Friday, October 02, 2009

Why is "organic" more expensive?

Why is "organic" more expensive? That is a question someone recently asked. Being familiar with the subject for so long I tend to take it for granted and think that everyone would know the answer to that question. But, as it turns out not everybody does.

So why is it so expensive anyway? To answer that question I think we have to go back to the advent of modern industrial methods of mass production. I would think most people realize how the innovations of Henry Ford did alot to refine the modern mass production assembly line. It didn't take very long before the industrial revolution drastically changed the way farmers grew peoples food. Making obsolete age old, from time memorial, farming methods, almost over night.

What a wonderful boom time it was. For the first time in history people of all walks of life could enjoy the conveniences and comforts usually afforded by only the most elite. Assembly line industrial processes could make almost everything affordable. And with a fairly high degree of quality and dependability.

The demand for products created by highly skilled craftsmen slowly gave way to industrial stamped, molded and formed merchandise. It is easy to see in photographs and films of days gone by how the style of architecture, automobiles, products, clothing, etc. changed with the advent of modern industrial methods.

However the hidden cost of affordability is the sacrifice of a certain degree of artistic aesthetics and quality. This can be seen in the architecture of many 100 plus year old homes where one can see the beauty of hand crafted wood designs and masonry components. Today only the most wealthy can afford such luxurious facades which seemed almost common place around the turn of the last century.

In the relentless rush to produce more and more, at cheaper and cheaper prices, much in the way of quality and dependability is being lost. Planned obsolescence has actually been part of the marketing strategies of many companies even as far back as the past 40 to 60 years. I once learned about a Wisconsin company that manufactured engines. They were so well built that they seldom broke down or wore out. The company went out of business and has been a case study ever since in the argument in favor for planned obsolescence. In order for a manufacturing company to stay in business they must design into their products a certain 'life span' so that replacement of the thing and the sales of parts keeps the business growing and prospering. Seems kind of absurd but, that is life in the modern world.

In the continuing push for more, more, more, and cheaper, cheaper, cheaper as perfected by the big box stores like K-Mart and Wal-Mart it seems a tipping point has been reached and the pendulum is beginning to swing back. People are wanting something better than what is being sold.

It seems we've reached a point in the 21st century that manufacturers are now producing alot of junk! Products that are of such poor quality that reliability and dependability are a thing of the past for far to many manufactured items. This we can attest to with first hand experience while living life on this northern homestead.

While working and spending alot of time outdoors, clothing is the first line of defense and protection against the elements. Wal-Mart clothes simply won't do. They don't hold up and will not withstand the demands of hard work. Maybe for people who do alot of sitting on the couch watching television they're alright but, for those of us who work outside they are a waste of money. In this case cheaper definitely is not better. And, it has gotten to where we avoid the "made in China" stamp like the plague not just for patriotic reasons but, for practical reasons.

Another prime example of the junk being sold in stores these days is with tarp straps. We use quite a few of them in our business and on the farm. The all rubber ones with the S-hooks inserted in each end. Earlier this year I bought some from Menards to hold down a tarp over our movable sheep pen. The tarp is for shade from the sun and shelter from rain in the summer. The first moderately strong wind that blew against that tarp less than a week after installing the new straps broke half of those brand new tarp straps. Total junk. I have rubber tarp straps that I'm still using that I got when we first started hauling garbage back 9 years ago that are just as good today as they were then. They're out in the elements all the time and the sun beats down on them and they still work. Those old straps where made in the USA, the new ones are made in China. We simply are tired of wasting our money.

But, back to the question at hand. Why is organic or naturally grown food so much more expensive? It might not be quite as apparent with industrial manufactured food as it is with manufactured merchandise, that quality is being sacrificed, but it really is. Quality as well as safety is certainly being sacrificed. Industrial farming methods specialize in quantity, cheaper products and ease of production. More, more, more for less, less, less. This has been the only way for farmers to compete. That is, until recent years, with the adoption of "organic" farming methods.

After several generations of industrial food production people are finally catching on to the fact that food isn't as nutritious and healthy as it used to be. "Food" might be cheap and plentiful in modern times, enabling people to keep their belly's full and their waistlines plump, but sacrificed health and well being has been an enormous cost.

Besides modern machinery, the widespread use of chemicals have been the back bone of modern industrial food production. The modern industrial farm cannot function with out chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides. These things combined with government subsidies are what give the developed world cheap and abundant "food".

If it wasn't bad enough, what little nutrition might remain in industrial produced food is completely lost with the convenience of prepackaged ready to eat meals laden with all kinds of chemicals, preservatives and additives. Vitamins and minerals actually have to be added back into most packaged and prepared foods. So the pendulum swings back and people are seeking out food that is once again nutritious, healthy and safe.

