Tag Archives: food prices

the price of a radish: part two

Yesterday, Emmett and I ventured into the Big Apple… and stumbled across actual apples, not to mention apple cider (which we purchased and swigged straight from the half-gallon jug), apple sauce, and hundreds of varieties of non-apple fresh produce.

We were there on business, meeting with our literary agent on Fifth Ave. to finally put a face to someone we’d only interacted with via email or phone. She was the one who pointed out her eleventh-floor window down the block to Union Square, where literally thousands of customers were flowing in and out of a farmer’s market like so many tiny, hungry ants. After the meeting, we dove straight into the anthill — and were shocked at the wildly different prices we found there.

Let’s start with the radish. Our radish bunches were put firmly to shame: at the Migliorelli Farm stand, you could purchase twenty radishes for $1. (Remember, we charged $1.50 for half that many.) But the same stand was charging $2 for small and — I say this with all due affection and understanding about perishable greens and farmer’s markets lack of refrigeration — very wilted, sad-looking chard. So even if my radishes are overpriced, my chard bunches are a pretty good deal.

Perhaps the most shocking price of all could be found at Windfall Farms. (I found the name ironic for reasons that will shortly become obvious.) They were charging $6 for 1/4 pound of baby lettuce heads or mesclun mix! And $12 for 1/4 pound of arugula or mesclun with flower blossoms! I mean, sure, I’d been thinking about growing some flowers and adding them to our baby greens mix and maybe bumping the price up a buck or two. But our starting price is $3 for a bag that has at least 1/3 of a pound of greens. That means Windfall is charging 3-5 times what we charge. Even for “unconventionally grown” produce, there’s no way you could charge $12 for 1/4 lb of anything in Healdsburg and have anybody buy it. Is it just because they sell in New York? Or because they have a bit of a monopoly on baby greens at this particular market? Who knows…

There were other interesting things at the farmer’s market: dragon’s tongue beans, which are unbelievably cool looking. These guys made my purple beans feel mundane! Dragon’s tongues are flecked with yellow and purple in a psychedelic spattered-paint theme.

Other interesting items: stinging nettles (which had a sign suggesting that potential buyers handle them carefully, as they can cause itching), the foodie-chic sometimes-weed purslane, heaps of purple basil, and squash runners. The customers I talked to had no idea what to do with the squash runners, so I did a bit of research on the topic. According to the Bureau of Plant Industry, squash runners can be eaten as a vegetable. Back home, our squash plants are invading our walking paths between the rows. Instead of hacking them back and putting them on the compost pile, apparently I could be converting the runners into cash at the farmer’s market! I guess I’d better try cooking them first, because I doubt customers will buy them if I can’t suggest a good recipe…

One last humbling thought: one of the farmhands we talked to said that on a good Wednesday market day, they’d sell $5,000 worth of produce. Saturday markets can bring in $7,000. (Suffice it to say that Emmett and I are so far from even cumulatively earning $5,000, it isn’t funny.) The seller also suggested that the biggest stands can bring in $25,000 on one day — but of course they also employ something like 60 workers, so while their income is sky-high, so are their costs.

If all of this makes you want to get into the Union Square market to sell baby greens for $12 per quarter pound, good luck: getting a stall is practically impossible. It’s a very carefully-managed market, so there are are rarely more than 2 vendors selling the same specialty item. (Course, lots of folks have tomatoes and zucchini right now, but try finding multiple cider sellers or goat cheese vendors.) According to some of the farmers we spoke to, the only way to get in is: come up with something that nobody else is selling — again, good luck — or start selling at other Greenmarket farmers markets around New York (there are 46 locations, with over 250,000 customers each week) and wait, hoping that someday one of the Union Square vendors (some of whom have been selling for decades) decides to call it quits and you can sidestep in.

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do your farmers a favor

 

I want to bring up the idea of food consumers doing things to help their farmers.

Why should we help our farmers?  What’s at stake?  The fundamental answer comes in two simple parts: 1) the global food system is fragile; and 2) food is vital to human success and happiness.  Relying on a complex and unstable global food supply is risky business, so we should do what we can to help build a strong web of local food suppliers in our local regions, wherever they may be.  As oil prices shoot up, food from far away becomes less viable.  We need strong local seed banks, a diverse seed-saving network, and a deep local knowledge of how to grow our food.  So support your farmers, especially the ones nearest to you.  It might make a big difference in your life in the not-too-distant future.  If you think about it, doing a favor for your farmers really amounts to acting in your own self interest.

What can you do for your farmers?

I use the phrase “your farmers” because anyone who grows the food you eat can be considered your farmer… in the same way that the person who delivers your mail is your mailman, the person who leads your yoga class is your yoga instructor, the person who collects your garbage is your garbage man.  Talking about “our farmers” encourages a closer relationship between food consumers and food producers (Slow Food’s Carlo Petrini calls consumers “co-producers“).

