RITES OF SPRING
Spring is coming and time to figure how I want to be in business same time next year. Maybe it’s time to ditch a couple of those marginal projects (viz. Lolla Rosso). Of course, they are the ones that give me the most pleasure or satisfaction and they are also the crops my friends and customers really appreciate. But pricing them according to the cost of inputs and the cost of attributed labor make the pleasure question moot. Something needs to be done. Unless you farm for the artistry, pleasure or creative verve, economic reality eventually rears its ugly head and spring is the time to look it in the face.
"Don’t Let Your Children Grow Up To Be Farmers," trumpeted a recent New York Times Op-Ed piece pointing out that most farmers today require an outside earned income to support their habit. Someone has to pay the bills and dirt farming (as so many know it) is simply not sustainable if you are actually going to cut a check every week to yourself, partner or children (the "free" labor) And here lie some of the great myths of farming: a) farming is supposed to be a bucolic nirvana (at least in the craft cocktails set); b) farming is supposed to produce inexpensive, if not cheap, food for everyone; c) the food must be sustainably grown, fairly produced; and d) the farmer should be able to make a living for his (or her) family without charging too much for the product. Just how all of these assumptions are supposed to coalesce in one big happy miracle has often eluded me.
It is hard for some people to understand why none of my children want to be in the farming business. Who doesn’t want to be a farmer? Answer: lots of people who have put their nose to the plow and/or their spouses who, at the end of the day, add up the numbers and realize that spiritual satisfaction doesn’t put food on the table at a fair price nor clothing on the kids. What determines a "fair" price? Often it is the conscience factor which tends to regulate how much a grower can charge for what is produced. $7/dozen eggs is high but $8/dozen is piratical. However, $8 may be just what a farmer needs to make a buck on the eggs. Consider the cost of inputs: fencing (to keep out neighboring marauders), housing (which may need to meet certain societal or governmental regulations), organic feed, et al. Then there’s labor (unless it is "free"): feed and water the flock, clean the house, sort, grade wash and pack the eggs. Unless you have unpaid interns, this costs a pretty penny and at $7, you might be at break-even. Nevermind buying, culling and restocking the flock, feeders, waterers, egg cartons and the cost of selling the eggs. There are also the opportunity costs. Could the time spent gathering and packing eggs be better spent on a more remunerative enterprise (or the kid’s soccer match)? Still, $8? Mucho too mucho. Maybe at Zabar’s, not here.
The fresh produce marketplace has significantly changed (or matured) in the last several years. “Organic” and “sustainable” (even “local”) have arguably become less reliably defined and thus present a serious challenge for local, sustainable ag-entrepreneurs. Organic is no longer a hard-to-find commodity label; it is everywhere with such major markets as Costco trying to drive prices down and get reluctant "foodies" into their mega-stores. Sustainable is bandied about almost at random.
The thing of it is, sadly, we producers need to tighten our belts. Those of us trying to make a buck need to realize efficiencies and the buy-local public needs to understand and support their area ag entrepreneurs. Neither can afford to take the other for granted. All of us must set realistic pricing schedules that protect our bottom lines while treating customers fairly.
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.