Monday, August 11, 2008

The true cost of food

In my weeks away from the farm, I did help out at both of Everdale's Toronto market sites during the week, the Narayever CSA on Thursday and the Brickworks farmer's market on Saturday. It was really interesting to meet the people who have chosen to buy their food directly from farmers and to see the different stages they're at in terms of understanding the real cost of food.

The way that produce is priced at market is based on what consumers are willing to pay, and not necessarily on the full cost of production for that produce. I often felt when selling some of our produce that the prices were too low, yet there were always some customers who would complain about the prices, even though the majority of the Brickworks customers are quite affluent. I would like to calculate the real dollar cost of producing the various vegetables that are sold and see how far that cost is from the prices actually being charged at market. From field preparation, to seed, to transplant, to weeding, to irrigation, to harvest, to cooling and storage, to transportation, and finally, the time spent selling at various markets, there's a lot of labour involved! My gut tells me that $2 for a head of lettuce just doesn't cut it, even if we're harvesting and selling almost 800 heads per week (in addition to many other vegetables). I think that's 800 heads of lettuce from over 1600 planted seeds in the greenhouse, with over 50% loss from poor germination or growing conditions over the 6-8 weeks before the lettuce heads are ready for harvest. And lettuce is a relatively 'profitable' harvest compared to more labour intensive harvests like peas or beans.

Consider that the average Ontario family only spent about 10% of their disposable income on food ( in 2007. Compare that to 13% spent on transportation. Is it really reasonable for us to spend less on the food that keeps us alive and healthy each day than on commuting? And if you look at the Consumer Price Index, the cost of fruits and vegetables have gone down in 2007 compared with 2002! ( My assumption is that the reduction in retail cost is for conventionally grown produce, not organic, and has to do with an increase in imports from other countries where labour costs are much lower than in Ontario and environmental and labour laws are less stringent than here. But that retail cost doesn't take into account the environmental cost of having that produce brought in from long distances away. Or the exploitation of farm labourers in developing countries, whose health is also affected by the pesticides that they work around each day. And the low cost of the food we eat also means that being a farmer in Ontario is a far from appealing career path. Essentially, it seems that farmers are farmers out of love or altruism, and often involves holding down another job to support their farming habit/inheritance.

How is this horribly lopsided equation to be balanced? In 2006, only 8.6% of Ontario farmers were under the age of 35 (, 48.9% are from 35 to 54, and 42.5% are over 55. There obviously aren't enough new farmers in Ontario to replace the ones that will be retiring or should have already retired. We are in a culture that values decreasing the prices of everything without considering the true costs of doing so. Why should farmers not earn a decent wage for farming? What could persuade the average consumer that they should be spending more of their income on the food that they eat so that local farming can actually be a reasonable career choice? If this imbalance doesn't change, then Ontario's food supply will be at the mercy of other countries and global forces that don't have Ontarians' best interests at heart. I'm certainly not an alarmist in terms of expecting disaster to strike or the world to dissolve into chaos in my lifetime, but the increasing cost of oil and food shortages around the world cannot be ignored.

Because of this imbalance, many of the potential farmers I've met via Everdale's visits to other CRAFT farms ( aren't concerned with producing enough food to feed others, but just to sustain themselves and their families and friends. While this is commendable in and of itself, it doesn't change the fact that there wouldn't be enough local production to feed the majority of Ontarians. Especially organically! Which is what's needed for long-term environmental sustainability. But even if there are a handful of Ontarians who are willing to take the plunge into organic farming in Ontario, access to land becomes an issue. The price of land these days seems to be based on its value for future development, and not so much on what it could produce as a farm, so the cost of the land is many times higher than the income that could be earned from farming it. There are some fairly young programs out there which are starting to connect new farmers to land owners who are willing to have their farmland put into production (property tax breaks for farming, as well as putting provincially owned land into production). I struggle with the idea of putting so much effort into land owned by someone else, who could choose to sell or take back the land after I've spent years improving soil fertility. And there is some perception that taking this route feels like new farmers are 'poor labourers' feeding the rich, rather than intelligent and hardworking entrepreneurs who are working to change the face of farming in Ontario.

I'm blessed in that I feel that I'm answering God's call to go into farming and have built up assets such that I could possibly buy land and put it into production. But I'm in a very different financial position than pretty much everyone that I've met at Everdale or through CRAFT so far. And I have yet to find suitable land at a price that I can afford. I admit to procrastinating on the land hunting front as I find it a bit of a depressing exercise and much prefer right now to continue working at Everdale, learning everything I can about farming. But the end of the growing season is only a few months away, and much as I'd like to think that my active and idyllic life at Everdale can go on forever, I do have to start planning for the future.

My hope is that when I do start producing food, that there will be a community of people who are willing to pay the real price of the food I provide to them, including supporting a reasonable salary for me! Realistically, this will be a group of people who do have the disposable income to pay the higher cost of food, perhaps even willing to pay a bit more so that those with lower incomes can be subsidized to access the same food. It's certainly not a solution to balancing the equation, but it's somewhere that I can start!

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