The Price of Lettuce

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So yesterday, a lady comes to our produce table at the local Farmer’s Market, hefts one of our football-sized sweet potatoes, and asks, “How much?”

“Six dollars, ma’am,” I reply. “Three pounds at two dollars a pound.”

“It’s so expensive!!”

“Ma’am, this sweet potato was grown organically two miles north of here. Sweet potatoes at the local mega-chain supermarket are non-organic, woody tubers that travel 1000 miles to get here, even if they do cost 20% less.”

“Oh, it’s still so expensive!” she says, likely thinking, “Six dollars for one potato!” And likely not thinking that a three-pound sweet potato can make fries for at least ten people.

Money, price, and value are wrapped in an opaque cloak of personal and societal expectations and often misleading mental math. The cloak raises a difficult question: What determines the value of anything? Quakers are proud to have innovated the convention of fixed pricing rather than bartered pricing, but the problem remains that perceived value often differs from true value. Food can give especially compelling examples of this problem, compelling because everyone eats.

Let’s take the example of lettuce. The costs of lettuce production include seed, water, land, year-round weather protection (in our case, hoophouses), fertilizer, compost, and labor. Assuming that one is fortunate enough to have free access to land (quite an assumption!), all these costs are negligible, with one exception – labor.

For our standard unit, a plot with 120 plants, actual measured labor to produce 20 completely edible pounds of lettuce includes: 1 hour to seed flats; 1 hour to transplant; 3 hours to fertilize, hand-weed, and control pests; ½ hour to harvest; 1 hour to wash and prep according to environmental health regulations; and ½ hour for distribution; with the total coming to 7 hours. At $10 per hour, this labor costs $70 per unit or $3.50 per pound of lettuce. Including the previously mentioned “negligible” costs, our total up-front costs are about $4.00 per pound, but those don’t include vendor fees, FICA, insurance, gas for the truck, bank fees, bookkeeping costs, etc., etc. Furthermore, unlike commodity crops, there are no federal subsidies or crop insurance for vegetables grown on small farms. Our calculations have not accounted for the windstorm that knocked out power to the well, nor the damage from the Arctic Express freeze or by the lovable goats.

We sell our lettuce to local elite restaurants for $8.00 per pound, to shoppers at the Farmer’s Market for $6.00 per pound, and to commercial markets for $4.00 per pound. Everything considered, we probably lose money on lettuce, regardless of its quality. We attempt to stay in business by growing other produce that require less labor, including squash, sweet potatoes, and onions. We could sell our lettuce and greens to elite restaurants only, but wouldn’t that be elitist? We could pay the local minimum wage of $7.25 per hour, but that is not a livable wage. We could adopt large-scale industrial-style agricultural practices with high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizer and settle for lettuce with stiff chewy veins and leathery leaves. However, that does not fit our goal of high-quality produce that encourages consumption, nor our goal of mitigating global warming, nor our goal of protecting soil microbes from the damages of high nitrogen application.

My venture into urban farming is bringing into sharp focus several public policy changes that are urgently needed. First, every worker deserves a living wage, and we must fight for this right to be encoded into law. Second, sustainable farming techniques that improve the soil will only be adopted by large-scale agribusiness if our national system of subsidies and incentives is completely rewritten. Finally, even beyond public policy, we need public education about the true cost and the true value of food – about the economic realities, health values, and sustainability values. We need to learn what we are paying for, and then we need to pay for what we get.  As I watch the bees at work on our buckwheat cover crop, I see we have obligations that go far beyond money.  ~~~

Fred Koster is a member of the Albuquerque Monthly Meeting (IMYM) and grows lettuce and greens all year in hoophouses in the Rio Grande valley.