Feed on

How many times have you seen this expression? It sounds great, right? Food going from the farm right to your table. The concept conjures up imagery of a bucolic past we have lost touch with, a community support for local farming that has been ripped from us by the heartless capitalist system we suffer under.

Here’s a question. If food does not come from the farm before it gets to my table, where the heck do folks think it comes from? Are we growing food on the moon?

Here’s a more serious point: the essence of economic activity (and healthy and environmentally friendly activity) is to find the lowest cost ways of delivering what people want. Now, if people get some intrinsic pleasure from having baskets of food picked for them on their local farm, then great. But one of the major lessons of economics is that roundabout methods of production are very often the most efficient methods of production. For example, as my colleague Steve Landsburg famously described, the most efficient way to get cars in America may not be to make them in Detroit, but rather to “grow them in Iowa.” And the same goes for any other good – even food itself.

The existence of middlemen: distributors, wholesalers, processors, retailers, etc. is not evidence of inefficiency, but quite the opposite – it is evidence of efficiency. These are agents who have a relative skill at bringing buyers and sellers of products together. Heck, even the Farm to Table supporters know this – their middlemen include community magazines, farmers markets, even local restaurants. This idea is not new to regular readers, but it is like speaking Martian to many folks who support Farm to Table ideas because it just sounds good. In a future post, we’ll illustrate exactly what sorts of things those ideas tend to lead to, with lots of (hopefully) good pictures from Wegmans to illustrate.

2 Responses to “From the Farm to Your Table?”

  1. Harry says:

    About four weeks a year I buy local strawberries. I wish I could buy them year-round. Same thing for freshly-picked corn or other produce. I grow my own tomatoes, which are superior to anything I can buy anywhere. But if one lives in the northeast, buying locally has its limitations.

    The buy-local movement has a radical agenda that is difficult to, er, swallow. Buying California strawberries in Wegeman’s in February is bad, because a) the Union Pacific Railroad ships them across the country in refrigerated railcars that are not powered by solar panels or windmills, b) Wegeman’s is a big corporate outfit that sells non-organic strawberries at a low price, and c) Wegeman’s sells Tasty Cake and other non-pc food.

    Now, if you live in Berkely, there are all sorts of markets where you can buy locally-grown fresh vegetables and other plants year-round. Sellers of those other plants can afford to dine at Chez Panisse, where Alice Watters will serve you free-range chicken raised locally, along with fresh organically grown vegetables. Bon appetit!

    But are we to do? Eat rutabagas all winter, and canned beans? Like the Unabomber?

  2. Rod says:

    I have farmer friends out in Franklin County, PA – The Horsts (they pronounce ‘Horst” “Hurst,” like the shifter), who own about 475 acres of orchards not far from Chambersburg. Whenever we would get together with the Horsts, the patriarch of the family, Ike (my age, but still a patriarch; a sign of onrushing old age) would complain to me about how the government wastes mountains of money on dairy farmers and crop farmers who grow supported grain crops, like corn and wheat.

    “Rod, did you ever notice that the farmers who are in the farm programs are continually up to their eyeballs in debt and complain all the time about how bad things are, but the farmers who don’t grow supported crops are rich and happy?”

    Ike explained to me that while some years can be awful for the apple business, the good years more than compensate for the bad years, and that apple prices tend, on average, to reflect the costs and risks of growing anything that’s dependent on the weather.

    On the other hand, the government programs are all oriented toward taking the risks out of the farming business and toward promoting what’s called “orderly marketing.”

    Orderly marketing for farm products is literally that — a “market order” dictated by the government sets prices and provides for incentives and penalties for underproduction and overproduction.

    One of the ways dairy farmers can break free of the federal boot on their necks is to sell milk right at the farm. Well, sort of break free. Those farmers selling directly to the public are prohibited from selling their surplus milk to a milk “handler” that is part of the pool of handlers in the market order. In other words, a farmer in Kiev could sell to his fellow local workers, but not to the Supreme Soviet itself. Get it?

    As for the “buy local” principle itself, one wonders how local that has to be. Does this hemisphere qualify so I can get berries in the winter? I don’t think I can live on sauerkraut and smoked sausages any longer.

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