Learning True Value
The topic of ‘value and values’ is something that Mel and I talk about and try to wrap our heads and hearts around on a daily basis. It’s a broad topic that influences everything we do here from why we choose to farm, how we choose to do it and how we see ourselves in it and the broader system. It’s a topic that constantly has us questioning ourselves, our food system and how we can do things a little more creatively in a way that fundamentally values the grower, the eater and the land on which the food is grown.
Value in farming isn’t just a question of the end price. It is a question of how you value the soil and the ecosystem in which you grow and the future generations that will continue to grow there; not making short sighted decisions that have long term effects. It is a question of counting yourself, the grower in the picture and striking the balance between a sustainable and manageable scale of enterprise and a viable one that supports you to live a healthy and balanced life. It is also a question of the valuing the eater and the rights of all beings to access affordable, healthy and delicious food.
Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) is something we bang on a lot about here at the Co-Op. It’s a creative model of farming that connects the growers with the eaters and the places where their food is grown. It is a model that recognizes that growing and eating food locally is good for the health of the planet and people and that farming is fundamentally an essential yet increasingly unpredictable vocation.
In CSA models, in theory, the grower and the eater share in some of the risk involved in growing and providing food. Often the grower will ask for an upfront commitment from the eater for a season so that they have an assured, predictable and budget-able income from which to plan their coming season. This helps with the seasonal outlay for things like compost, seeds, seedlings and irrigation supplies that happens many months before the produce is ready to eat. The idea is that the eater will then get a weekly share in the farms bounty which, if it’s a difficult season, may be less that the value of what they’ve paid or if it’s a bumper season will likely be well and above what they’ve paid.
For over 5 years now, Mel and I have been testing this model and testing ourselves within it. It is a real challenge for us to shake of the shackles of the traditional mindsets around food, value and exchange, especially within ourselves! Although we talk about this model of ‘shared risk’ we have found that we actually never give our customers less value than what we have promised, even in the hardest seasons.
More often then not we are putting much more produce in our boxes than what we’ve committed to. Even when it means spending much longer than is efficient or practicable to put together enough produce to meet the value we’ve committed to in our CSA Veg Boxes. We find it so hard to actually enact that ‘shared risk’ model in practice because on the one hand we are scared it will put people off if they have a ‘lean week’ and on the other hand we truly want to feel that what we offer is generous and ‘good value’. We realized recently that in 5 years we hadn’t put our prices up, but we had actually dropped our prices on some things!
But every time we do this, we aren’t valuing ourselves in the picture. We are constantly walking a fine line between valuing ourselves and our produce appropriately and conforming to what we think are the expectations of ‘the system’.
People often ask us why we don’t charge more for our produce. The answer is simple. We want people on a wage like ours to be able to afford to eat good food. Maybe we’re shooting ourselves in the foot!?
Last year Mel and I paid ourselves our highest wage yet…$12 000 each for the year. This amount is well below minimum wage. We do what we do because we love it and we believe in it. We don’t do it for the money (clearly) but we do recognize that in order for the food system to be sustainable that also includes fair wages for the growers. We’re working on that one! We also believe that creating change takes time, patience and creativity from within.
Cheap food is an absolute fallacy. When food is cheap it is either the farmer, the ecosystem or both that are loosing out. Although we know this in the very marrow of our bones, it is so hard to push back against a system that expects and demands food to be sold at well below its actual cost. Mel mentioned it in a previous blog but I think it’s worth mentioning again; whilst we collectively used to spend around 70% of our income on food, these days its more like 20%. This indicates how the value of food has taken a back seat to many other things in modern society.
We so value our wonderful community of eaters who come along to the Farmers Markets and sign up to our subscriptions. You are all in your own way pushing those boundaries and helping to create the change in the food system that is necessary in this quickly changing world.
If you’re interested in joining up to our CSA Veg Box or Salad Bag Subscriptions, we’re just launched a 9 Week Autumn Subscription through the Open Food Network.