Potatoes For a Dollar (Canada)

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


  1. Food at these prices destroy local economies. It will change, out of necessity. And it should not be regarded as a bad thing. For thousands of years food took the larger proportion of most people’s income, and so it will be again, as humanity faces up to the fact that our food economy must invest in restoring soils, rather than the present state of stealing soil-wealth from the future, and as such a transition is forced upon us due to declining fossil fuel resources (happening now!).

    The hard part is that in the present centralised economy, where people are cash-constrained, it makes ‘cents’ to buy factory-farmed crap, even though it makes no big-picture ‘sense’.

    Turning the economy on its head is the great need of the hour. We need more producers, and less ‘consumers’ (destroyers).

    1. Great line, Craig, about ‘cents’! Absolutely, cheap food is a necessity for a lot of people, and good quality, local potatoes for a dollar is fantastic for someone feeding a large family (we have a high number of immigrant families in my area struggling to make ends meet). I worry more about climate change than peak oil, actually, at this point in time. We’ve already had a 10% increase in produce costs this year in British Columbia due to drought in California (we import a lot from there). There is a further 15-20% increase expected next year as ground water restrictions in California come into effect (and/or they run out of water altogether). Yet I live in an area with lots of agricultural land going unused. It’s too late to put land into production once produce prices soar, if we want to ensure food security for everyone. Local government elections are next week and the campaigns are all about ‘safety’ but I don’t think they include safety concerns about feeding everyone, maybe they should!

  2. Your potatoes can be regrown year after year without buying more starts. So I reckon you will be ahead in time. But even more valuable than your potato crop is your knowledge and experience gained growing your own food. That is a skill you can count on when cheap food becomes a thing of the past.

    1. Thanks Zoe! They say not to replant from the same stock, and not in the same soil, but I am certainly going to try using some potatoes from this year in a different area of the garden. Happily with other plants, like quinoa, I can try germinating a few indoors to make sure they work and then plant outside. Renting a house means I cannot put in a lot of perennials at this point (have to re-grass when we move, ugh). But I can guerilla garden as much as I can!

  3. also, remember that potatoes tend to be one of the most heavily *cided crops. every less bit you buy from a commercial farmer the less incentive they have to poison the land even further…

    1. I can’t believe how much residue I get off of produce that I now fanatically wash before eating and juicing. White vinegar works great and is low cost, thankfully!

  4. International potato glut is making prices crazy low this year.–7231.html

    Not that that makes any of your other points less true!

    It feels crazy that all the work that goes into growing/harvesting/etc. say, 100lbs of potatoes on the one hand can feed a family for a pretty long time (very cool), but on the other hand, when sold by a farmer usually nets them only enough money for a meal or three at macdonalds (very not cool).

  5. That article implies that the whole crop is being sold at that price, where in actual fact most of it would have fetched a higher price. If the farmer was getting a miniscule amount for the total crop, then they would not have even harvested it. Yes, farmers get the rough end of the pineapple from everyone down the sales chain, but I think in this case perhaps either the .99 cent spuds were a loss leader(being sold at a loss to get people into the shop to buy other things) or they were running close to their best before and getting shunted out the door. Not defending the corrupt practices of some stores, but I lean toward the above two reasons as to maybe why they are so cheap.

    1. I certainly hope that the farmer gets a decent return overall on their crops as around here there are quite a few medium sized producers. But at an agricultural conference yesterday, one of the speakers commented that here in the Fraser Valley, British Columbia where I live, farmers did not even do a second picking of their blueberry plants because there is such a glut of berries. Yes, the potatoes were a loss leader (and yet in their prime), I was just discussing the point of cheap food being our priority over good food. Joel Salatin made that same point at a talk I went to yesterday; when we say we cannot afford good quality food, perhaps we should spend less on our entertainment and phones and more on what goes into our bodies :)

  6. “The greatest change we need to make is from consumption to production, even if on a small scale, in our own gardens. If only 10% of us do this, there is enough for everyone. Hence the futility of revolutionaries who have no gardens, who depend on the very system they attack, and who produce words and bullets, not food and shelter.”
    ― Bill Mollison

  7. In Europe, for example, farmers are subsidized from state budgets, so the direct incomes from selling food are not supposed to cover even all expenses, not to mention making profit. We pay for food also indirectly, in terms of taxes.

