Folly, the Farmers’ Market and the Cost of Organic Food

I am surprised by the lack of responses to the discussion of organic food on this blog.


I am further surprised by the weakness for the few comments collected. I suspected the case for organicity was weak, I didn’t know it was so weak that practitioners would be afraid to take up the case at all. I began this discussion of organic foods with normal skepticism rather than opposition. I now smell a rat.

In the middle of May,  a month of fairly warm temperatures in central California where I live, I went to the farmers’ market for a little while. There are four reasons why I ever frequent the place. The first is that my French side sometimes finds there the rare herbs, such as sorrel, it still misses.

My second reason to go to the farmers’ market is that there is often there a guy on a truck who offers live oysters. At $1.50 a shot these days, they are a luxury but a small luxury. I think they should be $1,50 for a half-dozen, the minimum acceptable. I treat myself once in a while.

The third reason is El Salsichero, a local young guy who is re-inventing the old French art of charcuterie – pork preparations – with a twist of Santa Cruz zaniness. He is my hero: an entrepreneur, starting a new business and a new kind of business out of nowhere in a town where the university is the only remaining industry. (And please, don’t get me started. The left-wing municipality of Santa Cruz is doing its best to mistreat that remaining enterprise into leaving.)

My third reason for spending any time at all at the farmers’ market is hard to explain. It’s a cheap and comfortable way to experience the same kind of frisson that expensive and uncomfortable foreign travel sometimes gives me. There are many foreigners like me among the customers . Yet the most alien part of the crowd is native-born. Its members look quaint. They use English words but I am never sure I understand what they are saying when they talk to each other (same as when I am in London).

It’s comprised of tribal fragments of groups that have espoused strange and distorted beliefs. Many dress correspondingly exotic. The most pleasant are the turbaned white Sikhs, with no real connection to India, I think. Another group includes the children and the grandchildren of my hippie friends from the seventies. It appears they are the only ones in American whose children did not rebel into doing the opposite of what they were taught. Rearing kids on cannabis cookies may have virtues middle-class types like me never even suspected! Anyway, the farmers’ market is a show and, for the price, a good show. My grand-daughter also likes it. She is three.

The last reason is also the least practical. It’s part of my on-going endeavors in pop-sociology. I study the folly of seemingly rational people in its collective manifestations. People who are all-around crazy are not that interesting. Mad individuals are too difficult for me to understand. I don’t have the patience, for one thing. Unreasonableness among the reasonable is my cup of fair trade tea.

At the farmers’ market, I find two partially overlapping groups practicing what I think is folly although members of both are rational in most phases of their lives. The first group is the vegans, the second are the devotees of organic food, the organicists. I don’t spend much time on the vegans because they do have understandable, rational ethical concerns. (I don’t buy veal myself for ethical reasons although I really like that meat.)  The organicists interest me a great deal because many go to great length  to offer scientific-sounding justifications for their costly vice.

All this to tell you that at the farmers’ market in May I saw organic lettuce, romaine lettuce, for five dollars a pound ($5/lb). I saw that with my own eyes, around two pm when I was wide awake and under the influence of no substance, legal or illegal.

The next day, my wife bought attractive romaine lettuce at Costco for 79 cents a pound. It’s true that you had to buy three at a time. It’s true that such a quantity would be inconvenient for a 90-pound woman living alone. Of course, she could always buy the three, give two to her neighbors and still come out ahead.

Now, on to the defense of their expensive habit  organicists always offer. If I had been invited to a comparative tasting of the two kinds of romaine lettuce, it’s possible that I would have found the organic tastier. I don’t know but I have no argument with this. The statement hides a logical confusion that would not be acceptable in any alert child over twelve. The produce in farmers’ markets in general, in the Santa Cruz farmers’ market, in particular tend to be fresher than those at big retailers such as Costco. Often, it’s much fresher. There are small organic growers less than two miles from the local farmers’ market.And here is an absolute rule: With vegetables ( and also mushrooms) fresher is always better. So, organicity is irrelevant.

