors are only going to pay just so much for a pound of produce no matter how charitable they may feel about saving open space, their local farmer or the workers who put the produce out for our delectation. Of course, some niche growers will get a premium for some or all of their production due to some quirk of charisma or the happenstance of fortunate location. Good for them! But they are the fortunate minority in this business. The rest of us must not only be good, if not really good, growers, but we must also invest time, energy and other scarce resources into getting the word out and correctly reading the produce-pricing tea leaves. If the price is too high, you’ll have chicken food in a day or so; too low and some customers will wonder why.
It is true that the fresh market is big right now. Almost everyone is on the eat-healthy bandwagon. But every shopper has their price point and they know where the best places are to optimize their food dollar from an economic and a qualitative perspective. If Whole Foods Market has organic beans, from Connecticut, for instance, at fifty cents per pound less than I do, some of my savvy customers will go there if that is what’s de rigueur for that evening’s meal. It is not that the fifty cents is all that important, but the perception of economy is pervasive and often instinctive. Even when we drive past farmers out in the fields, most of us don’t equate the price per pound with hours worked for weeks or months on end to bring that produce to perfect ripeness, never mind the inherent cost of making the sale possible. For the grower, the fifty cents is important because he or she earns it on every pound produced and that may be what the real cost of production turns out to be.
Concerned consumers ought to forget the fifty cents. We all know what we should be doing with our food dollars. That extra scoop of unearned ice cream can wait.
John Lee is the manager of Allandale Farm (Boston's last working farm), which specializes in naturally grown local produce. Each summer, John manages an outdoor children's program on the farm. He writes for local news outlets and is deeply involved with farming and locally grown issues in Massachusetts.