Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The Buck Stops Here

My hands moved slowly over the ruby orbs, smooth and firm. I plucked one from the pile and turned it over in my hand. The sign pronounced them "sweet" and priced them at $4 a pound.

"Are these organic?" I asked, looking up at a farmer I hadn't seen at the market before. These were the only cherries I'd spotted today.

"They are not organic but we do not spray pesticides." She smiled back.

My free hand lingered over the mound of cherries. Close enough, I decided. Pulling out a netted produce bag, I filled it to the top. I would make cherry jam, tonight. Cherry season is not long but eating cherry jam in January . . . true luxury. My treasure weighed in at $13. I paid the farmer, eased the cherries into a canvas bag and waved goodbye.

Next stop was Kashiwase Organic Farm. Last week was their first week back at the market and the owner, Steve, had welcomed me with a hug. I had admired their peaches and apriums on the way in. Swinging past the peach table, my heart stopped. A handwritten sign announced
"Organic Cherries $7/lb" and perched over a wooden crate filled with the little red fruit. Suddenly, the canvas bag cradling my cherries felt heavy. My shoulder strained under its weight. I no longer wanted my cherries. I wanted those cherries.

I know. Right now, you're doing the math. You're wondering if there is a typo. Why would she want to pay $3 more per pound of cherries? The $4 ones don't even have pesticides.

The reason I'm willing to pay more, in terms of dollars, is because the $4 cherries actually cost quite a bit more than the advertised price. Not in terms of money but in terms of life, of unseen costs borne by unseen people and unseen creatures, in terms of our soil, air and water, our own health. In terms of my children's future.

As David Wann noted in Simple Prosperity, "the supermarket costs of mainstream food don’t reflect the hidden costs ultimately paid by taxpayers, including billions of dollars in federal agricultural subsidies, water contamination, loss of bees, soil erosion, and so on. If you add environmental and social costs to a conventionally grown head of lettuce, for example, its price would be twice as high.” (199) Even taking pesticides out of the equation, "since the 1980s, the vitamin and mineral content in beans has fallen by 60 percent, in potatoes by 70 percent, and in apples by 80 percent. These decreases have occurred in produce from conventional farms that don’t replenish their soil with cover crops, compost, and organic wastes." (99-100). Non-organic farms use nitrogen based fertilizers. Nitrogen is as dangerous to the environment as carbon dioxide and contributes to global warming, smog, haze, acid rain and depletion of the ozone layer. Moreover, the devastating dead zones along our coasts and, in particular along the Mississippi River and into the Gulf of Mexico, can be traced directly to use of nitrogen-based fertilizers. Viewed in that light, the $7 cherries, grown in an ancient orchard lovingly and organically managed by Steve and his family, were downright cheap.

Hidden costs extend beyond organic produce. I'm sure I raised a few eyebrows last week when I blithely plopped down $65 for a pair of recycled tire flip flops. How can I justify spending that amount of money on a skimpy pair of shoes?

Easy. Those shoes didn't truly cost $65. First, subtract the $5 donation that Simple Shoes made to Stop Global Warming when I purchased a pair from its Stop Global Warming line. Next, my shoes are made with recycled tires. Had they not been diverted from the waste stream, those tires would first have taken up landfill space and then likely would have been incinerated to make space in the landfill, thereby releasing more pollution into the atmosphere. That's a good sized deduction from the quoted cost.

Now, compare the true cost of a replacement pair of flip flops. The type I would have purchased in the past cost between $10 and $15 a pair. As I would need two to four pairs to last as long as my Simple shoes will last, double or quadruple that price and we're looking at between $20 and $60 for replacement shoes. Add in the natural resources mined to create new materials for the shoes and their packaging, the pollution stemming from the toxic glue and materials used, the health and ecosystem damage from pesticides sprayed on non-organic cotton, and landfill space for the replacements which never last through a single season and that price increases significantly. I would also weigh the impact on the lives of underpaid laborers and shipping costs but, as Simple Shoes also manufactures its shoes in China, I'll call that a draw. Taking into account all the unseen costs, my Simple flips are looking like a good deal indeed.

It's true that a more sustainable option may cost more money. I'll pay the $7 for a pound of cherries or the $65 for a single pair of flip flops, though. I'm doing something more important than buying fruit and shoes. I'm investing in our collective future. For me, the buck stops here.


innercitygarden said...

People do tend to blanch at the price tag on organic/fair trade/natural products. Why spend $100 on a wooden toy when you can buy five plastic ones for the same money? Well, why buy five toys when you only need one? The logic follows for shoes and clothes.

