A thorough debate on local food prices

There’s been quite a little kerfluffle online lately, after the excellent food/farm blog The Ethicurean posted a provocative and thoughtful essay from a small hog farmer accusing small farms of “gouging” customers through their pricing. The essay, and the ensuing comment thread, are very much worth the time of anyone reading this blog. You will learn a great deal from all the perspectives offered:

http://www.ethicurean.com/2009/03/31/unfair-fare/

Later, another food blog picked up on this, and got Joel Salatin to write a commentary about pricing of local foods. My thinking has obviously been deeply influenced by Joel’s libertarian approach to farming, and I thought his response was spot-on. There is some fair criticism that his Polyface Farm is, in fact, quite large and so its problems are not necessarily those of true small farms, but I think that misses the point. Even at a few acres, we run up against most of the same issues Salatin does with regards to inane bureaucracy, regulations, and limitations. In any case, read his take and the ensuing comment thread as well:

http://www.foodrenegade.com/guest-post-joel-salatin-on-why-local-food-is-more-expensive/

For my two cents, I think a core contention is whether farmers should be passing all costs along to consumers. I don’t think most people realize just how expensive it is to farm, especially at the market scale. I don’t mean inputs and seeds, though that certainly matters. I mean all the insurance and liability requirements, legal concerns, licenses, and so on, which are immensely expensive with regards to either the time to comply with them, or the money to hire accountants and lawyers to help you do so. And if you’re trying to farm full-time, add in all the basic costs of living a reasonable life that allows you to save for retirement or health care. I feel fully justified in including my health insurance costs and personal cost of living in my prices; this small business is intended to be my primary livelihood and I can’t separate that from the need to make a decent living.

If customers won’t pay the price I need to charge to make a living, that’s my problem. I chose this business and I’ll sink or swim with it. But one thing I won’t do is suffer an existence of poverty in a well-meaning attempt to serve people cheap food. My skills, effort, knowledge, and talents are too valuable to me to give away to an artificially subsidized concept of food. If I can’t make a living at this, I’ll quit and do something else, as will many other of the young small farmers just coming online.

Ball’s in your court, customers. I loved this comment from the second blog link:

Living expenses have snuck up on me, things I never paid for before. TV used to be free. I never had a cell phone until the last couple years. There didn’t even used to be an internet. I pay willingly for all these things, mostly for my own entertainment and enjoyment. How can I in good conscience justify paying $100 a month for satellite TV and cry “poor” about food, the very sustenance of my life?

One thing Joanna and I are working toward is open books; in a year or two, we’d like to make our books available to any customer at market, so they can see just how much it costs to grow each item, how much we pay in liability insurance, how many hours per year we spend wrestling with tax codes and regulatory messes, and so on. Some people seem to think market farming is like a garden with a business licence. Hah. Maybe it is if you don’t follow the rules, but it’s a classic case of ethical people taking the fall for everyone else.

Coming soon will be a long rant about the inanities of the insurance and liability issues we face as a small market farm, along with the equal silliness of the way tax codes and business structures restrict our ability to farm.

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