Why Food From the Farmers Market Is “Expensive”

The Ivey-Ellington-Waddell House, site of the Cary Downtown Farmers Market–Watercolor painting by Madison Cross Sugg, great-grandson of former resident, Mayor H.H. Waddell, © Madison Cross Sugg, 2017

I had promised to write about this, but I’m running out of SNAP days, so I’m doing a special post on this issue.

Food production in the United States is a complex business, but explaining why food from local Farmers Markets is “expensive” is easy:  Farmers Markets are about the only place where you are playing the full cost of your food.

Large-scale industrial farmers, particularly for products like wheat, corn, and meat, get billions of dollars in food subsidies from the US Government that keeps their prices artificially low.  On top of that, that type of farming produces extensive ecological damage that is not reflected in the price.  Industrial farmers and animal producers devastate the land and pollute the water and air, then just move on.  The costs of fixing those problems are divorced from the price tag of the food that came from those practices. And while it doesn’t contribute to the economic cost, there is a high moral cost to so-called Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO), in which live animals raised for meat, dairy, or eggs are raised and butchered in inhumane and unhealthy conditions.

If you want more information on the dangers of our cheap food, I recommend seeing the documentary Food Inc. by Robert Kenner.

Even better, read the book The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals by Micheal Pollan.  That book changed my life.  I radically altered my food buying habits when I discovered the damage that industrial farming and meat production was doing to our environment and our bodies, and became a devoted consumer of Farmers Market goods over all others.

People will say, I buy organic, or I only shop at Whole Foods or Earth Fare, which has the same healthy and earth-friendly food at lower prices than the Farmers Market.  However, please be aware that even the “healthy” “all-natural” “all organic” foods at the so-called healthy chains like Whole Foods are STILL primarily industrial food production.  They are BETTER than the CAFOs and conventional farming practices…but not THAT MUCH better.

Let’s take a look at eggs, which are a source of some of the healthiest and cheapest protein–a great candidate for the SNAP Challenge.  Regular eggs are $1-2/dozen at your average grocery store.  Even the eggs advertised as “Organic” “Free Range” “Cage Free” or “Natural,” such as the house brands at Whole Foods and Earth Fare, are usually $3/dozen or so.  Whereas I buy my eggs from my dear Farmers Market friend, Michelle, for $5/dozen.  Why do her eggs cost $1.50-$2.00 more than Whole Foods, especially since she raises her eggs locally?

The sad truth is, eggs for Whole Foods are still being raised in factory conditions.  Yes, they feed the chickens better, and they don’t cram as many together as in conventional egg farms so that they don’t have to shoot the chickens up with antibiotics as a prophylactic measure.  But make no mistake about it–these are not eggs from happy chickens raised outside, roaming about and eating their natural food sources.

Unfortunately, government regulations allow stores like Whole Foods LOTS of loopholes around terms like “Free Range” and “Cage Free.”  The regulations do not state that “Free Range” chickens need to be raised where they can, well, range freely.  The regulations only require that “Free Range” chicken have access to some outdoor space for some period of their short and sorry lives.

Industrial chickens are not bred to be very intelligent, curious, or adventurous.  If you raise them in a room, after a few weeks they are not likely to go investigate the world outside just because you open a door.  And you only have to open the door for one hour a day or several days a week, or one week per month, or really whatever you want to do.

Here’s another tip-off:  Most of these variety of eggs advertise “vegetarian feed.”  Wait a minute!  Are chickens naturally vegetarians?  No, they are not.  Chickens like to eat BUGS!  So if your eggs are coming from a vegetarian chicken, either they aren’t going outside, or they are going outside onto a concrete slab that bugs are somehow prevented from entering, or something like that.

Whether you are in Walmart, Aldi, or Whole Foods, the only way you can know for sure that your chickens are being raised outdoors, eating their natural foods, and having a happy life in addition to laying your eggs is if they have a CERTIFIED HUMANE label on the carton.  And guess how much THOSE eggs cost?

Yep, even the industrial TRULY free-range chicken eggs cost $5/dozen

OR, you can go to the Farmers Market and talk to the farmers.  Most of them have pictures of their farms and their animals.  They can tell you exactly what they feed them and how their raise them.  For all of my major regular Farmers Market food suppliers, like Michelle, I’ve gone to their farms.  I’ve seen their happy chickens, ducks, turkeys, pigs, and cows.  I’ve toured their farms and ridden in utility vehicles around all the different fields–corn here, flowers there, blueberries over there.  I’ve gone through their greenhouses.  I’ve even visited their houses.

And I can tell you, they are beautiful places.  They are green and lush and clean.  There are no huge piles of smelly chemicals and animal manure.  Their water supplies are clean.  Their animals have room to move around and access to water and natural food supplies (although almost all of them supplement with organic feed or food supplies.  When my friend Michelle was raising pigs, she collected organic waste from the local Trader Joes and fed that to her pigs–the ultimate in organic recycling!)

Giving animals space to roam is an expensive way to raise animals.  Keeping them fed and watered with healthy, organic food is expensive.  Raising crops through labor instead of using petroleum-based chemicals is expensive.  Maintaining the fields so that they can continue to produce food year after year is expensive.  Not using pesticides means that the fields lose more of their yield to insects and birds and such, which makes the surviving crops more expensive.  But that is what Farmers Market farmers do, so Farmers Market food is expensive–at least compared to what you pay in conventional grocery stores.

However, that cheap food is not healthy for the Earth, it isn’t healthy for the animals and the workers, and it isn’t healthy for the consumers.  You literally become what you eat.  Your children become the food that you feed them.

So think about it….

And if you live in Cary, come check out the Cary Downtown Farmers Market, where I go every Saturday morning to buy the bulk of my meat and produce.  If you are elsewhere in North Carolina, the NC Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services has a website called North Carolina Farm Fresh where you can find Farmers Markets listed by county.  Elsewhere in the US, you can try the USDA’s National Farmers Market Directory website.  Most of them are open on Saturdays, so tomorrow would be a good time to start a new shopping habit.  Your planet and your taste buds will thank you for it.

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