If you think its’ relevant, you have to show it, controlling for freshness. You would have to set up a blind taste testing of equally fresh organic and non–organic veggies of the same variety. The fact that no organicists seems interested in organizing such a simple test makes me suspicious, of course. It suggests religious belief.

I remain puzzled by the widespread vogue of organic anything. As my story suggests, this is not about paying a small premium to feel good. A large, and it seems, a growing fraction of my contemporaries, many with a fair level of education, spend five times more on basic food than they have to.  This, for no intelligible reason,

The organic food cult has managed to  reverse a trend of at least two centuries. The trend is that food becomes a little cheaper in real terms every passing year. It’s becoming difficult to locate the non-organic version of fruits and vegetables. As a result, we are all increasingly forced to pay the very huge premium attached to organicity. I see it entirely as a religious tax imposed on me completely against my will by  members of a cult I don’t wish to join any more than I want to join any other irrational group.

A couple of weeks ago, a young man I usually respect for his intelligence and for his intellectual honesty set me straight about my cherry trees. Those are trees I planted myself in place of a large semi-tropical tree to which the neighbor objected. There was no lawn there for at least twenty years. I never treated the trees or anything near them with anything except for spraying for aphids with diluted dish soap. One of my two trees gives cherries. My friend advised me with a straight face that the cherries from my tree don’t qualify as organic!

Update 8/30/12 : There are several interesting follow-up to this essay. Look for the word “organic” in titles.


About Jacques Delacroix

I am a sociologist, a short-story writer, and a blogger (Facts Matter and Notes On Liberty) in Santa Cruz, California.
This entry was posted in Cultural Studies and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to Folly, the Farmers’ Market and the Cost of Organic Food

  1. Martin Anding says:

    The organic phenomena is very localized. I have friends in other states to the east who know nothing about this high-priced trend. I believe that large parts of the world are not terribly selective about organic vs. non-organic food. Food is better than no food.
    As to the high prices of organic apparently the cost of organic is falling around here. Safeway had organic strawberries cheaper than non-organic last week.

    • jacquesdelacroix says:

      Martin: I hope you are right about organicity being a localized phenomenon in the US. I think it’s even more advanced in France and in Spain. If it progresses further, it will affect indirectly the poor here and the millions more poor in the less developed world. I will redouble my efforts to compare prices just because of what you said about strawberries.

  2. Greg says:

    I feel vaguely offended by your dwelling on “organic” foods as if we who favor it are idiot or lazy children because we fail to offer irrefutable proofs. Life is short and many decisions have to be made without full proof.

    Mainly I use the “organic” label because my government has chosen not to require full disclosure on food products and has some odd definitions of common terms. I have not noticed any dramatic increase in prices for “organic”. Really, “spend five times more on basic food” is a two-ton straw man.

    • jacquesdelacroix says:

      Greg: First things first. Either you believe what I reported about the price of lettuce or you don’t. If you don’t, I am a despicable fraud and logically, you should stop here. If I were a fraud, I would be too old to learn honesty. Or, you believe my story and think it’s an isolated observation. If that is the case, I ask you (real question) how many such observations would begin to raise doubts in your mind about the reasonableness of using organic food? Is there a number?

      I agree with you that many decisions have to be made without full proof. In fact, I think it’s most decisions. And so it goes when I need my car maintained or repaired. I don’t read manuals of auto mechanics or auto electronics by experts. Instead, I try to chose widely a mechanic or a shop with some credentials. If the costs are high, I want good credentials. If the costs involved are very high, as I argue here, I want the credentials to be very high. I think that means nutritionists who read the relevant science rather than, say a holistic practitioner with a pre-nursing AA degree, or a columnist, or a New Age shaman. Those are not exacting standards, just a reflection of basic rationality.

      I don’t understand your last paragraph. Please, clarify.

      I hope you become offended enough to marshal your considerable talents for a defense of what I take to be the absurd organicist cult. Being a member of no cult myself, I am ready to turn on a dime, of course and to do so publicly. In fact, I would agree to eating humble pie in public. (I bake the pie because I don’t trust anyone that much.)

