Farm Realities and Market Honesty

It seems as if Michael Ruhlman has kicked up a very interesting discussion, one in which I’d like to add my own observations.

But first, you need some back story –

A week or so ago, while pimpin’ Cleveland and the superstar status it was about to receive from one A. Bourdain, Mr.Ruhlman linked to an article from Cleveland Plain-Dealer reporter Debbi Snook in which she stated that grocery store produce was cheaper than the produce found at various Farmers Markets. Michael’s response?

Until local hand grown produce and meat are available to everyone, and not just to those who can pay boutique prices, America’s so-called food revolution will not be complete.

(While he was actually responding to this follow up piece, I’m fairly sure this is a broad enough statement to apply to the initial article as well. If not, well, I hope he let’s us know in the comments).

Fast forward to today, when Michael posts an e-mail from Russ Parsons that basically refutes Mr. Ruhlman’s aforementioned stance. Russ Parsons, for those of you who may not follow food writers and their work, is the author of How to Pick a Peach: The Search for Flavor from Farm to Table.

I highly recommend reading his entire e-mail, because it’s quite informative and gives a decent, albeit brief, overview of California farms as well as the farm industry as a whole.

But I do want to highlight a few points that are quite relevant to those interested in the various food movements that are currently in vogue.

…contrary to the popular conception of corporate-based farming, in the state of California (which I continue to remind, grows more than half of all the fruits and vegetables in the country), more than 90% of all farms are owned by either families or single operators.

and

OK, so what about your spending more money at the farmers market than at the supermarket. In part, of course, this is because of your ridiculously low threshold for resisting impulse purchases. I share your pain there. But mostly, this is because it is far more expensive to farm in the Cleveland area than it is in California—where most of those supermarket fruits and vegetables are grown.

There are several points to be found and inferred within just these two snippets. But let’s focus on just two of them.

Firstly, there’s the local food movement that’s so hip with the kids nowadays. If California does supply 50% plus of the nations produce, and is more than 500 miles away from 90% of the rest of America, the first question that pops into my mind is “Can the rest of America’s farmland replace the crops provided by California without an excessive increase in prices?”

My instinctual answer to this is “Of course not”.

While this leads itself into larger questions regarding the viability of the local food movement and how much influence it can and should affect consumers, it doesn’t really address the other equally interesting questions.

To wit – Should the agricultural industry’s primary focus be taste? Or should it be ensuring that the great majority of this nation’s citizenry do not go hungry?

If the focus should be to feed the country first and taste concerns should come later, then the marketplace will place a premium price on foods that do more than simply prevent hunger. This, in essence, is exactly what we are seeing happening. In areas of the country that are not California, produce found at farmers markets do seem to command a higher price. Not surprisingly, better chocolate, better wine, and better cars also command better price in their respective markets. (We’ll ignore the fact that higher prices at farmers markets are also due in part to the idea that farmers markets are supposed to provide better produce…that’s a much higher level Economic discussion).

Of course, it’s easy for me to make these statements after Mr. Parsons has already provided the necessary legwork.

The unspoken fact here is that this idea that the statement “Until local hand grown produce and meat are available to everyone” has everything to do with class, especially the lower classes who are unable to afford a 20% increase in their respective food budgets . The reason that class questions are so difficult to address in the food world is that food is a necessity not a luxury, and it makes many of us uncomfortable to say “Great tasting tomatoes for me but not for thee”. It’s as if we’re denying food to a sizable portion of our nation, even though the reality is not quite that exact.

At any rate, this is the best food post I’ve seen in quite a while from the food blog machine, and it’s worth your time to check it out.