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A Tough Look at the Real Cost of Food

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About eight years ago we began to look into eating organic foods. I was, up until that point, a bargain shopper, stocking our freezer with $.69/lb chicken and filling our fruit bowl with whatever was cheapest.

Once we began to learn more about our industrialized food system, we started taking a look at what we ate and what was most important to invest in. Animal products became the priority for us so we started sourcing organic then pastured then local meats and dairy products. The sticker shock took my breath away.

I began to wonder why grocery store food was so cheap, if this other stuff was so expensive. How were they farming? What were the farmers making? How hard is it really to raise healthy animals and grow good vegetables.

Harder than I thought, it turns out.

We’ve been trying to grow our own food for six years now; these past three years spent on this little self-sufficient, sustainable homestead we’re trying to build. One thing that became crystal clear to me when we first got started was that whoever was growing food should probably be getting paid more than most of us realize.

But it’s hard to convey that to a culture where only 2-3% of the population are actually attempting to grow food for the rest of us. We speak a different language than they do, the ones whose entire spring in the field can be wiped out by something as small as an insect. They know a life that others do not, one of early mornings and late nights and dirty hands and the lessons and joys that come with it.

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They also know what it takes to put that lettuce on your table. It was more than just planting a seed and adding water. There were, most likely, years of building that soil and years of understanding the natural rhythm of their locale which would allow them to understand exactly when it should be planted, watered, and harvested. And for every crop they brought to the market, there was probably one that failed… and they absorbed that cost without us even knowing about it.

Animal products up the ante even more. Eggs are not just something you collect from a clean red coop every morning. They are greens and grains and mucking out and trying to figure out why in the world those hens lay in 14 different locations when they have six cozy little nests where we could actually find them.

Milk is land and pasture and fence posts and the sweat it took to put them in. It is morning and evening milkings when the rest of us are still in bed and calling it a day. It is time with your animal and the many hours you spend studying, worrying, and caring for these ladies.

Meat is garden vegetables and grass and more land and more fence posts. It is the time and care it took to steward that animal into adulthood and the care it takes to butcher them humanely and cleanly. It is blood and guts, a smell that takes a while to forget, and all of those other things that might completely change our perspective if we’d witnessed them at some point in our lives.

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Maybe these past three years have biased me, as I’ve leaned my shovel into clay soil and spent hours trying to amend it. Maybe it’s because we’re trying to do this while building a cabin, holding down a chaotic freelance schedule, and homeschooling our children. Or maybe we’re just not very good at it and need a lot of work.

(I think it could be all of the above.)

All of that, combined with the reality that there are probably folks out there working harder at it than us, makes me stop and think. What is the cost of food to them that grow it? What is the cost of meat to them that kill it? What in the world is involved in the process of raising and growing industrialized food that makes it so disgustingly cheap?

All I know is that maybe we should rethink what we’re willing to pay for real food. It costs more than we might think.


 
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  • I went through a similar transition and realized that humanely raised, grass-fed and pastured meats and animal products were “better than” organic. I call it beyond organic and it is a challenge to get these ingredients to my table every week. I have to get my raw grass fed milk from one place, cheese from another, pastured hens eggs from another and meats from two more. I realized that the only way to do this right and cost effectively is to raise them yourself.

    But I live in the city right now so until I move out to the country I will continue to go from pillar to post and vote for these ingredients with my pocketbook. This also means that we consume way less meat and animal products. I think if everyone knew what we knew about the real cost of the meat and dairy industry, we would all eat way less meat and dairy. We would have greater value for them and there would be way less waste.

    Reply
    Ms Frassy September 14, 2014 AT 7:13 am
     
  • I agree with you! I absolutely don’t mind paying for quality; my heart knows it is 100% worth it. My head, however wants me to look for a cheaper option! I have come to look at getting deals in a completely different way: back to the good old barter system! This year I berry picked, and made jellies, jams and dried fruit. I traded it with my friends who make pickles and stewed tomatoes. It took a bit of organizing but allowed me for the most home-made variety in my pantry!

    Reply
    Melissa September 11, 2014 AT 10:09 pm
     
  • OH, I was worried! Being a conventional dairy farmer (not organic) I was ready to be thrown under the bus again! It is hard work! It is long hours! It is getting up at 2:00 instead of 4:00 to get the chores done early so we can make the highest quality feed for our animals before it rains tonight! As soon as the kiddies are off on the bus, I’ll be right next to the hubs helping him get going!
    The common misperception is that in many markets, the farmers are not the price setters! You may see high prices in the stores, but rarely do those high prices actually make it to the farmer’s wallets! So much is driven by supply and demand, uncontrolled weather patterns (it has been a cool summer here in Wisconsin!) and the government regulating international exports!
    We do it because we love it! We do it because it was bred in us and we were raised on it! Very few come into farming from town because if it isn’t a life you have grown up with, you will struggle to give up the weekends, holidays, and paid (or even unpaid) time off! We sleep with our never turned off phones, we check in (sometimes hourly) when we are away and when there are moments when we want to give up, we look at those who came before us, and the little ones we are raising and find a brand new spirit to keep pushing forward. It is worth EVERY.SINGLE.MOMENT!!
    Love your site! Love your app! Thank you for your support! :)

    Reply
    Chelsea September 9, 2014 AT 5:20 am
     
  • Your article has perfect timing for me. I’ve been eating organic local foods for about five years now and feeling much better for it. However, I have recently had a health setback, which is discouraging. Sometimes you wonder if all the hard work on your health is worth it. Yesterday I went to the local health food grocery store and walked out with two bags of food and $93.47 out of my wallet. I came home and examined the receipt and thought, is it worth it? But the answer is yes. It is worth it. I thought about how I could go down to the Safeway and get pork chops for $4 instead of the $13 I paid. But the pigs wouldn’t have been from a local farm (10 miles away) and I wouldn’t know of the farmer’s good reputation (local farmer’s market) and that the pigs had been raised and slaughtered humanely after a good life….and the store where I bought the food treats their employees like family, pays them a good wage and provides benefits and 401k plan. These things are important to me, but it costs to have those sorts of benefits. And I pay for them. But articles like yours help me to remember the real cost of having quality food. And the real health in which it brings. Thank you.

    Reply
    Sandy September 7, 2014 AT 9:42 am
     
  • Thoughtful description of home growing and rearing. Puts cheap food into perspective and why more thought needs to go into shopping responsibility and not complaining too much about higher costs.

    Reply
    veronella September 7, 2014 AT 6:28 am
     



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