It doesn't look like it would follow in quite the same way for food on the surface. But I find since I increased my proportion of organic produce in our diets I've been a lot more conscientious about eating all of it, of making sure any leftovers get eaten tomorrow, or frozen. We eat out less, so the increased cost of fresh food is well and truly absorbed. And then there's the organic loaf of bread? Yeah it costs a couple of dollars more when I buy organic bread. But it lasts longer, and yet, we aren't hungry. It takes twice as much cheap bread to fill us up.

innercitygarden said...

Ooh, and I forgot to add, for anyone who's feeling broke: if you can't afford it at the 'real' price, ask yourself "do I need it or want it?". If it's toys or coffee or chocolate (all of which I'm a big fan of) the answer is 'want'. If you can't afford to pay full price for everything, make sure you pay a fair price at least for the luxuries.

Can't buy organic everything? Just buy one thing organic then. Try to make it two things every now and then.

Oh, and if you compare organic prices at the market near me to the conventional produce at the supermarket, you're better off buying organic.

Burbanmom said...

Excellent post, Green Bean. Although many folks will argue that many families simply don't have the money to buy organic or fair trade, it is imperative that those of us who CAN afford the monetary outlay, DO IT.

Heather @ SGF said...

Those cherries look SOOOOO good!

In addition to what innercity garden said, I also find that when I have made something from scratch, I'm less likely to waste or toss it because I know how much work went into it.

eco 'burban mom said...

I think when I first started to make the change to local and organic food things did seem more expensive. When you compare apples by the case at Costco to organic apples purchased from the Farmer's Market in a little bucket it does seem more expensive. I am shopping for a family of six, so it can be tempting to buy in bulk and make it easy. And, GB, I agree with you when you take out the carbon footprint, pesticide loads and poor working conditions those bulk apples at Costco picked 5 weeks ago are not a deal.

What I think I have learned to equate to the cost of the local and organic food is the workmanship, quality and freshness that you just don't get at a big box store - even if it is organic. I appreciate the random colors and sizes of the eggs. I enjoy my label and marketing-gimmick free bacon. The milk in the glass bottle is downright cute. I buy less random junk, packaged foods and impulse items when I am not wandering through the aisles of Costco and Target.

My food bill has dropped almost $50 a week for a family of six and that's pretty good considering everything is either local, organic or fair trade. We also eat every last scrap of the bacon or the eggs or the produce, so we are wasting less. Why? I think in part because it is fresher when it hits your table so we aren't throwing away spoiled food, but also because we appreciate the food more. When you "shake the hand that feeds you" you are more inclined to relish what you have!

eco 'burban mom said...

Now that I am done ranting and raving on local, organic food...

What are you doing to do with all those cherries? Got any good recipes that rival the infamous oatmeal chocolate chip cookies? I recently bought five 1 qt. bags of frozen, local, organic tart cherries and have made cherry muffins and a cherry cobbler, but am running out of ideas. I was thrilled the cherries were already pitted and got REAL excited and bought so much now I don't know what to do with them all!!

ruralaspirations said...

Last weekend was only my fourth time at the farmer's market, but I finally learned my lesson to do a walk through of all stalls before I start buying!

But you are also right that the price of conventional food does not reflect its true costs. We are a society that values cheap food and we need to change that attitude. People will plunk down $500 for an iPhone but won't fork out extra for ethical meat...I think we should start spreading the word: FOOD - you get what you pay for!

Sue in the Western Great Basin said...

I totally agree with you about the hidden costs of things. But I do have to wonder about the various meanings of "not organic".

It might have meant that they do add things you'd prefer not to have added (nonorganic fertilizers, for example, or they spray *something* nonorganic, just not the pesticides she mentioned). On the other hand, "not organic" could also mean nothing undesirable added, just no organic certification. As in, organic but not Organic, if you know what I mean. In my local tiny community when ordinary people like me offer produce for sale, we call it "no-spray", since none of us are certified organic, of course.

In any case, YUM to all those cherries! Too early for them here...

Green Bean said...

All of you make an excellent point about not being as inclined to waste food when you buy local, organic and fair trade. I can't find a link for these numbers right now but I remember reading, in Plenty, that 40% of food grown in US never makes it to plate - it's thrown out before bc it's too ugly, small, whatever. Further, 20% of food that makes it into our homes is thrown out and then throws off a bunch of methane gas decomposing in our landfills. We do seem less inclined to waste food when we were involved in its preparation or bought it from someone who was. As EBM points out, we don't waste food after shaking the hand that feeds us.

ICG: Great point. For non-food items, I don't need 10 pairs of shoes. I can buy fewer and then afford to pay for the better quality, more ethical ones. That applies to clothes, toys, anything that we buy other than food. You are right too, that chocolate and coffee are wants. I don't actually need it (though sometime I feel like I do!). The fair trade price isn't that much more and maybe I can afford to gorge myself on a little less of the chocolate.

