Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Comparing Apples and Egg Yolks: Why Organic Food Costs More

As some of you may recall, a few weeks ago I attended the American Public Health Association (APHA) conference in Washington, DC. I attended sections in Food and Nutrition with names like "Farm To School Implementation," "Principles for a Healthy, Sustainable Food System," and "Farmers Markets & Fresh Produce in Urban, Underserved Communities".

Something I realized over the course of the conference was that the word "organic" was scarcely being used.* This surprised me. Given the many public health issues associated with problems like pesticide use and antibiotic resistance, I'd thought that conversation about organic agriculture would definitely be on the table.

I started to get a clue why this was the case when I talked to a woman from The Food Trust, a nonprofit in Philadelphia that works to increase fresh produce availability by creating farmers markets throughout the city. She told me that the farmers are conventional, because organic food would cost too much.

The idea that organic food is prohibitively expensive is a common one. Yes, it does cost more. And no doubt there are farmers out there who over-charge because they have customers in big cities they know will pay those prices. But overall, there are good reasons that organic food is a little more costly.

First of all, quality is an enormous factor. Organic and conventional foods are completely different products in that respect. An organic apple and a conventional apple are not the same, nor is a conventional chicken at all similar to a pastured, free-range chicken. There are fundamental nutritional differences - pastured animals have higher levels of nutrients such as omega 3 fatty acids and beta-carotene. Just compare the yolks of a grocery store egg and an organic, pastured egg - the color difference is astonishing. In his book In Defense of Food, Michael Pollan points out that by selecting produce for larger, higher producing, and more shelf stable specimens, the amount of nutrients in the produce has decreased dramatically. He says, for example, that an apple from the 1940s had three times the amount of iron as a conventionally grown apple today.

The costs of growing organically are also higher than conventional agriculture - it takes more time and more labor to be organic. (Anyone who has spent four hours hand-weeding can tell you that much.) An organic farmer who charged conventional prices would be out of work in short order. Additionally, organic certification is an expensive undertaking - farmers have to pay fees that can add up to thousands of dollars to organic certification agencies, not to mention the time they must spend organizing and filling out paperwork.

There are deeper reasons I think we're unwilling to pay extra for food in this country. Americans only spent on average 10% of their income on food in 2009, compared with 22% in 1949.We have a skewed idea of food cost due to our food production system, which externalizes costs to taxpayers in the forms of health care, workers' rights, and environmental sustainability.

When you break down the costs of organic foods to serving size amounts, it may surprise you. Check out this economic breakdown of a $100 turkey, for example - she estimates a $1.25 serving size cost when all is said and done. A $4 bunch of beets is also about $1.25 per serving. A half pound bag of lettuce mix at $6 a bag? For eight people, that's less than a dollar per serving. A soda, on the other hand, costs $1.50. A Big Mac is $4. Frankly, I call shenanigans on anyone who regularly spends $5 on a latte at Starbucks but says they can't afford fresh, local, organic produce.

Buying local/organic food does not have to cost that much. It can and should be affordable. And the best way to make it affordable is to purchase your food directly from the farmer, either through a CSA or at a farmers market.

*Of course, there are all kinds of issues about the use of the word "organic". Not all organic food is created equal - compare "industrial organic" farms in California to small, local family operations in your area. A lot of farms aren't certified organic because of the expense and the bureaucracy it involves, but if you take the time to talk to your farmers, you will often find that they do grow everything organically.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Crunching Numbers

I found myself today in the unprecedented position of not having anywhere I needed to be. Weird, right? I'm always running around doing something. I didn't like the feeling, so I gave myself a homework assignment.

Specifically, I was curious what I did with my money this year. Now, $200 a week isn't an enormous amount, I know. But with room and board included, it's more than enough for me to have a little fun on the side.

The above graph isn't 100% accurate - I had to withdraw from savings to pay for car repairs, for example. The "Savings" slice also includes the money I set aside for my new phone and camera. But I think it's a close enough approximation.

Of course, that's for the whole year. When you break it down into the first four months and the last four months, it gets even more interesting.

There are a few reasons for the discrepancies here. For one thing, I started traveling a lot more to Washington DC in the second half of the year, which accounts for the higher car, ATM and grocery costs. The huge difference in "Shopping" can be attributed to my $650 camera. As for "Entertainment and Travel," that is probably due to my two trips to Indiana and Kansas back in April/May.

So what does this all mean? I really don't know. To be honest, it's more than I thought I would spend over the course of my farm internship. But the added and unexpected expenses of flights, car repairs, and a new camera certainly skewed things in that direction. However, I also saved fully half of what I made this year, which is not too shabby.

Of course, a lot of the "little" purchases - Goodwill runs, books, cups of coffee - certainly add up. That could be something to tackle in the future. It will be something to think about as I head home this week, since I won't have any income for a few months and it will probably be a challenge to avoid hemorrhaging money. 

So what tools do you use to be financially responsible? Any tips for next year?

Friday, November 18, 2011

Visiting Farms 101

Hello again, dear blog. The last three weeks have been a whirlwind. I spent two weeks in Washington DC, drove up to Boston for an extended weekend, and have been in Perryville, Maryland for the last two days, where I attended the awards ceremony and graduation for NCCC's Class XVII. There were lots of friends to see, unending beers to drink, many miles to drive, countless Fresh Air interviews to keep me company on the road, and far too few hours spent sleeping. It was, in short, amazing.

It hasn't all been partying hard with old friends, though. Last week, I visited three farms in the DC area to interview for apprenticeships next year.