  8. “They say not to replant from the same stock, and not in the same soil…”

    Who says? Challenge ‘conventional’ wisdom and plant in the same spot. Select the survivors from the following crop and replant the best. IF the soil is healthy and well covered (mulch, straw, etc.) then the potatoes will tell you what to do. If you’re growing under heavy mulch then you may not even need to hill the potatoes.

    A friend gave us yukon gold potatoes to plant this year in our church garden, a back-to-eden style mulch system in the Pacific NW. We got Yukon Golds larger than softballs. Some scabby, some clean, some nibbled. We replanted on the same day as we harvested. The mulch will protect the potatoes through the winter. We replanted the biggest and best and will see what happens next year.

  9. Huh… Mind telling us what size the portion was that was supposed to cost you a dollar so we have any way to compare? ‘Cause those bags in the photo look like 1 or 2 kg to me, which where I come from, would be both a rather small portion size for potatoes, and also an amount I wouldn’t expect to pay much more than a dollar for, at least if they’re in season. But then, potatoes are a staple food in my country (Germany), and pretty much the only thing that grows reliably in our local, nutrient-poor, sandy soils (Frederic the Great of Prussia started growing them to stop the frequent famines caused by unreliable grain harvests), which is why they cost 50 to 70 Eurocents per kg, depending on the season. “A heart for farmers” deals will cost 10 cents more, but that’s per 5 kg sack. I’m pretty sure potato farming is heavily subsidised, in part to keep the store price low. It’s a form of social wealth redistribution – people on small pensions and social security don’t pay much taxes, but everyone needs to buy staple foods, like potatoes. (And yes, I am sure it’s a national redistribution system. All vegetables have to be labeled with their country of origin here. I have to shop around lately to avoid depravities like off-season onions imported from New Zealand, but I don’t think I’ve ever even seen non-German potatoes.) Non-essential stuff like berries is much more expensive.

    By the way, I think the reason you’re not supposed to replant your self-harvested potatoes is that they tend to accumulate viruses over the course of a few years. I don’t know if that’s true or just propaganda from the commercial breeders. But from my non-botanist biologist’s point of view, it does ring kind of true. After all, you’re not harvesting a new genetic generation, like if you’d save pollinated seeds; you’re basically just replanting the same plant again and again through vegetative propagation. So whatever disease the plant catches one year, the potato will keep.

    Personally, I don’t bother with expensive, guaranteed-virus-free seeding potatoes. But I don’t try to regrow from the same plant each year either. I just save a few small potatoes from the last sack of storage potatoes I buy for cooking in late winter (I don’t have the space to grow enough to feed me for more than a few months), preferably a particularly cheap brand that doesn’t bother spraying them with germination inhibitors, or sometimes even just washing of the dirt for that matter. If you can already see them starting to germinate in the store near the end of winter, they’ll grow just fine. Special seed potatoes are only necessary if you want fancy heirloom breeds, IMHO.

  10. Hello Vivi, nice to hear from you in Germany! The bag of potatoes was five pounds. This issue generates a lot of debate: to subsidize or not (either government or stores with a ‘loss leader’ product), what price does the farmer need in order for it to be worthwhile to grow….that is a big issue where I live because of the extremely high cost of land. We have some of the best, and most expensive, farmland in the world. Thanks for advice on seeding potatoes, I felt paying $10 was a lot for my seed potatoes last year and would like to avoid that this year! Incidentally, storing my potatoes in a bucket of sand, I did lose some to frostbite when we had an unusual cold spell in November. So I dug them out, kept the good ones, and move the bucket. I want to figure out cold storage in a shed to extend my crops next year. Lettuce and such are cheap and easy to find in the summer, but growing squashes, quinoa, potatoes, wheat and various berries seems like a better use of my limited garden space. I will take your advice on using different potatoes each year and I’ll vary where I grow them. In the film ‘Symphony of Soil’ I saw a farmer planting his potatoes amongst mustard, vetch and other cover crops, had not a single pest or virus issue so that’s my plan!

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