Burbanmom: True. Those who can afford it, should try to buy it all and, as ICG recommended, those who can't afford as much, should try to buy one or two items organic. Personally, though, I think we need to move away from the idea of "pile it high and sell it cheap" idea of food. As a society, America spends less on food, as a portion of its income, than any other country but more on health care than any other country. (Simple Prosperity). Our values are askew.

Heather: You bet! No way am I throwing away bread that I made because it is stale or yogurt because it didn't gel quite right. There is too much of my time in it.

EBM: Great statistic. I never calculated the difference I was spending but it is less. I no longer pick up random items at Target, Costco and Whole Foods that languish in the back of my pantry. Quite right, too, that the quality and beauty of an farmers market item is so much more. It is interesting, unique, special. How can we waste it?

RI: I know I should always do a walk through. I've been going so long that I usually know what to expect seasonally from each vendor. Obviously I sometimes pay for that assumption. As Michael Pollan wrote in In Defense of Food, “Yes, shopping this way takes more money and effort, but as soon [as] you begin to treat that expenditure not just as shopping but also as a kind of vote – a vote for health in the largest sense – food no longer seems like the smartest place to economize.” (161)

EBM: What to do with all those cherries? Other than making cherry jam (I just followed the recipe on the pack of pectin and added 1/4 cup of lemon and 1 tsp of lemon zest as mine were sweet instead of sour cherries), I found a recipe for cherry clafouti that I plan to try later this week. If you try it first, let me know. How were your muffins? Gotta a recipe?

Green Bean said...

Sue, here people generally say "no spray" to mean they don't spray pesticides but do use commercial fertilizer. If they are not certified organic but follow organic practices, they will usually specify that. I could care less about certification as it is not the certification but the practices that matter. Looking a farmer in the eye, I trust them as much as I would trust a stamp saying they are ok. I've had farmers whip out aerial photos of their land showing me where they plant, telling me how they the rotate crops, use cover crops, etc. You are right, though. I should have followed up with a question about their fertilizers and, actually, I did this at the next market that I went to.

eco 'burban mom said...

Here is my recipe for the muffins. They are totally kid-approved too, they ate 'em up. I used whole wheat flour and regular low fat milk and it all turned out fine. Of course, all organic and local whenever possible! Oh - I and I added just a few more cherries... I like lots of fruit in mine! I bet this would be delicious with sweet cherries too!

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup old-fashioned rolled oats
3 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup light brown sugar, packed
2 large eggs
6 tablespoons butter, melted
1 teaspoon vanilla
3/4 cup buttermilk; low fat is fine
1 1/2 cups cherries

Mix dry ingredients & sugar - set aside. Melt butter, whisk in eggs and vanilla. Mix w/ dry ingredients and milk. Bake 375 for 20-24 minutes. Makes about 15 muffins.

kale for sale said...

I've been a bit off kilter at the markets too with all the new/returning growers. With each new season there's a learning curve as to where I want to buy but it's part of the attraction of shopping this way too. You also make such a good point about if we can afford to buy organic, fair trade, local, whatever, we should. I know a lot of people that don't have the luxury of those choices, which raises my expectations of those people who I know do. Of course it's then the person on a fixed income that will plunk down bills for an organic tomato and the rich guy that goes to Subway for lunch. Go figure. Lastly, a guest recently didn't finish the food on their plate and it was so hard to throw it away. If it hand't been all stirred together I would have saved it. In any event, it brought home to me how I take it for granted now that we don't throw food away.

arduous said...

Green Bean, I am totally with you. Like Burbs said to me a few weeks ago, and like she said here, those of us who can afford to pay more for local/organic, should. I am happy to pay a couple extra bucks for organic.

I admit I might have blanched at $7 cherries, and might not have bought them at all. But it's okay because I've learnt some farmers' market secrets! One, from you. Cherries are just going into season. Next week those $7 cherries are probably going to drop down to $5. The other secret I have learnt from being a lazy person who shows up to the farmers' market in the last hour of market. In the last half hour of market, a lot of the farmers' knock down their prices. Last time, the cherry vendor was selling his cherries for $5 a pound at 12:30pm. Those same cherries were sold for $10 a pound at 8:00 am. But he just wanted to get all his cherries sold.

The other thing is, if you can't afford $100 on a wooden toy or $65 on flip-flops, I have a simple solution: buy used. If you buy used you can buy all the junk plastic toys you want! And all the conventionally made flip flops! It's really not that icky. If you go to Ebay, or a thrift store you can find plenty of "like new" flip flops. The advantage of buying used clothes, shoes, and toys is that then you have more money for organic cherries.

CindyW said...