There has always been a segment of the population that has rejected the modern industrial practices of food production. The back-to-the-landers from the 60's and 70's were among some of the first, until present times where back yard gardeners are becoming more and more numerous. And organic farmers are now trying to meet the demand of a more informed public, those who want safe and healthy food.

Growing food the "old fashion" way isn't easy. Though most organic farmers do not reject modern labor saving machinery like tractors and mechanized harvesters, the use of chemicals is strictly prohibited. However, the purist would use only horses, mules or oxen on the farm. Without herbicides, pesticides and chemical fertilizers the challenges of weed and pest control and soil fertility put the organic farmer at a definitive disadvantage over his industrialized counterparts. Keeping his fields fertile and free of weeds and harmful insects is the number one challenge and adds a considerable amount of labor and cost to his operation. These challenges would be one of the reasons "organic" is more expensive.

From another angle it is no secret that it is getting ever more difficult for modern farmers to stay in business. For many years now the next generations see no future in their fathers and grandfathers profession of farming. The modern farmer is like an endangered species. He has to work more and more for less and less. Perpetually in debt, the modern farmer cannot survive without government subsidies.

A popular avenue organic farmers are taking is that of selling directly to the consumer and eliminating the middle man. Farmers markets, roadside stands and CSA's are great means of direct marketing. In order to make farming a viable enterprise once again selling direct is one way to save this age old and necessary profession. Lets face it folks without a reliable source of good nutritious food civilization is on shaky ground. We have to eat in order to survive! And we have to eat good food in order to thrive. Why shouldn't those who work so hard to provide good food earn a decent wage? Joel Salatin has alot to say about farmers making a decent wage.

Besides all these points people need to evaluate the real value of food anyway. Just what are we buying when we buy cheap supermarket food? What is our health and well being worth? In our experience even the higher cost of good food is well worth the extra price. When comparing the two there is no comparison. Factory food is not even in the same league as home grown or locally grown by a small farmer.

Those who are advocates of factory farming claim that there would be mass starvation without all their modern methods of growing and raising food. I don't believe it. I would bet that the yields of small scale intensive gardening are quite a bit higher per acre than modern industrial methods. To me it is flat out amazing how much food can be raised in a small intensive garden bed. A perfect example of how much food can be grown in a small space can be seen at Path to Freedom .

This is certainly not an exhaustive discussion of why "organic" is more expensive. But, it is a start. I forget that alot of people don't understand why it costs more for good food and products. The rush to make everything cheaper all the time just isn't sustainable. It's not good for either our health or our prosperity. Look at all the heart disease, diabetes and cancer to just name a few. And what about the products we buy. The cheapening of products degrades our society. I remember growing up hearing about the poor quality products communist countries used to put out. They had a reputation for having unreliable poor quality stuff. I'm afraid it won't be too long where we won't be any different and our whole infrastructure is compromised of nothing, but junk. There are hidden costs with all the cheap stuff for sale these days.

There are people I talk to who are conditioned to think that if they buy directly from us here at our farm then they'll get it cheaper. Like it should be at wholesale prices. For example we sell our pasture raised chicken at $3 per pound, which is comparable to a small local supermarket. One man who was interested in our chicken kept saying he wanted quite a few. I told him we get $3 per pound. I didn't want him to be surprised when he came to get them. Well even though I made a point of telling him, he was still surprised. A 4lb. chicken is $12. A 5 lb. chicken is $15. So, he was surprised at the cost and told me so. He was another who thought he was going to get a deal by going directly to the farmer.

It's nice when people 'get it' and we don't have to educate them on the ins and outs of good naturally grown food. Even though it costs more it is still a good value. I would say a way better value in nutrition and quality than the cheap stuff from a factory farm. I would also goes as far as to say that in the end industrial factory farm food is more expensive when you consider the hidden costs.

Until Next Time


Blogger Lynn Bartlett said...

Hi Russ,

We got the same comment when Jonathan told one customer that his chickens were selling for $2.00/lb. They couldn't believe a chicken could cost $14.00! Good post.

11:15 PM  
Anonymous wl said...

Right on. We've always tried to eat healthy, grow our own, but more so now that my wife has been battling cancer - a type that is being linked to pesticides.

If someone wants to learn more I recommend the documentaries The Future of Food and King Korn, for starters. Good flicks, alittle scary though.

And for the industrial problem, Rick at Cumberland Books has some really good blogs about it, and their are some recent articles on that deal with this as well.

Keep pluggin' away, we'd buy your chickens any day.

10:30 PM  
Blogger RL said...

Thanks Lynn!


Thank you for the tips.

I’m sorry to hear about your wife having cancer. It is so common in this day and age. I have heard that at any given time any of us might have it and our bodies work to battle it off.

I have seen the movies you referred and they are excellent. I highly recommended them as well.

Take care and God bless.


10:46 PM  

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