Food Prices and the Garden

“$5 a dozen?!”
“You should have seen her eyebrows shoot up!” laughed my friend over the phone. She was asking her Mom if she’d like to buy some eggs from me. Despite my friend’s supportive enthusiasm for the idea, I don’t think her parents will be our next customers. 🙂 That’s ok.

It’s been an interesting few weeks thinking about the price of food.

On the whole, we’re not doing the food production thing to save money. That’s especially clear from our choice to purchase organic chicken feed and scratch (treats) at 30-50% more than a locally produced, high-quality (even non-GMO) feed. It’s also clear by our choice to build new raised beds from cedar, build a chicken coop with mostly new materials, build cedar compost bins, etc. There are MUCH cheaper ways to do all these things, but we have the luxury of outside work, and so expense is not our first criteria (though maybe second!).

At the same time, when I first got the idea to try to produce as much of our own food as possible, part of my motive was to see how much of a dent that would put in our monthly expenses. At the time, the equation of fewer expenses=fewer hours spent working for money seemed clear and important. That first summer, I was unemployed, on EI for half of my regular income, and we reduced our food expenses dramatically. What I learned was how many non-food related expenses we had! I went back to work.

As I’ve focused on food production for reasons other than financial though, something interesting has definitely happened: we’re spending far less money on food.  But it’s not because we’re managing to produce everything we could possibly need–I’m certainly not growing or grinding our own flour, and there are no milk goats in sight (yet).  The biggest reason we’re saving?  We’re not going into the grocery store.

If I ever needed proof that shopping in stores means you always leave having spent more than you intended, I’ve got it now.  Our pantry is full: we have potatoes, vegetables, some fruit, and eggs from the garden, we have cases of  tuna and maple syrup sourced through friends; the freezer is full of seafood.   When we need to go to the store it’s for something specific: milk, bread, flour, nuts.   Which means that rather than doing a once-a-week shopping trip together, we just stop at the most convenient store and pick up the thing we need.  Instead of coming out with a bill for hundreds of dollars, it’s often just $20 here and there.

Beyond this unexpected frugality, I’m slowly realizing that the garden has been insulating us from dramatically rising food costs.  In fact, where I used to track prices regularly at the grocery store, because I pay less attention these days, I’ve only just been clueing in about what most people have probably been anxiously watching for many months.  You just don’t get what you used to for the same money.   But because we’re producing so many of our own staples, those increases have not had a major impact on our overall budget, thank goodness.

So is the garden saving us money?  Is it cheaper to produce your own?  I’m sure that if we were to calculate the money spent on soil, raising chicks for 6 months before they start laying, etc, we are NOT producing our own for less than the grocery store.  But once those infrastructure costs are removed from memory, day-to-day we are definitely saving money.  When January hits and the traditional “hunger gap” begins until May crops begin to produce, we will notice it.  I am highly motivated to keep working on our year-round supplies!

At the same time, it was an odd experience to realize over the last few weeks that the idea of spending $5 on a dozen organic eggs was just too much for some to wrap their heads around–or just plain unaffordable for others.  It was the first time I thought about food prices from the producer side.  It’s all very well for us to put as much money as we have into our food production; we’re not trying to make a profit or any income.  A basic calculation showed that a dozen eggs costs us about $4.25 just for feed; $5 seemed a fair price to account for all the other costs (and a nice round number substantially cheaper than the $6.40 currently charged for organic, free-range eggs at the grocery store).  But when it comes to selling, the old adage is still true: it’s only worth what someone else is willing to pay.

But all of this has me thinking again about whether food is, or should be, a commodity.  The garden has profoundly changed my typical sense of myself as a food “consumer” (in the monetary sense).  But that doesn’t remove food from still being something that we buy and sell and will likely always need to use as a means of exchange.  Once again, transforming my relationship with food is transforming how I feel like I fit into the wider world…And it’s sure fun wondering where that might take me next!


5 thoughts on “Food Prices and the Garden

  1. Well said. I shop twice a week, with a list, and it is only for the items we do not produce for ourselves. Our food bill is quite low because the garden supplies so much for us and I stay out of the stores in large part – only going in armed with the knowledge of what we need to supplement our garden fare and eggs which helps insulate me from the “buy” pressure of that environment.

  2. Hi Toni, Alright, so you’ve got me thinking (again; )
    How many actually take the time to calculate the REAL cost/savings/benefits generated by growing their own food? There’s ‘way more going on here than what comes out of your wallet at the checkout…

    How much better is your food because you’re eating it FRESH? Or full of things that you simply can’t get from mass-produced and NOT full of things you don’t want to eat at all, ever? Or what about the benefits from the actual labour involved and exercise achieved from growing it yourself? Or having the exact flavour/variety that you actually want to eat? Or all of your “waste” going to feed your chickens and produce those amazing eggs?

    During the depression, farm families may not have had any extra cash on hand, but they could feed themselves and do it very well. Fresh air and sunshine; the fruit of your labour; good, honest, muscle-building REAL work (oh yeah, no gym membership necessary either)… These are the bonuses of eating from the garden.

    So, what’s the real cost benefit here? Priceless.

  3. Thanks Laura. Here’s hoping one day I can keep up the harvesting as long through the year as you!

    Deb, you are absolutely right about all the intangibles; those are the real reasons we are doing all this. My surprise this time came from recognizing that not everyone sees that value when they react to the sticker shock! I’ve never been the person on the selling side, seeing just how much education is still needed.

  4. It was Michael Pollen who got me to look at food as the one place where you DON’T want to scrimp. And I wondered how we, as a society, ever got to the place where the food bill seems to be the first thing we cut when money is tight? We’ve been through some tight periods in the last couple years and I’ve always insisted that we will cut out other things before I will drop the quality of the food we buy. It’s stuff you put into your body and use to grow and heal and live. What could be more worth the money?

    1. Rural Aspirations, I was thinking about this recently, as I’ve been thinking about poverty and food prices, and that famous statistic that says we spend so much less per person on food than they do in most other places in the world. I was thinking about the fact thain Europe, people spend more on better quality food, but also that they don’t need so much of their disposable income to cover so many of life’s other necessities: child care, health care, tuition (ie student loan debt), etc. It seems to me it’s another example of how things are interconnected…

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