It's all relative. One of my good friends sometimes goes to farmer's market with me. Last week she balked at buying organic peaches at $3.25 per pound at farmer's market. Is $3.25 expensive? Yes, absolutely. That is about $3 per peach. So she goes for the conventional ones for $2 per pound. That is $1.25 per pound of difference. If you buy 5 pounds of peaches a week, the difference is $25 per month.

But she loads up on bottled water without thinking about how much more expensive it is than her tap water (not even counting the environmental cost here). Since we are good friends, I ventured to suggest that if she cut off the bottled water, she could easily afford the organic peaches.

She said that she never thought of it that way. I don't think she has switched to organic peaches yet and I am not pointing fingers at her in any way.

I am just pointing out the math - when we balk at the "high" price for organic food, we may not think about the other places we spend money. It's all about priority.

Joyce said...

Has anyone tried dickering with the sellers about the price? Pointing out that the guy down the row is selling the ssme product cheaper? Organic is great, but that doesn't mean you need to be taken for a ride! I know you want to be fair to the farmers, but they need to be fair to you too.

Donna said...

All you Californians are making me hungry for some of those cherries! Oregon's aren't ripe, yet.

I'm one of the people who really can't afford the $7 cherries (and if you wait until the end of the day at our farmers' market you'll find that the vendors are sold out!). Anyway, I wait for the u-pick places to open and then I pick cherries to my heart's content. There's more than one way to save $$ and still eat local & organic.

Green Bean said...

EBM: Excellent. Thank you for sharing. I got cream to make butter this afternoon! Now I know how I'll be using my buttermilk. :)

Katrina: Some great points there. First, I carefully choose who I buy from at the market based on how they grow, what they use and how much fun they are to talk to. ;-) Isn't it interesting, though, how it is not a function of wealth that determines how we spend our money but priority.

Arduous: Great tip on shopping the farmers' market AND buying used. My Simple flip flops were a rarity, actually, because I buy almost everything used. I'm sporting a super cute new shirt today that I've literally gotten a dozen compliments on and guess where I picked it up? Local thrift shop. Between thrift stores, garage sales, craigslist, ebay and such, it is very very rare indeed to have to buy something new.

Cindy: Superb example of priorities and where we can cut costs without sacrificing. Brilliant!

Joyce: In all honesty, I've never asked a farmer to reduce their price. I suppose you could but I want to make something clear. Sure, the organic cherries cost more - a lot more. I buy from them though because not only are they organic, but I know Steve, how he cares for his land and his workers (who are in large part his family). Over the past year, whenever I buy from Steve, or almost any other farmer, they are constantly rounding my total down or sticking a couple extra pluots in my bag. My favorite farmer, Sapphira, often sets aside my favorite veggies for me before I come and refuses to charge me for them. Sure, I spend a lot of money at the farmers market but it is still less than I spent shopping the supermarket shelves. I guess that's a long winded way of saying that I think most farmers are as fair as they can afford to be and are always looking for ways to give their customers a good deal.

Donna: Great point! U Picks are an excellent option for having your cherries and eating them too. :)

Electronic Goose said...

I completely, 100% agree with you, Green Bean. I am more than willing to pay the true cost than to have someone else in the future pay it in some other awful way.

Cindyw is right: "it's all about priority."

Joyce said...

Sorry, GreenBean, I'm completely floored by the prices you are quoting. I can't imagine them working here. Maybe it's more than housing that makes the cost of living so much cheaper here.

Green Bean said...

EG: So true! It's just how we arrange what we value.

Joyce: I was not offended at all. Just sticking up for the farmers. ;-) That said, I live in one of the most expensive areas in the country - the San Francisco Bay Area. Certainly, the land the food is grown on is incredibly expensive. Our gas prices here are, I think, among the highest in the country. We've been at or over $4 a gallon for a while. I'm the reverse, though, I see people who live inland more talking about how high the price of something or other is and I think, wow! What a bargain. Where can I get me something like that. It's all relative and perhaps this would have been a better post without exact dollar amounts so that we could all mentally fill in what prices run in our area.

Fake Plastic Fish said...

>>My hands moved slowly over the ruby orbs, smooth and firm<<

Okay, so am I the only person who has noticed that you are actually a soft porn writer in the guise of an environmentalist?

Or is it just that I'm up way too late again and had a couple of sips of the vodka I use to clean my bathroom?


Are you going to the Blogher Conference???

Green Bean said...

Beth: Gee! What a dirty mind. ;-) Shhh, you're not supposed to say anything!! I'd love to go to BlogHer but doubt I can foist the kids off on my husband three days and get away with it. In fact my husband is vigorously shaking his head at me right now. You going? Did you go last year? You tempt me. That and time away from the kids tempt me. If only I can figure out how to bribe my husband . . .

zfolwick said...

I've noticed that when I eat organic, I end up eating less.



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