This Week in Jewish Farming: The high cost of cheap vegetables

Ben Harris

marketshotMy Facebook feed lit up last week with an article in the Aug. 9 New York Times headlined: “Don’t Let Your Children Grow Up To Be Farmers.”

In it, Bren Smith chronicles the financial woes of today’s small farmers: The high costs of land access, competition from nonprofits and subsidized agriculture, the downward price pressure, the need to work a second job (I know a bit about that last one). And then there’s this scary stat: In 2012, the median U.S. farm household income was negative!

The piece generated a lot of angst in the circles I run in – both from those who wholeheartedly agree with Smith’s read on the situation and those who found the piece whiny, factually selective and dismissive of all the progress the food movement has made in building demand for local produce.

But here’s one thing no one denies: Even if you are making money as a farmer, it ain’t much. And while, like in any industry, some farmers run better operations than others or produce superior products, ultimately the reason even the best farmers live very modestly is this: Prices just aren’t high enough.

Yes, that’s right. The $4.50 I charge for heirloom tomatoes early in the season (it’s down to $3.75 now, market pressure and all) just isn’t enough. Not for the hours we spent sowing, planting, trellising, pruning and weeding them. Not for the fertilizer and disease control products we have to buy. Not for the bins and boxes needed to harvest and store them. Not the for the labor necessary to sort, package and deliver them to market.

And that’s my high-value crop. Squash? Sells for $2 per pound. Watermelon? Sells for even less. And how about that trendy crucifer everyone is so eager to toss in their juicer? You can grow a lot of kale in the space a single watermelon plant requires and the bunches sell for $3 each. But that’s the problem: Everyone has reasoned the same way and the market is flooded. I bring home more than half my kale harvest each week and feed it to the goats.

After I returned from the market on Sunday, I took a stroll down to a vegetable stand on the main road near the farm. It sells many of the same crops I raise but at significantly lower prices. Granted, its costs are lower. The farmers own their land. They don’t raise nearly the same variety of of veggies I do and don’t manage their fields nearly as intensively. Their tomatoes, I think it’s safe to say, aren’t nearly as beautiful or tasty as mine. But still, their price point reverberates in the market and conditions everyone to see a $5 Brandywine as some sort of luxury item.

And, perhaps, it is. But only if you believe it’s a luxury to buy tomatoes that weren’t raised in massive monocultures, or trucked halfway across the country at great expense to the planet and palate, or grown by a small army of low-wage immigrant labor.

None of these costs — and make no mistake, the way most American produce is grown entails massive costs to the environment, communities and our health — show up at the supermarket cash register. And that artificially low price exerts downward price pressure on even those of us who don’t raise vegetables that way.

Small farmers like me cope with that challenge in various ways. For me, it’s by selling a premium product – more interesting varieties, fresher, better tasting. But if it weren’t for an outside source of personal income that makes it unnecessary, at this point, to support myself through farming, it’s likely even that wouldn’t be enough.

Veteran JTA journalist Ben Harris is chronicling his new life as a Connecticut farmer. Read more of his weekly dispatches here.


From the annals of Jewish farming: In its 1955 report, the Jewish Agricultural Society revealed that nearly 10 percent of Jews who came to the United States after World War II settled on farms.

Ben Harris is JTA’s former associate editor.