See, here's the thing: I can only work through the end of July, since I should be starting grad school in late August, pending my acceptance. That makes finding a farm job a little awkward, to say the least. No one wants a worker who will leave right when the harvest is ready. So as I started my search, I kept that in mind. In the end, I had interviews with three farms: Clear Spring Creamery in Clear Spring, Maryland; Whitmore Farm in Emmitsburg, Maryland; and Waterpenny Farm in Sperryville, Virginia.

Clear Spring Creamery is a small family operation run by Mark and Clare Siebert. They have about forty milk cows, which are a mixture of Jersey and Holstein. They took me for a tour around the farm, which has been in Mark's family for more than a century. Housing is a camper with a full bed, a bathroom and shower, and a kitchen (although the stove doesn't work). Meals can be on your own or with the family (they have two kids, 10 and 13).

The day is about half farm work and half in the creamery, pasteurizing, bottling, and making cheese and yogurt. I got to try some of their milk, cheese and yogurt, and all of it was quite delicious. Interns get two full days off, usually Sunday and Monday.

The farm itself is quite nice, but the surrounding area doesn't have a whole lot. There is hiking nearby - the Appalachian Trail is about twenty-five miles away, for example. And DC is just a two hour drive.

Overall, I liked Mark and Clare a ton. They were incredibly personable, and answered my rapid-fire questions without batting an eye. They get 100% of their income from the farm, and I think I would get an in-depth look into not only the business of running a small farm, but also the ins and outs of working with government agencies and all the accompanying bureaucratic shenanigans. They also attend three farmers markets, so I would get more experience in that aspect of farm work.

Whitmore Farm focuses on animal husbandry, and has a very diverse operation with chickens (layers and broilers), rabbits, pigs, sheep and goats. Almost all their livestock are heritage breeds, including fainting goats. Sadly, I didn't get to see them. (YouTube them if you haven't already.) One really cool thing about this farm is that they do their own breeding, rather than buying chicks or stockers from an outside source. They also do a little bit of vegetable production.

The housing was a beautiful old home that Will and Ken, the owners, restored a few years ago. Interns get their own rooms and share a bathroom. The area is pretty rural, but being Maryland, you don't have to drive too far to find something.

Ken works full time off-farm, however, which makes me a little leery, since I specifically want to learn more about the business of making a farm profitable. Additionally, Will described their meat products to me as "boutique" and quite high priced. The question of how to price organic products is something I think a lot about, and while I think there is definitely a place for products like this, it's not what I'd like to focus on. I see my farm jobs as much or more about educating myself as being employed, and I believe firmly that organic food can and should be affordable for the majority of people out there.

Additionally, Will told me that they might stop doing their only farmers market and switch to entirely wholesale to high end restaurants next year. While the farm, the housing and the people were all very nice and while Ken and Will are running their farm in a very sound and ecologically friendly way, I don't think this is the farm for me. It's just too different from the food system I want to learn about and work in.

Waterpenny Farm happens to be just half an hour up the road from Brightwood Vineyard and Farm, where I worked this past year, and is run by a couple by the names of Eric and Rachel. They specialize in vegetable production, and get 100% of their income from farmers markets, CSA shares, and on-farm sales. They're also very open about the financial aspect of their farm, and I know I could get an excellent education about the business of running a farm and running it well.

Housing is a house that I would share with the other five interns, complete with kitchen and two bathrooms. I would only get one and a half days off, and they probably wouldn't be back-to-back, which would be problematic for visits to DC. Also, my leaving at the end of July would be more problematic for this farm than the other two, since they're entirely vegetable production and late summer is their busiest time.

Other than the farm itself, which is great, one thing I love about Waterpenny is the surrounding area. Sperryville is a fantastic little artistic community pretty much entirely comprised of local businesses - not a chain in sight. Also, Shenandoah National Park is just a few minutes' drive away. Unfortunately, however, I do not get a lick of phone service there, which - not gonna lie - would be a little difficult for me.

So. What does all this mean? All three farms would be a good experience, and I'm especially drawn to Clear Spring Creamery and Waterpenny Farm. I can expect to hear back from them in January, pretty much across the board. In the meantime, I'll keep my eyes and ears open for other farms where I can apply.

In the meantime, I'll be heading back to Indiana next week for the holidays, applying to grad school, and cooking my little tushie off. Expect lots of pictures of baked goods in the upcoming weeks.

Friday, November 4, 2011

The First Post-Farm Update

Hello again, dear readers. If you thought I would stop posting after my teary-eyed farm farewell, you are mistaken.

I've spent most of this week attending the American Public Health Association Conference in Washington D.C. I am now a new member of the APHA, thanks to my lovely mother, who is a long-time member of the Alcohol, Tobacco and Other Drugs section. I, on the other hand, attended sessions in the Food and Nutrition department.

I won't go into a ton of detail yet - there will be exciting Public Health posts soon enough! - but I did learn a lot, met some people, and pulled some interesting conjectures out of the whole business.

A quick review of what's coming up for me: Next week, I will be visiting/interviewing with at least two farms, possibly three, for apprenticeships next year. Those farms are Waterpenny Farm in Sperryville, Virginia; Clear Springs Dairy in Clear Springs, Maryland; and Whitmore Farm in Frederick County, Maryland.

After that, I'll be popping up to Boston to visit family and friends, and then heading home by way of DC. I'll try to post a time or two, but it might be a couple weeks before anyone hears from me.

So stay tuned, gentle readers. This ride ain't over yet.