Sunday, December 8, 2013

The death of the farmer...

We have a little place, we call it Golden Unicorn Farm - we don't really farm but we have chickens and we participate in the local farm market and we try to earn what we can from working with our hands.

I sometimes wonder why? I work so hard, I try so much and there are moments where it all seems for naught. OH we had grandiose ideas and planned to do more than we do, but due to age (my husband is 72 and I am 47), lack of money to build good barns and solid fencing, we had to scale back. Now we have to decide whether to continue what we do or just relax and do nothing? (I don't think nothing is possible for either of us.)

Who is at fault when it comes to the fact that we are unable to earn a living wage? Maybe other growers, farmers, cultivators, market vendors and to some extent the public. Why? Because so many people devalue what they do. They sell good quality home grown or home made product for less than the grocery store.

They undercut each other on basics like eggs... We sell our eggs for $3.00 a carton - that is for a local, pasture/free range truly outside roaming bird which is supplemented with grains. We also have to continue to feed and care for chickens that moult and quit laying as well as the decrease of eggs in the winter - less income, same costs. Now, the store charges 3.79 for factory farmed eggs and 4.50 to 5.00 for eggs that say they are free range (which has a completely different meaning). Some people think we charge too much - and in my opinion, they can go to the store. Other people line up for our eggs because they are so fresh and taste so great. Why would someone else come and sell their eggs of equivalent size and value for 2.00 or 2.50? I don't understand it. I suppose I could understand it if there was a glut on the market but frankly there is a waiting list of people to buy the eggs... So why devalue what you do?

Grain has increased about $2.00 per bag since we started raising hens about 3 years ago and fuel has certainly gone up , A LOT - so the drive to town costs more, why does this not have value? Not to mention going out several times a day to check the hens, feed them, water them, collect eggs - several times a day in winter due to freezing eggs, in winter make sure they have water that is not frozen, clean the chicken coop about once a week and.... Well, you get the idea.

Baking. I bake. I started to bake to keep warm in the winter and because I was a little bored and lonely out here in the woods. I now have a small winter customer base and a healthy summer customer base. My costs increase, the price it costs me to bake a loaf of bread has increased, dramatically since I started. Every time there is a rush on the stock market for grains or due to the potential lack of grains in the future - costs increase. My prices have not increased in almost 3 years. I still have to buy the flours, grains, staples, etc.  that I need to make my product. I buy the best quality I can, use real butter and use many organic GMO free products in my baking. For the most part there is little to no question from the customer about the price of my product - for this, I thank you dear customer. 

Where do I see a problem? At Christmas time I spend about two months marketing to the public and my customers to increase my Christmas orders. I know that historically it can be a busy time and that after Christmas the market customer base drops drastically. Therefore, I have a small window of opportunity to sell my product, stock up on supplies and make sure my bills are paid before I have very little business again. This is now my only job and I take it quite seriously as well as try to have fun with it. It can be crazy and stressful at times and incredibly lean during others. I do it because I like it and it makes me feel good to see people enjoying what I do and even drooling over baking at times - feels good!

The farm market I belong to goes year round and is indoors. We pay for a monthly booth and this allows me the opportunity to leave product, eggs, preserves and Len's art at our table for the weekly customer to come at their leisure. On Fridays many vendors attend the market from 8 AM until about 1 PM and bring in fresh product. We are one of those vendors. We generally arrive at the market about 9 or 9:30 AM after my daughter gets on the bus to school, we load the car and Len makes sure the animals are set for the day. We leave our house about 8 AM. This is our one trip to town per week. 

Back to Christmas. One thing I do at Christmas is specialty baking. I supply my customer with a list of ideas and options and I am also very open to baking their own requests and personal traditional foods if at all possible. About 2 years ago I started doing dessert trays for Christmas. The tray is large, ready to serve, decorated in cellophane and makes a great hostess gift. The tray comes with about 6-8 varieties of cookies and bars and anywhere from 40-50 pieces for $20 a tray. I think that is a pretty good deal. I see what people buy in ready to serve trays like mine from a grocery store about $30-$40 or a plastic tray with pre-made (who knows where cookies) in Walmart and other places for $15 - $20. I have had very good feedback on what I do and I think it is good value. 

