Tuesday, September 29, 2009

To Market To market to

Buy a pound of potatoes

As the farmers' market season winds down here in Maine, I thought to give it one last shot and came away empty handed again. The Farmers' Market is a beautiful gathering. It is filled with beautiful people mingling among the beautiful offerings of farm product.
It is not however a "market". Free markets are places where goods compete for customers based on a complex set of values. Once these values are established, externalities calculated (in the case of food, supply and demand are large factors), prices are set. In this, and my travels suggest, many farmers markets, it appears that truly outrageous prices are being assigned to foodstuff on the basis of regionalism, small farm product, and in some cases, organics. Here are real examples of prices as of last Saturday: onions $1 a piece, potatoes (maine white round) 2.50 a pound, spinach $9 a pound, scallions $2 a small bunch, Maine wild blueberries $7 pint, ground beef $8 a pound, and the cruelest cut of all; lamb shanks $10 pound. Spinach is not worth 9 bucks simply because you produce so little of it.

What is missing is any consideration of seasonality, i.e. blueberries are in and therefore plentiful and thus cheaper as farmers must move more product. The true market price as reflected by the same berries being for sale in supermarkets is more like 3.50 a pound and that is after all of the additional markups. Also missing is competition among the purveyors as there is a striking similarity of price. Maybe most importantly what is missing is the push back from intelligent consumers who know when they are being ripped.

The point was brought home to me the other night at dinner when our guest, a thirty something teacher, foodie, and triathlete, asked; "What is a fair price to pay for chevre at the farmers market?" Fair question. She had no standard by which to judge, i.e. had not bought goat cheese before, and had nothing to compare it to. She had paid at the rate of $32 a pound. She liked the cheese and felt good about supporting a local maker. The making of cheese is such a fine art, the taste variances are so subtle, that to try to place an absolute value on one or another cheese isn't possible. I did suggest to her that she was at the top end of the price range, particularly for a fresh cheese which has a high moisture content and promised to share with her a variety of other cheeses to broaden her taste. To gain some perspective it will be important for her to know that there are at least 20 similar cheeses for sale from France that retail for a third less. They are small farm, hand made cheeses, whose producers are making a living. These cheese makers have paid the freight, customs, and brokers fees, and whose retailers put on another markup.

By now we know that certified organic food costs more to produce, and if you want it you should expect to pay more for the effort. But how much more is becoming a big issue. The prices in the market would be hard to justify on the basis of farming practice. What does appear to be a factor, and one that I am not willing to support, is the idea that small scale "farmers" are entitled to make a living. If the Joneses want to sell their garden product off their two acre patch they can't begin by arguing that they work harder, incorporate no labor sharing or saving mechanism, and need to make X in order to survive. They have created a bubble, a small one, but a bubble and it is going to burst.

In June, Pete Wells writing in the NYT, went on about $35 chicken, and $14 gallons of milk. He was cutting back. The farmers had priced him out of their market.

Many articles are written re. how the local farmer is only recovering his/her cost of healthy production and usually in the same article a shot is taken at industrial food. In a recent discussion in the local paper it was stated that the reason the industry can produce cheap food is that "they exploit illegal labor, despoil the land, and spread disease".

When you make that statement in Maine, you are indirectly attacking the single largest farm crop in the state, the Maine Potato. The Maine potato is in season right now, and this highly respected food source is on sale in most supermarkets for 40 cents a pound. Clearly something else is going on here.

In the same article John Harker, a development agent for the Maine Department of Agriculture, said "research shows that the current market for direct-to-consumer sales from small farms in Maine is confined to the pool of consumers with higher incomes and higher levels of education". John had best be careful. I have run into a hail of criticism for suggesting there is anything wrong in the farmers "market".

The critical points have to be made. If persons intended to set up a food boutique, selling custom made product to richies who choose to pay for the privilege so-be-it. But that is not the ambition of the persons promoting the locovore/organic movement. A recent conference was entitled "Can Maine Feed Itself". That is all Mainers. That includes women in the WIC program, a federally funding program trying to improve the nutritional intake of new moms. They have just included "farmers markets" as eligible for vouchers from WIC participants. WIC women can now buy $10 worth of product at a certified farmers market, A MONTH. In our market that would be one lamb shank.

John Harker has called on farmers to form co-ops to increase their footprint. He hopes for more processing plants, and he calls for consumers to form buying co-ops. He also hopes to curtail the false promise of organics as in the following article.

I have a local farmer who eschews the Portland market. He sets up a stand on the campus of our local university on Fridays. He has the same beautiful product, grown locally, at half the price of his competition. He's got my business.


  1. Whoops, got my parodical wrong, here goes...
    I'm 100% with you. Got a sister who's one of 'em. You know, the Whole Floods going, overly indulged, la-de-dahers.
    There's a stretch of HWY 183 east of Austin with folks in pick-ups scattered on the shoulders selling $5 live chickens, $2 watermelons, live goats and rabbits and what ever they have that's come in this week. It's almost all hispanic in an area of real poor hard working folks who live in old trailer houses and shacks on an acre or so, usually building a better place with the extra time and money that they don't have. Oh, and they didn't pay a fee or attend any meetings or have a couple of 57 y.o. sad sacks singing crappy Jimmy Buffett tunes. And no coffee venders.

    Maybe I'll go by Saturday and get you a few photos and a melon for Pops. Thanks for reminding me. Keep it up, Dick

  2. Will, glad you spoke up. You should see what goes on nearby in Palo Alto. The food is good, but not $18 per pound for pork good! But the folks ask for it here. Last season, I was buying at a stand and was short some change. The woman waiting next in line says curtly to me "this is Palo Alto" and hands me a fiver to cover my tiny deficit. I thanked her, and it was generous I suppose, but I didn't know how to take it either. That sort of behavior sends a message. But people flock. You should see the crowds. And our markets are year round.