Friday, October 16, 2009

Witnessing the Final Days of Organic Farms?

And here I thought my blog wasn't big enough to get noticed! The lovely people of Costco must have seen my post about being up shit creek financially. This exclusive invite arrived in the mail today. Wow, "Join Costco as an executive member by Nov. 29, 2009, and receive a $20 Costco cash card." Well, okay, Costco, but don't expect a shining review of your grocery section just because you buttered me up with a "special offer."

Last night my husband and I had another one of those touchy discussions about our finances that makes me cry. We decided we could swing one more month at the house if we make some serious budget cutbacks. Even if I don't have a sufficient workload by then (for those of you who don't know, I'm a freelance writer, so my income is subject to fluctuation), at least we will be more prepared for a move and it will be on more comfortable terms.

So what do budget cutbacks mean? Well, for starters, strict organic dieting will be out of the question for awhile. I find it sad that, in this country at least, the organic food movement is considered a luxurious lifestyle choice. I understand that organic farms lose more of their crops to pests, which drives up the price. However, I can't help but think it's also a result of demand in the wealthier classes. In general, people who have money to spend go to Whole Foods; people who don't go to Costco. And they're happy that way. When I go to "review" the grocery section at Costco, chances are I'll be the only customer even looking for organic fruits and vegetables.

When did treating one's body right become a trend among the well-off? Before there was such a thing as government certification programs, organic food was the cheapest of all. It was the food that you grew yourself, or that your neighbors grew and sold to a local market. It wasn't a trend, it was a way of life. All the fancy restaurants served exotic dishes. If you wanted something grown far away, you had to pay dearly for it. Isn't that how it should be? What's changed?

What's changed is that the world has gotten bigger. And now that the world is big- anyone at all curious about what foie gras is can do a Google search and yield over 3 million results- the trendsetting folks at the top of the financial pyramid, those with the time and inclination to pursue food as hobby, are experiencing their typical ennui. "What happened to those simple times?" they ask. "What happened to fresh apples plucked right from the tree in your backyard? What happened to those adorable old men with grubby hands and suspenders selling watermelons off the backs of their trucks in summer?" And so all that stuff is coming back, but not the way it used to be. This time, it's expensive. This time, because the world is big, organic organizations think they ought to sell big. In other words, the ultimate goal is to go wholesale-same as any other farm.

For now, it seems like a good business decision on their part, despite the fact that running a commercial organic farm is costlier than running a commercial farm that dumps pesticides all over everything and calls it a day. Organic farmers have to pay more attention to which crops they grow and when; employ creative pest solutions; and understand that, no matter what, they will lose a greater percentage of crops than conventional farms. It's natural that they should charge a little more, and because the trend among the wealthy is leaning that way, it's an investment many farmers are willing to make.

In his The Collapse of Complex Societies, Joseph Tainter asserts that the bigger an organization gets, the more it has at stake and the more likely it is to fail. I find this interesting because we as working Westerners (many of you reading this are monetizing bloggers, which means you are entrepreneurial Westerners to boot) tend to believe there are nothing but benefits when it comes to expansion. I'll be the first to admit that I started this blog hoping to grow my readership over time. Not necessarily for money purposes, but because... well, how else are you going to know you do a good job? So the focus was not merely on sustainability, but on growth; and that's the way it is for plenty of folks. Our entire economy here in the States and in many other Western countries focuses on growth. If you don't have growth, you're nothin.'

So what are some of the drawbacks to non-local sale of organic produce? Well, for starters, if you're shipping in bulk, you're going against organic principles by using a ton of gasoline. Already the trend is starting to shift from "just organic" to "local and organic" as those consumers who can afford to be picky become more aware of this hypocrisy. And the ones who can't afford it, as we already mentioned, tend not to even be interested in affording it. They think, "That organic stuff is just for rich snobs. I'll take my Bubba burgers and Bud Light any day, thank you." Obviously I am generalizing here, but if you think it's an untrue generalization, ask around in a low-income neighborhood. There's a sense of pride that comes with being able to score food cheap, to rough it while the "snobs" eat organic with their pinkies in the air.

So where does that leave large organic farms? Nowhere. Once the "just organic" trend passes among the upper classes, they're toast without a local customer base. Bankrupt. Kaputt.

