Cheap vs. expensive food
Is ‘value-added’ really the way to go?
By Marissa Guggiana
August 21, 2008

The economics of food continue to challenge my values.

On the one hand, I don’t think we really understand what things cost. People ask me why lamb from New Zealand is so inexpensive; well, Kiwis I know tell me that ranchers there are selling their lambs for $10 a head and praying that they can keep their ranches from going belly-up.
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This Labor Day weekend, artisanal food producers from around the country — cheesemakers, ranchers, farmers, purveyors (including Sonoma Direct) and more — will be traveling to Slow Food Nation in San Francisco to celebrate authentic American foods. Throughout July and August, Culinate is proud to host some of these small-scale food producers as guest bloggers.
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No one has a secret antidote to the inherent costs of raising meat. We need to pay what food costs, and value the work and resources that go into nourishment.

On the other hand, I find that when I move too far along this line of thought, I begin to think only in terms of niche marketing. The only way for a rancher to get paid higher prices (which only seem exorbitant because they aren’t being bullied by the commodity market) is to vie for customers with high discretionary income. In other words, the natural-foods world has become a competition: Who can empty the pockets of the wealthiest consumers fastest?

I begin to feel incredibly righteous about getting paid for the true value of my lamb. When I know that no one is making an unfair profit on it, it just seems right to pay the honest cost. But I also do not want to be raising a niche gourmet product.

The USDA has been putting a lot of money into educating growers about the skills of “value-added” products. Pricing may be extremely competitive for a raw leg of lamb, but if you make lamb prosciutto, you have a unique item to sell. Value-added products like this seem to be the prescribed direction for a depressed industry.

But what about feeding the rest of the population? Are we just going to continue to slough off the dregs of the food industry to the poorest Americans? How can I be working to pay ranchers fairly, when those same ranchers can’t afford to buy their own lamb at the store? It feels positively feudal.

Recently I talked with Brian Kenny, the division manager of Hearst Ranch. “If I had one message, it would be that agriculture is good,” said Kenny. In other words, we’re so busy competing for market share that we turn commercial farmers into Public Enemy Number 1.

“We have a lot of mouths to feed — not only in this country but also in the world,” Kenny said. “And we need all the agriculture we can get to accomplish this mission.”

Hearst Ranch raises grass-fed beef and is a Certified Humane grower, so Kenny is no stranger to trying to be excellent in a price-driven world. “Most people cannot afford the adjectives,” he said. “But at the end of the day, everybody needs food.”

I find comfort in all the people I meet who are interested in having this discussion. I find hope in nonprofits like Roots of Change, which is committed to sustainability being the new mainstream in the California food system by 2030. But I won’t find peace until the numbers add up.