I've spent a good bit of time the last two weeks harvesting and washing and packing lettuce from our front-yard "farm" here in the District of Columbia.
Normally I would be giving it away. We have so much, and it's getting ready to go to seed. But then I learned that our friends at the 7th Street Garden were selling produce at the local farmer's markets.
The 7th Street Garden is a non-profit group organized to teach inner-city neighbors to grow their own food. They aren't trying to make money at the farmer's markets so much as make their presence known. But they said they'd be happy to sell my lettuce.
Last week I dropped off seven 1-gallon (6-ounce) bags of salad mix that sold almost instantly for $5 apiece at a new market in the Bloomingdale neighborhood. Encouraged by this success, I brought 10 bags of lettuce plus nine tomato plants to the group's stand at the Mt. Pleasant market on Saturday.
Turns out customers we less eager in Mt. Pleasant. I only sold six bags of lettuce and no tomato plants.
My take for the weekend: $30.
Having spent a little more than six hours harvesting the lettuce, washing it, sorting through it to remove weeds and damaged leaves, then bagging it, my hourly wage comes to--let's see--$5, or slightly less than the current federal minimum wage of $5.15 an hour.
Of course, my hourly rate would have been much higher if the shoppers at the Mt. Pleasant farmer's market had been more eager for my product. But apparently there is a bit of chance involved in selling organic, locally raised produce. Should I adjust my price to compensate for that element of chance? No, I don't think so. Because the price was set against the lettuce mix the other farmers were selling.
Without intending to, I have stumbled into the debate about why food at the farmer's markets costs so much, or why people believe organic, locally grown produce costs more than the stuff for sale in the supermarket. As far as I'm concerned, farmer's market produce doesn't cost much at all. As you can see, I'm only making $5 an hour.
Well, maybe this isn't a perfect example. If I had been more organized, if I'd grown more crops and had more to offer, I could have made more money. Of course, that would have required lots more effort on my part, all that harvesting and washing and packaging and transporting. Then there's the unpacking and setting up at the farmer's market. The standing around all day dealing with customers--or waiting for customers. Then packing up everything at the end of the day and hauling it back to the farm. And what to do with all the leftovers?
Or, perhaps you think I'm just slow. Perhaps you think six hours is an exorbitant amount of time to spend making 10 bags of salad mix.
I assure you I was not dawdling. You might be surprised the time it takes to separate the leaf lettuce from the weeds in organic garden beds where no black plastic or excessive cultivating is employed. I do not have room to plant long, neat rows. My lettuce beds are planted intensively from seed. The weeds manage to find a home there. The different varieties (of which I planted 15) are harvested individually, then soaked for a period of time to clean and freshen them. Then I sort through the basin of soaking lettuce, removing blades of grass and other debris, removing wilted or damaged leaves, pinching off inedible stems and placing them in the compost container.
One badly blemished lettuce leaf can bring down a whole bag of lettuce. You wouldn't want any blemishes in your salad, would you?
Americans, on average, spend about 10 percent of their pre-tax income on food, less than in most industrialized countries and far less than in poorer nations. It's a strange rule of economics--called Engel's law--that poor people spend a far greater percentage of their income on food than rich people do.
In the United States, for instance, statistics generated by the U.S. Labor Department show that the wealthiest Americans spend less than 7 percent of their income on food, while the poorest Americans spend more than 31 percent.
So I suppose I shouldn't be holding my breath waiting for a poor person to spend $5 of their precious cash on a bag of my lettuce. But how about one of those wealthy people? Would it be so hard for them to fork over a $5-spot for some of my incredibly tender, lovingly raised salad greens?
That still doesn't answer the question, How do we make organic, locally-raised produce affordable for poor people? It doesn't answer the question, Is organic, locally-raised produce really more expensive than the stuff in the supermarket?
But it still leaves me, as a local, organic salad grower, making $5 an hour. My wife says that's not so bad.
"I look at it cumulatively," she said. "You now have $30 more than you had before. Maybe we can pay the electric bill with that."
Yes, maybe--if we don't run the air conditioner...