Now that food is flying off the grocery store shelves, I know many people are turning to local food to fill in the gaps. The concern of potentially infectious food is also at the front of many people’s minds. But the question frequently comes up: “Why is local food so expensive? Shouldn’t it be cheaper since it doesn’t have to travel as far?” Or the statement “I grow tomatoes in my garden and it only costs $1.59 for more tomatoes than I know what to do with. How can you possible charge $3.00/lb?” There are a lot of factors, but there are some main areas including “the economy of scale” and “living wage.”
Economy of scale is a term that refers to the ability for a producer to increase profits by spreading costs across a greater amount of goods. Large commodity farmers are able to purchase supplies in bulk, such as seeds, at a discount. Their cost per seed is lower for a farmer buying a 50lb sack compared to someone who is only buying a one pound bag of seed. It is also easier to bulk harvest and deliver to a single buyer rather than attend multiple farmer’s markets and running a CSA delivery service.
A living wage for a farmer means that the farmer must calculate his or her time into the equation of what they need to be charging for goods. If it takes an hour to harvest tomatoes, 30 minutes to drive to deliver them, and 30 minutes back to the farm, those two hours have to be factored into the equation. But the time to prepare the ground, plant the seed, cultivate the ground, and care for the tomatoes also accounts for a large chunk of time. The large scale crop farmer trucks a tractor trailer of tomatoes directly to a distributor with no other time factored into the income and cost equation.
Here, though, there is a catch. That commodity crop farmer that sells in truckloads rather than pounds and quarts, is earning pennies on his goods. In 2018, the USDA reported that farmers received just 18.4 cents for every dollar consumers spent on produce. This is actually a decrease of 5 percent in just one year. When you buy produce directly from the farmer, lots of hands are removed from the money pot: grocery stores, commodity crop buyers, trucking companies, etc. The farmer decides the price based on what they need to earn a living wage to continue to provide the amazing produce for their customers!
By purchasing your food from a local farmer, you are putting them in the driver’s seat of their income and their lives. Farming is one of the most important industries (and relies on a vast network of other very important industries) and is most certainly a “real job” which has been shoved to the margins of society as food as become cheaper and so readily accessible. It takes a wide array of skills, knowledge, ingenuity, grit, and artfulness to be successful at farming. We aren’t trying to get rich, we are trying to live the American dream and do what we love. The reward of farming isn’t in the money, but we do need to charge enough to keep doing what we love.