  3. David says:

    This is on the subject of vegans…have they forgotten that humans are omnivores? As a result of eating both fauna and flesh something must die. When it comes to the bottom line; there isn’t significant difference between the two.

    • jacquesdelacroix says:

      David. I see your point but… I hold myself to an ethical concept based on similarity. It’s atheistic and compatible with evolutionary theory. Calves are closely related enough to me (and you) that I object to seeing them tortured. When I am in France, I gladly pay the high price of pasture-bred veal.

      Humans are omnivorous, like bears and pigs, for sure. Yet,I think there is no evidence that vegans suffer ill health from their diet. As always, I am eager to turn if I am shown evidence to the contrary. Same standards.

      • David says:

        I have no desire to see animals tortured either. I believe that the best food to eat is well cared for. (Similar in effect to Japanese Kobe beef; I hear it is very delicious; sadly, I have no firsthand knowledge of the taste of Kobe beef.) A diseased ridden, malnourished & tortured animal won’t provide much viable food (or income) for the farmer, and would probably taste terrible at best. (Try envisioning eating a 10 year old stray dog; not much value there.) One of the best ways that ensures animals that are reasonably well treated is the self interest of the farmer. Healthier livestock generate more $$$ than sickly livestock.

        Also, I never asserted that vegans suffer ill health from their diet. My comment was more of an aside that has dwelt on my mind for a number of years.

      • jacquesdelacroix says:

        David: There is no fight between use, Let’s reserve our energies to deal with the obscurantists whose presence sometimes liven this blog.

  4. Sam says:

    Alright, you’ve goaded me into a response. A few points for you…

    Organic is a certification of government standards, the USDA organic standards. There is a great deal of misuse of the term. I think most of the time people confuse the strict guidelines of organic certification with some vague notions of sustainable and ecologically benign growing practices.

    I don’t claim to speak for most people who shop the market but the latter does hold some appeal for me. I’m very much in favor of sustainable and ecologically sound growing practices. Whether or not farms are certified is not something that is important to me (roughly a third of the farms at the downtown Santa Cruz farmers market are not by the way). I’m frequently asked if the coffee produced by my company is organic. Probably 70% of the beans we purchase are certified organic (it so happens that most high quality coffee farms get themselves certified). However because we also roast conventional beans, and do so on the same piece of equipment, our roasted coffee that we sell and brew is not and cannot be certified organic even if its made up of 100% certified organic unfrosted beans. This is one of a great many silly rules in organic certification that make me really not care about it.

    As for the quality I firmly stand by it. Even if it were simply that the produce had not been sitting on a refrigerated train car from Mexico for two days that would make it worth the added cost. Personally I’d rather have one perfect strawberry than a basket of pretty good ones, though I suspect I’m unusual in that. As it happens that’s not the only reason. If you know what you want and where to get it you can routinely find the quality of produce that makes one wax poetic about the bounty of mother nature. Perhaps I won’t be able to convince you on this one. If I can it will be through your taste buds and not your brain I hope. Come August I am going to show you what a tomato can be!

    There’s another part of the puzzle though that I think may be more prevalent than either of these two motivations. It’s the security of having a very short chain between production and consumption. While most people who work at markets don’t actually work on the farms (maybe 5-10%), they’re just the salespeople, they do personally know the farmers and farm workers. They know what’s going on on the farm, why the beets have been small this year, the carrots so plentiful, and the strawberries so large and watery.

    Its not that I want to know any of this stuff but I want to buy from someone who I trust to be a moderately good and morally decent human being to know what goes on from start to finish. They’re my assurance that the farm is a positive force in the world. I’m not talking about their growing practices exclusively here but also about how they treat and pay their workers. I’m also talking about the character of the farm owners. I know they are the sort of people who want to sell their berries to me and not to the local produce company (a much more efficient production system for all involved). They take pride in what they do and want me to appreciate their hard work (just like me and my coffee!). I know that I can set my mind at rest about any concerns because I have hippy ucsc students who see the whole process selling me the strawberries. I trust that these minimum wage jobs aren’t so tempting that they stay for the money, they stay because they feel like they are doing something that stands up to their strict hippy standards.