The first thing you can do for your farmers is get to know them. And if you find that this task is easier said than done, maybe you ought think twice about the food you’re eating. Where does it come from? Who grew it? Is it healthy? Reliable? It’s your sustenance, your routine nutrition, your daily bread–so it doesn’t make sense to rely on far-off, unknown agribusinesses to grow it for you.

The second thing you can do for your farmers is to buy directly from them whenever possible. Direct purchasing usually means more money going straight to the people raising and caring for your food supply. It also means you get to know more about the food you eat.

The third thing you can do for your farmers is to pay them fair prices. If you’re buying directly from the farmer, fair prices don’t necessarily translate into expensive food, since you’ve cut out the middle man. Without making a decent living, farmers are tempted to turn to other livelihoods. And each time this happens, our food supply is less secure. If it’s hard to pay those prices being asked by your local farmers, think about cutting out as much expensive processed food as possible. According to a Seattle Times article, shopping at the farmers market is cheaper than the grocery store.  And by building your menus around fruits, vegetables, grains and basic animal products, you can eat affordable, healthy, fresh (and tasty!) food. Oh, and you’ll be doing a favor for your farmers.

Finally, I have a personal favor to ask of farmers market shoppers. Stop and talk to your farmers! Even if you don’t buy anything, it makes my day a little bit better when you sidle over and say hello, have a chat. As a farmers market shopper, I used to hang back from the stalls and scope out the produce and prices from a distance, not making my move until I knew what I wanted.  I was a lurker.  But now that I’m a farmer–selling at the market–I know that I much prefer shoppers who come right on up and say hello, even if they don’t buy a thing.  So please don’t be a lurker.  Make a farmer happy, and don’t be shy at the farmers market!

-Emmett   (usually Lynda is the blogger, but I (Emmett) will chip in now and again…)

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the price of a radish

How much would you charge — or pay — for a bunch of freshly picked French breakfast radishes?

Pricing produce at the farmer’s market is always a tricky endeavor.  The case of the radish, I think, exemplifies farmers’ and shoppers’ competing cost value systems. I’ve parsed out the following cost value systems below:

1.  The Economist.  According to economic theory, the value of a radish bunch is simply whatever people are willing to pay for it.  Looking back on Econ 101, the price is a graphable element that can be found at the intersection of the cost-benefit curves.  In this case, a radish does not have any intrinsic value.  If the world’s radish crop fails and a desperate consumer is willing to pay $20 per bulb, so be it; if radishes suddenly develop a strange social stigma — oh, don’t sit next to her, she’s a radish eater — and nobody wants to buy them, your perfect little bulb might be worth a fraction of a penny.  C’est la vie.

2.  The Farmer.  A farmer (or at least this farmer) tends to look at things from the growing point of view.  Am I giving you an entire plant, or simply a renewable portion of the plant?  I’m willing to charge you less for a large bunch of Swiss Chard because the plant will grow back by the next harvest time.  (While people complain about the cost of our radishes, we’ve been told that our Swiss Chard is too cheap.)  When I sell a bunch of six or seven radishes, that’s six or seven plants — plants that won’t bear me seed.  You can also look at it from the space-time continuum:  it takes a radish 3-4 weeks to come in, and a decent amount of soft-soiled space.  They also require a bit of weeding.

3.  The Concerned Consumer.  A radish could be valued based upon things like calorie count, nutritional value, freshness, taste, or growing conditions (i.e., organic).  Radishes contain as much potassium as bananas, not to mention a healthy dose of vitamin C and magnesium.  Plus, if you buy at a farmer’s market, you’re supporting a local food economy — good for your ‘food security’ in the long run.

So, what do I charge for radishes?  I started out at $1.75 for a nice-sized bunch (six big radishes, or 7-8 smaller ones).  Some customers, a few of whom clutched $4 Starbucks coffees, literally turned up their noses and rolled their eyes — a couple even picked up a bunch and then put it down, saying loudly “Oh, I thought it was bigger!” before high-tailing it away from the stand.  (Since I lie somewhere between the Concerned Consumer and the Farmer’s point of view, I was particularly aggrieved by the fact that some of these folks would unquestioningly pay $4 for a cup of coffee — which has zero nutrional value to speak of — but outwardly express disdain at my nutritious radishes.)  After a couple of weeks, we lowered our price to $1.50 per bunch, which is what they were charging at the store for considerably less fresh radishes.  Still, eyes rolled.

The last time we went to market, we dipped to $1.25, our pride considerably wounded.  I doubt you can buy a pack of gum for $1.25.

Does anyone stand up for radishes?  What’s the right pricing system for veggies?  It’s back to the drawing board for this greenhorn…

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