Solution? If organic farming is your passion, buy a small plot of land. Maybe even suburban or urban land. Grow as much as you can using as little space as possible. If you already have a big, complicated commercial farm, sell it now. Focus on sustainability. Offer your product locally. Sell at flea markets and farmers' markets. Do CSAs. Barter with your neighbors. Subsist on your own crops and the ones you trade for on a local level. Instead of feeding into the societal delusion that we've traveled back to a time when old men with grubby hands and suspenders sold watermelons off the backs of their trucks, become the real thing. Take that plunge. Will you get rich? No. But according to Tainter, getting rich is just making it more complicated for yourself. You'll have further to fall: more land and more customers equals more loans to repay, more shipping costs to cover, more orders to screw up, more equipment to break, more staff to compensate, more pests to kill, more at stake if your crops fail, more at stake if the trend you've chosen to capitalize on passes, more migraines... to quote a popular permaculturist slogan, "work makes work." The more complicated you make it for yourself, the worse off you will be in the long run.

I look forward to hearing all your thoughts on this. I've touched on some controversial politics here, so if you don't want to leave a public comment, feel free to write As always, thanks so much for visiting!

Beat the eggs. Whip the cream. Show no mercy.


Tasty Trix said...

Ooh, girl don't get me started! I am with you - I was saying to another food blogger that it's so weird that I have relatives who live in the country - close to the land and all that good stuff - and they shop exclusively at Wal Mart and use something called "garlic sprinkles" to make garlic bread and think that I'm a crazy elitist to use real garlic ... once upon a time, brown breads were for peasants like us(I'm a freelance writer too) and white breads were for rich people. Now it's reversed. Which is why I've decided to make my own bread for cheap! Cuz I'm a broke mofo too. Ug, I could write a book on this stuff ...

Gourmet Goddess said...

I totally agree ladies! It is the same here in Australia. We are very, very lucky here with the selection of fresh ingredients we have access to. Even if you can't afford organic (which I can't all the time, I try to eat as much of it as I can but it just isn't possible if I want to pay the rent too!)there are still so many fresh food options. I despair at what people call "food" and how they are brainwashed into believing that chemical, processed crap is more "convenient". If everyone made even a few small changes and supported fresh food producers, it wouldn't be long before demand would influence supply and it it would all be more affordable (even organics!)
And Tasty Trix - I shuddered when I read about "garlic sprinkles" Ha!Ha! AWFUL.

citronetvanille said...

That's a great article, and I wish organic products would be more available everywhere. In a way, CA has some great organic products and stores but prices are very high. I am horrified by GMO stuff and try to avoid it when I can. The thing is corporations are huge and powerful in that industry and want to produce mass quantities and sell them...mass quantities are easier produced w/ chemicals. It is sad, and I wish people would do something about it.

ncl117 said...

Everything you said is SO TRUE! I definitely understand your frustrations. The hit your wallet takes hurts when you want to buy organic and most people don't want to take that hit. There are some things you can do to pick and choose what you really want. Some of the big food stores by me (Stop and Shop and Pathmark) are beginning to carry more and more organic products that have better prices. You can get a pretty good deal when its on sale, but that's mostly for milk and meat, but I guess it's better than nothing. You are not alone in your cut backs and frustrations. Do the best you can! :)

Tasty Eats At Home said...

Totally agree with you! I am so excited to have found local, true farmers in my area. And it's not super-convenient, but it's not any more expensive than my grocery trips, and the tradeoff is wonderful. I can't stand the "convenience" foods of today - white bread, spagetti-o's? What amazes me the most is when I went gluten-free. People ask me "what do you eat?" Or, a doctor told me "that diet is so expensive." Expensive? Rice? Vegetables? Chicken? A lot cheaper than most of your frozen pizzas and Wonder bread, not to mention your trips to McDonald's! It amazes me the views of most Americans today. Small, local organic farms - or even better, growing a bit of organic produce in your backyard - is the cheap way to go, and healthier to boot!

Brie: Le Grand Fromage said...

wow, very well written post! I completely agree with the labels of food today. Why is the food I choose to eat labeled "organic"? Organic food is JUST FOOD. The food that has existed on Earth since the beginning of humanity is just natural, regular, FOOD! All other faux foods should be the ones labeled! I believe other people should have to exclaim, "I eat GMO food." or "I only like rBGH milk." and they can be judged for their choices. I am still baffled at people who think the organic food I eat is gross or they are unwilling or scared to try it, yet these same people do not hesitate to shove a fast food hamburger into their mouths. Are you kidding me?! I would like to know what the wealthy class has planned for themselves after they've killed off the other classes with poisonous foods and global warming - is that when the robots will take over?