    There are very few products that I buy that I can feel that way about. I certainly don’t when I buy certified organic produce or tortillas at the supermarket. I don’t even get that when buying the nearly as expensive produce at local health food stores. When I buy a basket of strawberries at the farmers market I feel confident that nobody’s life has been in any way worsened by my purchase or the production of the berries.

    Its the transparency of the transaction, that I know who and what my money is going to and that I want my money to go there, that is the real benefit of farmers markets.

  5. jacquesdelacroix says:

    Response to Sam . Note: Sam has been selling coffee at the Santa Cruz Farmers’ Market.

    Hi, Sam: I don’t know how I have “goaded you ” into anything. If you and I have a quarrel about the Farmers’ Market, I don’t see it in your comment. You like the market and so do I. You state that you find fresh veggies there; I wrote the same. You claim that fresh veggies taste better; so do I. You say that fresh, better tasting-veggies are worth a price premium.; I agree. None of this has anything to do with organicity, the subject of several discussions on this blog and the object of my continued derision.

    Elsewhere, in a comment to another piece on organicism on this blog, I speculated that movement followers are suburban people completely cut off from any personal experience with agriculture and even with gardening. Your violent threat to make me discover what a real tomato tastes like supports this speculation, I think. How could you make me discover the taste of fresh tomatoes? Until two years ago, I was growing tomatoes in my front yard every summer. How fresher than this do they get? Your assumption that I have never tasted anything but Safeway’s pallid pseudo- tomatoes is what supports my speculation of the parochialism of etc…. Note to reader: I can’t grow tomatoes downtown Santa Cruz anymore because the space where I did has become shaded by the same cherry tree whose cherries cannot be officially organic although I grow them myself in total neglect!

    Then you begin a kind of undisciplined discussion of the virtuousness of the Farmers’ Market. I find this potentially interesting for two reasons. First I firmly believe that your money is your money. If you want to use it to pursue social ends, that’s fine with me. Second, I support most reforms that do not rely on the government’s loaded gun to the head as a means of persuasion.More power to you, I say.

    I am skeptical of your claim that the farmer’s market provides superior transparency in any respect . I suspect, however that my skepticism come from the fact that you developed the idea hastily. I hope you will return to that particular task. I would be pleased to publish it on this humble blog.

    None of the above has anything to do with the religious fervor around organic foods, except for sociological propinquity: Some of the people who wish for the kind of transparency you support are also willing to pay $5 for a pound of lettuce in the belief that it’s organic.

    PS You use the word “sustainable.” I can’t tell if you endorse it or not. Of course, I think that it’s a term without a concept, a sort of verbal empty calorie. It has literally no meaning.

  6. juanbp says:

    Bon jour, Señor Delacroix.
    I am glad to pick up our debate here at your blog, following your kind invitation to continue our sparring. I hadn’t even realized I as posting my comments to your posts in a re-blogged location!
    I do think some people get to comment in blogs just for the sake of reading their own words, or no other purpose than “winning” a debate. I find this tiresome and rude, yes.
    But since you have kindly encouraged me to continue, to ignore you would be an even worse offense.
    So, returning to the point I last made when commenting on the previous post on the issue (the red herrings one): isn’t there something to be said about the fact that non-organic foods have costs that are not included in the tab, but are picked up by the consumer elsewhere, as in environmental costs, soil loss and loss of quality, overuse of pesticides and herbicides that lead to species resistant to the poisons, etc.
    And you did not pick up one specific example I asked your opinion about.
    I used the example of Watsonville’s strawberries. If the workers in those fields were properly equipped to avoid the health effects of handling chemicals, conventional growers would go out of business.
    The same applies to most of modern agriculture. If grain farmers in the Mississippi basin had to pick up the tab for cleaning the up the runoff of pesticides and fertilizers – which has killed marine life, including economically important species, in a large swath of the Gulf of Mexico, then conventionally grown corn prices would shoot through the roof. And there is the even larger problem of loss of topsoil, which is simply depleting the most important capital asset for any farming business, also not accounted for.
    So, part of the low-cost of conventional food is not due to efficiency, but bad accounting. Unless you think it’s Ok to poison field workers as long as we can get cheap strawberries at Safeway.

