Having grown up on a farm, your post raises so many mixed feelings for me.
Although it isn't a thrill for me, since eating very local was more about what we could afford than anything else, there is something very satisfying about growing the food you are eating. And it has so much more flavor than anything you can buy in the store. There is nothing quite like walking out in the field to grab a few ears of sweet corn, stripping the husks off on the walk back to the house, and tossing them into a pot of boiling water...
But, about what we could afford - my first full time teaching job in 1978 paid $10,500. I didn't realize it at the time, but a couple years later (so my wages had gone up a little, but not a lot) I was comparing wages with my father (also a college graduate). Finally, after around a quarter century of farming, he made as much as I was making just a couple of years out of college (in another notoriously low paid profession). We raised cattle, among things, but I never tasted steak until at least late high school because the only beef we could afford came from the cows that wouldn't fetch enough at market to be worth shipping them - and whatever made them not good enough for anyone else to buy also meant they were hamburger or roast, rather than steak, material.
Still, it was a good life - I wouldn't trade it for a different one, and there was never anything I needed that we didn't have. And I'm contributing to the urban sprawl partly because I couldn't imagine raising a child on a postage stamp sized lot. But it isn't the romantic idea a lot of folks have about living off the earth. And the economics of being a family farmer are still hard.
Which brings me to the economics of eating local/organic food, using Snake Hill as an example. Snake Hill is remarkably transparent about its practices. I'm not picking on Snake Hill - I expect it is not alone in its practices. And, I'm also a bit reluctant to use them to raise this question because the only reason I have a clue about them is because of their transparency, a choice a lot of farms wouldn't make. Like I said, your post raised a lot of mixed emotions for me, but the economic question is one worth raising, and their transparency gives me some numbers to work with.
Snake Hill mentions on its website that it pays $6.00 an hour - less than minimum wage, and the pay for first year interns is $4.00 an hour (discounting the value of food and lodging, and assuming 40 hours a week, and on the farms I am familiar with, a 40 hour a week would be a luxury). I am not suggesting Snake Hill would run afoul of wage laws - there are exemptions from minimum wage laws which they likely fall into - just pointing it out for reference. I also think the internship idea is a wonderful way to connect people who have never had that experience with what it takes to get food from the earth to the table (or as a training ground for thinking about starting more Snake Hills for those farther along in their commitment to farming).
There is a tension, though, between making local/organic food (the latter of which is more labor intensive) affordable enough that people will buy it - and charging enough to make sure that those producing the local/organic food are paid enough so that they can sustain themselves.
Do I ask, when I'm talking to the farmer,not only how sustainable her farming practices are in environmental terms, but also whether they are sustainable in people terms? On a small scale, particularly when so many people are out of work, can we afford the real cost of local/organic foods? On a larger long term scale, can we afford not to move in that direction?
Posted May 18, 2011