Balancing the amount of food that we grow with what we need to eat is one of the more challenging aspects of gardening. This is not just our problem, however. It is a critical challenge for farmers and for society as a whole.
Earlier this season I picked the first of our yellow summer squash- four beautiful ones. When selling at a farmers market, it is okay to have just a few of some vegetables. That same week we had a good crop of potatoes and garlic, as well as greens and flowers to sell, so the squash weren't really important. Suzanne had wanted to keep them for our supper, but decided instead to take them to market and put a high price on them. She really valued those squash because she knew they were fresh and organically-grown.
Of course, because other people also saw their value, those freshly-picked squash sold almost immediately!
At the end of that market day, Ed, the farmer next to us, was complaining about the five bushels of yellow summer squash he'd picked and packed, but couldn't sell. He thought he might market them (one-half bushel at a time) to restaurants, but doubted that it would be worth his trouble. A half bushel is worth about seven dollars. Ed's a conventional farmer, so he'd already bought and spread fertilizers and pesticides to grow those squash, driven his tractor to prepare the ground and taken the time to pick the squash and bring them to market. And, here he was now with mountains of squash, no one to eat them, and no way to recoup his costs.
All those expensively-grown vegetables with so little value, because no one gets to eat them, are a good example of a serious problem in agriculture today.
I recently read that western farmers have an enormous surplus of potatoes. At the current price of only five cents a pound on the market, their crop is worth far less than the costs of raising it.
Almost every month there is another news report about growers who have been so successful at large scale mono-cropping that the commodity price is not enough to cover the farmers' production costs. That was the case when I visited a large wheat farm in North Dakota years ago and it's true now of cattle raisers facing a steep rise in grain prices, of small scale pork producers, of Asian tea farmers, of Florida tomato growers, New England dairy farmers, Connecticut egg producers and on and on.
As there is less money to be made per bushel, farmers have produced more and more bushels in an attempt to stay even financially. Of course, more crops mean lower prices, and often more damage to the environment. But, because food has no value until it is sold to be eaten, and because what the USDA calls the "marketing sector" has expanded to consume 80 percent of our food dollars, it is that same "marketing sector" that benefits most from the low prices paid to farmers.
One of the best examples of this is potato chips. Many of those five-cent per pound potatoes are sold for four or five dollars a pound after they've been fried, salted, and packaged.
But, by eliminating the voracious marketing sector and selling directly to consumers, there are many potential benefits to the eaters, the farmers and their communities. We are much more likely to be able to find a balance between what is grown and what is eaten, if the growers and the eaters are directly connected. That's why we're so appreciative of the farmers markets. Even Ed's conventionally-grown, unwashed and unsorted potatoes bring a dollar a pound there. We get nearly two dollars for our washed and sorted organic fingerling potatoes.
With our spouses, Ed and I are still learning to balance the growing and the selling in cooperation with our customers.
Today is the first day of National Farmers Market Week. Across the U.S. now, there are 2,500 farmers markets; that's a 20 percent increase in just the past two years.
This season you still have plenty of time to shop at a nearby farmers market into October. There's no better way to preserve farmland and farmers in our communities than to buy what they grow directly from them.
For a listing of all the farmers markets in Connecticut, send a self-addressed, stamped envelope to Markets, WSHU, 5151 Park Avenue, Fairfield, CT 06432.
This is Bill Duesing, Living on the Earth
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