    • jacquesdelacroix says:

      BP: I will be damned! I am going to end up crying “Uncle,” defeated by your courtesy. I hope Rudebrand, the editor of NoteOnLiberty is reading you. By the way, arguing on that blog is the correct thing to do. And, Brandon is very good about transmitting comments to my blog that are made on his blog. In part, it’s because of some residual sense of fairness instilled into him by his grandma. In part it’s because he has erotic dreams about some commentators splashing caca on my face.

      I have no quarrel with you about externalities. All the costs associated with production should be included in the product price, including clean-up costs. There is a simple moral reason for this. The alternative, paying for them through taxes, makes individuals responsible for consumption that they did not choose to engage in. I believe vegetarians, observant Jews, and Muslims should not have to pay for the clean-up costs associated with the pig farms whence comes my delicious ham. That’s insofar is possible, of course. Taxes should be the default solution.

      If one could show that non-organically food creates such exterior costs to a greater extent than organic food, I would be squarely on your side. A couple for serious studies would do it for me. Alas, you seem to have forgotten that step.

      I hope readers realize how very far we are from the statements that drew my ire and my deadly sarcasm in the first place: To wit, that paying (much) extra for organic food makes sense because they are better for one’s health. That battlefield seems to have been abandoned because one army vacated the battlefield in full disarray.


      Ooops, I got distracted! Back to you, BP. You assert that conventional agriculture causes soil erosion. I am familiar with the idea because I have read Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath. That took place in the thirties. I think modern agriculture in the US, and especially in the Monterey- Santa Cruz area does not cause long-term soil erosion. In fact, I suspect it builds more soil than it erodes. Of course, I am ready to be instructed by good evidence. (See above.)

      Incidentally, BP you are the most reasonable of the people of your tribe I have met. Your tribe: When it’s not one catastrophe, it’s another F. T., and then, another. In the meantime, we are living better than ever. Just ask your antecedents wherever in L. America your family originates (except Argentine, an interesting special case.) Or read the segment on “Normal Poverty'” of my memoirs, available on my blog.

      You seem to imply that English is not your first language. If that’s the case, I agree that your command is excellent. Of course, my opinion has little value because I am a foreigner myself, with another native tongue!

  7. Micheal Kobernick says:

    Organic foods are always the best since they do not contain trace amounts of pesticides and other harmful chemicals. .

    Most recent posting on our website

  8. Michael: Do you run around blogs proffering propaganda without bothering to read them?

    (Is your first name really “Micheal”?)

    What pesticides and other harmful chemicals am I supposed to fear as a consumer of American-grown foods? Can you please answer in one or two sentence, like a human being, before you presume to give me a reading assignment?

  9. Helene Hagan says:

    Bonjour Jacques: Two weeks ago, I read an article of Le Figaro, stating that the French government was banning the import of American apples because they have been tested as carrying too much toxicity from pesticides, in excess of what they consider to be safe…..

    • Hi, Helene. So? The European Union and France and several other European countries have been using this kind of allegations forever to protect their inferior producers from American competition. As it turns out, for the past twenty years, all pesticides used in the US have been either systemic (absorbed by the roots of the plant and metabolized inside the plant) or dilutable water: Buy American apples, wash them before you eat them. You should wash them anyway, everywhere, because of the possibility of wild pig and human feces. That’s true in France, that’s true everywhere (except Sweden whee pigs shit clean feces). Pesticides only pose a danger to health in large quantities that is, for those exposed to them in their manufacturing or in spreading them, the latter if elementary precautions are not observed and if local handling rules are violated. In California, with its huge agricultural industry, it would be hard to find any cases of pesticide poisoning.

      There are reasons why everything is so expensive in France. Lack of competition is one reason.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s