Comedian Pete Holmes has a part of his stand-up act where he talks about that situation we used to see more in the past – in a retail store where someone arrives at the checkout, and one of the items won’t ring up with a price. The cashier calls for a price check, and while waiting for that, the customer half-jokingly asks, “Does this mean it’s free?” But they are only half-joking, because they really are thinking, “Give it to me for free!”
As a cashier, it’s not likely that person played a role in producing the product which hadn’t been properly tagged with a price. Just the same, they are providing labor in getting it to the customer, and if the store gave away everything everyone expected for free, that cashier would be out of a job. Holmes talks about how annoying it is to be that cashier, dealing with someone who expects something for nothing. It’s disrespectful.
Let’s take that situation and apply it to a situation where the “cashier” is also the producer. They worked hard to bring that product to market, and now the customer, who does want the product, and therefore sees value in it, dismisses that producer’s right to earn a living from it. Because they want it for free, or very cheap. This is what farmers have faced for many years.
That’s epidemic of the way our country’s values have turned in general over the past few decades. Wal-Mart and other corporations have led different markets to value the monopsony* – in which one buyer (Wal-Mart, for example) dictates to its suppliers what they can charge for their goods, regardless of whether it covers the real costs for those suppliers. It’s one of the reasons why manufacturing in this nation has been exported to countries with cheaper labor. It’s also one of the reasons that much of our grocery store produce –including organic– is imported from China. They grow it cheaper. Although, it’s worth becoming familiar with their growing methods to know exactly what it is you are buying, even if it is cheap.
The problem with cheap food production is not limited to China – oh, no, we do plenty of that here, right in the U.S. Store shelves are chock full of products that have been manufactured by corporate conglomerate food producers, full of ingredients we can’t pronounce, because the foods needed to be treated and preserved – those foods travel thousands of miles, in many cases. And when you’re traveling that far with food, and it’s going to remain on store shelves for who knows how long, you need to make sure it still looks and tastes good when the consumer brings it home. Hence, a host of chemicals listed in the ingredients.
So, many of us have done (and continue to do) a lot of reading and research regarding quality, life-giving, healthful foods that are not tainted by the sort of industrial production methods we’ve learned are detrimental to our health on so many levels. We’ve realized that good food requires attentive, caring producers who personally oversee growing it – whether vegetables and fruit or the animals that produce dairy or meat. This has meant trying to source more of our foods locally, so we can deal face-to-face with the producers. And some of us have taken it a step further, and started raising some food ourselves. It’s hard work, it’s not cheap to produce food, but the quality and satisfaction make it worthwhile. And we appreciate when others think the same, and have chosen to patronize our farm and its products. We are grateful to be able to help put healthful food on other families tables outside of our own.
However, we have encountered (thankfully not often) some folks who take the attitude of the customer in the store who is waiting the price check. “Give it to me for free.” For instance, a prospective milk share customer who insisted that we should purchase a cream separator (minimum cost is around $400) so that she could get butter from us. For free. Even though typically, in a share program, if the customer wants to “upgrade” their share from just milk to cheese or butter, they compensate the farmer for their time.
She stated that her former share program farmers had done this for her free of charge, and told her that they benefited because they could feed the leftover whey to their pigs. So she thought we should do the same. And we’d love it if we lived in a world where it was possible to show never-ending generosity. But we don’t. There are mortgages, utilities, car loans, insurance, and other household expenses to be paid, and if you are investing your time and resources into running a farm, then you need that farm to provide you some income to help pay for itself. This isn’t a situation where you are bringing in cheap products from China that you purchase for 10 cents and resell for 10 dollars, and you can therefore afford to throw in freebies for everyone. We don’t own a cream separator (we’d love to, one day) and we don’t own pigs. So why would it be fair, exactly, for us to have to make a large purchase when she placed no value on our efforts to make butter for her?
The prospective customer had already informed me that her former share program was closing. Gee, do you think it might have had something to do with them giving away too much to customers, who clearly did not appreciate the value of their labor?
It’s particularly irksome when you discover that these types of folks shop at Whole Foods and buy Free Trade coffee because they are concerned about insuring that the people who produce their foods in other countries are treated fairly. Clearly, they don’t understand “take care of your own.” It’s just insulting and discouraging encountering someone like this when you are putting your all into your farm. It’s disrespectful. And we know we are not alone in dealing with this – other small farmers have related similar stories.
Thankfully, we haven’t had to deal with too many of those types, and hopefully that sort of thing will be kept to a minimum. Certainly, we are also fans of being thrifty, but not at the expense of others. To us, you save your money by doing things like shopping at a thrift store for some clothes, and certain household items. Or not eating out so often – perhaps not at all. And really evaluating “do we need this, how will we use it?” But when it comes down to food, it is a life-giving resource. We shouldn’t skimp on it. We are certainly not perfect in all of our practices, but when we are dealing with local producers, we treat them as we want to be treated.
How do you feel about this issue? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.
* A shout out to Tom Philpott, the fantastic Food & Ag Writer at Mother Jones (formerly of Grist) for familiarizing us with this term!