About a week ago, my son and I worked out in the garden, preparing for fall – pulling up old plants and spreading seeds for a cover crop to help enrich the soil with nitrogen before winter approaches. We also dug up our first ever potato crop which gave us about 3-4 ice cream pails full of potatoes (I probably should have left more of them in the ground to mature longer, but we got excited when we saw the creamy skins peeking out of the soil).
Later that day I went to the local grocery store and the first thing I see is a big display of potatoes: 99 cents on sale (regular price $3.99). Even at $3.99 the price is ridiculously low, but at 99 cents, nobody is even breaking even with their costs. The farmer/landowner, field workers, grocery store/distributor/transportation all need to be paid… from a dollar?
I find at farmers’ markets that I pay about the same prices as at a grocery store but I know far more of the food dollar is reaching the producer. In the large-scale industrial agriculture model, in general, the average is only about 5 percent of the cost of goods actually reaches the farmer. So the potatoes I saw implied that the farmer would receive one cent per pound of potatoes from the grocery store order.
It was a bit disheartening, as I spent over $10 on the seed potatoes to grow my first crop. The idea was not to produce food in order to save money, but it was still a shock to think about just how cheap our food is and how tempting it is to just buy it, not grow it (grocery bills are 15% of the average Canadian’s budget).
As Ben Falk commented in his excellent book The Resilient Farm and Homestead, when he started growing rice it was the process of learning that was important, not the costs in terms of time, labour and land. Obviously you can go to the store and buy a bag of rice for a fraction of what it costs to grow it, but other than the health benefits of doing it yourself, there is the principle of resilience to consider — doing it yourself is certainly resilient. Permaculture tends to favour perennial plants, but if you have the time and space, annual crops such as potatoes, rice, quinoa and even wheat are possible here on the West Coast, adding starch and grains to a typical fruit-and-vegetable garden. What happens if I could not get rice or potatoes from the store? It’s satisfying to have my little crop of carrots and potatoes stored in sand in my shed. No need to go to the grocery store next time I need root vegetables, at least for a few months. My quinoa crop also ended up being tiny, once I went through the process of remove the coating, washing and drying the seeds. But next year I’ll plant more – start small and scale up – and need to go to the grocery store less and less.
Plant an apple tree for $100 and tend it at a cost of $50 a year (in your time) and that tree will yield roughly 50,000 pounds of fruit in its first 100 years. At a cost of $3 a pound for organic apples, that is a total return on investment (ROI) of 2,841 percent. That’s not counting any wood/timber value from the tree upon its harvest. – Ben Falk, owner of Whole Systems Research Farm in Vermont