Balancing the amount of food that we grow with what we need to eat is one of the
more challenging aspects of gardening. This is not just our problem, however.
It is a critical challenge for farmers and for society as a whole.
Earlier this season I picked the first of our yellow summer squash- four
beautiful ones. When selling at a farmers market, it is okay to have just a few
of some vegetables. That same week we had a good crop of potatoes and garlic,
as well as greens and flowers to sell, so the squash weren't really important.
Suzanne had wanted to keep them for our supper, but decided instead to take them
to market and put a high price on them. She really valued those squash because
she knew they were fresh and organically-grown.
Of course, because other people also saw their value, those freshly-picked
squash sold almost immediately!
At the end of that market day, Ed, the farmer next to us, was complaining about
the five bushels of yellow summer squash he'd picked and packed, but couldn't
sell. He thought he might market them (one-half bushel at a time) to
restaurants, but doubted that it would be worth his trouble. A half bushel is
worth about seven dollars. Ed's a conventional farmer, so he'd already bought
and spread fertilizers and pesticides to grow those squash, driven his tractor
to prepare the ground and taken the time to pick the squash and bring them to
market. And, here he was now with mountains of squash, no one to eat them, and
no way to recoup his costs.
All those expensively-grown vegetables with so little value, because no one gets
to eat them, are a good example of a serious problem in agriculture today.
I recently read that western farmers have an enormous surplus of potatoes. At
the current price of only five cents a pound on the market, their crop is worth
far less than the costs of raising it.
Almost every month there is another news report about growers who have been so
successful at large scale mono-cropping that the commodity price is not enough
to cover the farmers' production costs. That was the case when I visited a
large wheat farm in North Dakota years ago and it's true now of cattle raisers
facing a steep rise in grain prices, of small scale pork producers, of Asian tea
farmers, of Florida tomato growers, New England dairy farmers, Connecticut egg
producers and on and on.
As there is less money to be made per bushel, farmers have produced more and
more bushels in an attempt to stay even financially. Of course, more crops
mean lower prices, and often more damage to the environment. But, because food
has no value until it is sold to be eaten, and because what the USDA calls the
"marketing sector" has expanded to consume 80 percent of our food dollars, it is
that same "marketing sector" that benefits most from the low prices paid to
One of the best examples of this is potato chips. Many of those five-cent per
pound potatoes are sold for four or five dollars a pound after they've been
fried, salted and packaged.
But, by eliminating the voracious marketing sector and selling directly to
consumers, there are many potential benefits to the eaters, the farmers and
their communities. We are much more likely to be able to find a balance between
what is grown and what is eaten, if the growers and the eaters are directly
connected. That's why we're so appreciative of the farmers markets. Even Ed's
conventionally-grown, unwashed and unsorted potatoes bring a dollar a pound
there. We get nearly two dollars for our washed and sorted organic fingerling
With our spouses, Ed and I are still learning to balance the growing and the
selling in cooperation with our customers.
Today is the first day of National Farmers Market Week. Accross the U.S. now,
there are 2,500 farmers markets; that's a 20 percent increase in just the past
This season you still have plenty of time to shop at a nearby farmers market
into October. There's no better way to preserve farmland and farmers in our
communities than to buy what they grow directly from them.
For a listing of all the farmers markets in Connecticut, send a self-addressed,
stamped envelope to Markets, WSHU, 5151 Park Avenue, Fairfield, CT 06432.
This is Bill Duesing, Living on the Earth
C1996, Bill Duesing, Solar Farm Education, Box 135, Stevenson, CT 06491
Bill and Suzanne Duesing operate the Old Solar Farm (raising NOFA/CT certified
organic vegetables) and Solar Farm Education (working on urban agriculture
projects in New Haven, Bridgeport, Hartford and Norwalk, CT). Their collection
of essays Living on the Earth: Eclectic Essays for a Sustainable and Joyful
Future is available from Bill Duesing, Box 135, Stevenson, CT 06491 for $14
postpaid. This essay first appeared on WSHU, public radio from Fairfield, CT.
New essays are posted weekly at http://www.wshu.org/duesing