Conference Takes on Economics of Organic Food
Only rich people can afford to eat locally grown, organic food. Have you heard that one before? I have, and it's sure to come up during the "Can Maine Feed Itself?" keynote discussion taking place at next month's Maine Fare festival in the midcoast.
The panel brings together a number of movers and shakers from Maine's food scene for a conversation centered on how the state can become more self-reliant when stocking our grocery stores and filling our dinner plates.
According to well-known organic Maine farmer and author Eliot Coleman, who farms year-round in unheated greenhouses and will participate in the panel, the No. 1 barrier preventing more Mainers from eating food grown and raised locally is the competition from cheap eats trucked in from California.
A whole book could be written (and has been) about the reasons factory farms and agribusinesses can produce food that costs so little. However, the simple answer, as Coleman pointed out, includes physical scale, illegal immigrant laborers, polluting farm practices and government subsidies.
At the same time, the idea that only the well-off can eat fresh, locally grown eats ignores the obvious and inexpensive solution of growing your own garden. You can't get any more local than food grown steps from your kitchen. And with seeds that sell for pennies apiece and with compost an essentially free fertilizer that anyone can make from table scraps and dried leaves, it becomes clear that price alone is not the true issue.
I'd argue that the real barrier is psychological. Part of this can be traced to the American obsession with animal protein.
Meat, dairy and eggs are all expensive ways to include protein in our diets, and these ubiquitous staples of our national cuisine can be produced cheaply (think a dozen eggs for $1.69 at the grocery stores versus $4.50 at the farmers' markets) only when the farms cut costs. That can lead to mistreating the animals, the workers or the environment. The price at the checkout may be low, but we pay the full cost eventually in food poisoning outbreaks, slaughterhouse workers with post-traumatic stress disorder and polluted rivers.
The other piece of this mental obstacle comes from our national cult of convenience. Our 24/7 consumer culture means we expect markets to be open whenever the shopping whim strikes us. We expect their shelves to be stocked with items that haven't been in season for the past six months.
So I wasn't surprised when John Harker, a development agent for the Maine Department of Agriculture, said research shows that the current market for direct-to-consumer sales from small farms in Maine is confined to the pool of consumers with higher incomes and higher levels of education.
These are the folks who have read books such as "Omnivore's Dilemma" and "Fast Food Nation" and know shelling out a little more for high quality food saves a lot of headaches and heartaches (literally) down the road.
But what about the moms who are too busy changing diapers to tackle such troubling tomes? Unfortunately, many still view food as a commodity similar to back-to-school clothes rather than the ultimate in preventative health care.
"In the consumer focus group we just finished up in Bangor, young mothers with children said, 'Price, price, price,'" Harker recalled.
Since Americans on average spend less than 10 percent of our disposable income on food, a case can be made that a frugal home cook can find a way to pay more for better quality food.
At the same time, Harker sees opportunities for lowering the price of locally grown food and getting it into supermarkets and convenience stores (where he said 97 percent of food in Maine is purchased).
His message to farmers: "You've got to either get bigger or get together as a collective."
He points to the Locally Known organic salad farm in Bowdoin as an example of a farm that got bigger to become more competitive on price. He cites the group of 10 organic dairy farmers who lost their contract with Hood and are now forming a limited liability corporation in hopes of getting their milk into supermarkets as an example of collective marketing.
On the consumer side, Harker said the department is encouraging neighbors to form buying clubs, such as the Portland Food Co-Op, where they can purchase food at or near wholesale prices.
"One of the projects I'm working on is online ordering for consumer buying clubs," Harker said.
Aside from price, Maine farmers and eaters do face other obstacles to achieving food independence.
Cheryl Wixson, the resident chef and marketing consultant for the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, is working on a report that will look at 20 categories of Maine food to determine whether or not farms are producing enough to meet local demand.
If they're not, the report will also help figure out what factors stand in the way. These obstacles are varied and include lack of food processing plants, limited distribution opportunities and inadequate storage facilities.
But when it comes to price, Wixson is blunt: "You're either going to pay for it now, or you'll pay for it later."
Or as Coleman said: "Local food is more expensive because it's better."