Why Does Good Produce Cost So Much?

December 2, 2014
Lindsey Haynes-Maslow
Former contributor

During the summer of 2012, I was hard at work finishing data collection for my doctoral dissertation. While pursuing my degree in Health Policy and Management, I had just spent the last year traveling around North Carolina asking lower-income women what their thoughts were on access to healthy food. Not surprisingly, produce prices were always the first topic to come up. Over and over again, women asked me why good produce cost so much. I could have told them it was about the Farm Bill, it was about politics, it was about big agribusiness, it was about the skewed priorities of our broken food system. But was there also something more?

Tomato

Picture from Jillian and Ross Mickens at Open Door Farm.

In search of more tangible answers—I went and played in the dirt. Well, more specifically, I volunteered on a small, sustainable, organic farm run by my friend Jillian. She and her husband Ross drove 50 minutes each way to manage Open Door Farm on 0.25 acres of rented farm land in Orange County, North Carolina.

I texted Jillian one night:

Do you need help at the farm tomorrow?

Sure—can you be ready by 7AM?”

Of course!” I responded.

To me, the summers in North Carolina are nothing short of a hot, humid inferno. Nevertheless, I had to clear my mind—I needed inspiration to dive into the 200-page dissertation journey I was about to embark on in hopes of answering a question: Why did good produce cost so much?

The next morning, bright and early, Jillian pulled up in her Ford Ranger. She stepped out of the car, ripped jeans, boots covered in dried mud, flannel shirt and an old baseball cap. She motioned me to throw my belongings in the backseat. With no air conditioning, Jillian plugged her phone into to the truck’s audio system and started blasting Red Hot Chili Peppers, “I Like Dirt”. How appropriate.

After 45 minutes we pulled up to a small plot of land. We parked in front of a large white, dilapidated house with a wooden sign: “NC Agricultural Extension and Family Project”. A North Carolina-based program used to recruit and train new farmers—to help bring on the next generation of our food system’s growers.

We hopped out of the truck and Jillian handed me a large crate. “You can start with the sungold tomatoes. It rained yesterday, so they’re full of moisture. We need to get them out to market fast.”

I walked down a row, eggplants on one side and tomatoes on the other. I could already feel the sun beating down on the back of my neck. I kneeled next to the huge tomato plant and set my crate down. Yellow, orange, and red sungold tomatoes peeking through a weave of intertwined vines. I placed my thumb and index finger on the top of the tiny tomato, twisted and pulled lightly, until the vine released it. I held the sungold in my hand—its skin delicate and smooth—nothing like the tomato textures in the grocery store. Hours went by, my water was gone, my long-sleeved shirt was damp from sweat, and my jeans were about as dirty as Jillian’s boots. I had only made it half way down the row.

With a growling stomach, I examined the curious little tomato with the funny name and perfect texture. It started to intrigue me. I was hot, hungry, and getting sunburn. The juicy fruit seemed refreshing, so I plucked one of the yellowish-orange tomatoes and popped it in my mouth. I slowly bit down on the skin—breaking it and letting the juice run into my mouth and the seeds roll over my tongue. It was so sweet—so delicious—so not like any other tomato I had tasted.

So this is what real tomatoes taste like? I thought.

Six hours later, Jillian’s truck had crates full of produce. I had a sunburned neck, splotchy red hands from prickly vines, a sore back, bruised knees, and the biggest smile on my face. I had found another answer to the question all those women had been asking:

“Why does good produce cost so much?”

In part, because it’s made with farmers’ blood, sweat, and tears. It’s planted with passion, harvested with love, and sold with pride. And unlike much of the produce offered in our nation’s supermarkets, convenience stores, and fast food restaurants, it doesn’t receive farm subsidies or rely on low-paid, exploited labor. It is the result of working 365 days of the year — rain or shine — in addition to a beginning farmer’s regular 9 to 5 office work day.

The even bigger question is, how can our society begin to offer all people, regardless of income, the opportunity to eat good, healthy food?

The first step is to start talking about it. I invite you to become a part of the conversation. A conversation founded on the idea that now more than ever, we need a National Food Policy. Your first opportunity: A TweetChat with Ricardo Salvador, Mark Bittman, and Michael Pollan on Wednesday, December 3 at 3PM. Ask a question, chime in with your thoughts, or simply follow along and learn.

Update: In 2014, Jillian and Ross purchased a 42-acre property in Cedar Grove, North Carolina (about 10 minutes from the Breeze Farm).  They have moved off the Agriculture Extension farm and are now farming their own land and will be increasing their produce and cut flower operation in 2015.