So how do I feel when I see other people selling a similar product for $2 less than me? Why would they do that? I don't mind the competition, I don't mind them getting customers too, I just wonder WHY would they devalue their and my product? Neither of us mass produce it, we all have growing families, I just don't understand it. They have a great product, I think I have a great product. Why sell for less, make even less than we already do? I know people will pay $20, so why down sell?

I have spoken to farmers in the East as well as the West who tell me that it is   difficult to grow crops,  they have to endure the elements, a poor year, good year, no customers coming on "bad weather days" - fresh produce left to wilt if no one decides to shop that day. I am like minded with many of these people - I will not give away my product. If it doesn't sell then I will take it home and if we can still eat it, we will, if we can't, my chickens will or the farmers pigs... I have also learned that many farmers are closing up shop - getting out of farming because they can't make a sustainable living - when all they need to do is charge their customers a fair market price - stop selling at prices that were fair 10 or 20 years ago. 

We also learned this year about the price of beef and pasture raised chickens and the value. If it costs $1.50 to buy the chick, take the loss on the early deaths of 5-10% of your birds, feed them, pasture them and protect them from predators, take them to the abattoir and pay $4.00+ per bird to be processed for selling and then sell them for $3.00 lb - less than the going rate of organic birds in the store which is $7-$10 lb - why bother? Or selling beef at $2.50 and $3.00 lb for a whole side - when in the store ground beef factory farmed starts at $5.00 lb, why sell grass fed for this price? Just to cover your costs? What is wrong with allowing yourself to make a little money? I do not see this as gouging. 

People who try to live off the land, sustain-ably, working with their hands - MUST value what they do. It is hard enough to get the consumer to understand but if we farm market sellers don't work together we are not helping ourselves or anyone else. As it is, our consumers earn anywhere from minimum wage of $10 per hour to ... well, it really depends on where you live and what you do on how that caps your income. A farmer - full time farmer - earns about $1 per hour. Maybe a little more at times or less at others but on average the farmers I talk to make very little. Remember this is based on the work hours in a week all year long.

When going to a farm market, please remember - the person you are buying from is there to help you - help you understand what you are buying, how it was raised or grown or baked or created, help you eat better, healthier and in many instances for less or at least equivalent to what you buy in a store. They will produce product you want if you ask. They are excited to tell you about themselves and why they do what they do and how they do it. There are not secrets - well maybe some recipes held close to the chest but in general - questions are welcomed and answered. 

Openness is not the response from a grocery store - in part because they don't know, didn't raise or grow or bake for you - or the producer is under a strict confidentiality agreement and can only tell you so much - they don't want their secrets out or to let you know why they can sell cheaply - but you may want to research and question those methods. Big stores and corporations are subsidized by big business and government tax breaks = lower prices. My theory is : if you can afford to cross the border, stay two nights in a hotel to go Black Friday shopping just so you don't have to pay taxes at the border - you can afford to eat at KFC or McDonald's - you can probably afford my eggs for $3.00 or my bread for $4.50 - and if you can't or wont, that is OK - I will not devalue myself, my time, my expenses and my values - I will either quit doing what I do - or come home and feed it to my chickens - they like it too.

Is this a rant? Probably. Is this a blog on questioning our values? Yes. Will I lose some customers or fans? Maybe. Is this my belief and should I stand behind what I believe? Yes. Do I support the farmers and vendors in my market and buy their product at their price without question? No. To qualify that answer - yes, I buy and support them and as a buyer think the prices are amazing - but no, I do tell them in many circumstances they should increase their price to bring up the value - people WILL pay it. We just need to stand together.

Now, I look forward to any response.... Have a great day, eh?!


Shawn Taylor said...

Well put Sarah. I hope that your message, and attitude, spreads like wildfire.

...Sarah Sherman said...

Thank you Shawn. I do appreciate your feedback. Without supporting each other we can't continue in what we do and without doing what we love, what would we do? I am glad this spoke to you. thanks again!