Mike Madison is the author of Blithe Tomato, from which these blog posts are excerpted. He is a farmer in California’s Sacramento Valley.

Bruce

By
November 30, 2007

Bruce runs an organic vegetable operation a few miles from me. His farm is bigger than mine, and busier. Flocks of minimum-wage workers toil in the fields while Bruce is inside, striking deals on the phone or tidying his website. He trucks his fruits and vegetables to San Francisco, where the citizens are accustomed to being fleeced, and he asks outlandish prices with a straight face.

In the theater of direct selling, he is a great actor and he has studied every detail. The carefully battered hat, the trace of an English accent, the way he holds a bunch of kale close to himself and makes the customer reach for it, teases her a little, acts as if it is a prized possession with which he is reluctant to part — all these are calculated to give an impression of heightened value. He calls eggplant “aubergine,” which he takes as license to charge three dollars a pound instead of a dollar like everyone else.

Perhaps Bruce has noticed that in our society there is almost no relationship between the contribution a person makes and how much he is paid, and under the circumstances, why not stand in the ranks of the overpaid? Picking the pockets of the rich is a fine old tradition. It can seem almost an act of kindness. Many of his customers use price as a surrogate for value. “These three-dollar-a-pound aubergines must be truly exceptional to command such a price,” they think, and enjoy and appreciate accordingly.

Eggplant, or aubergine?

But I have to wonder: If I could be charging three dollars a pound for eggplant, why do I charge only a dollar? I do not have a good answer to this, except to say that three dollars a pound sounds too high. There’s a note of arrogance to it. And it implies a more important position in society than I feel that I have. In the utopia envisioned by B. F. Skinner in Walden Two, citizens earned credits in society according to the onerousness of the tasks they performed. Gardening was awarded hardly any credit, as it was judged to be too pleasurable. I, too, have noticed that the rewards of truck farming are mostly not financial ones. I work at home in comfortable old clothes. No commute, no necktie: that alone is worth $10,000 a year, and defrays a low price on the produce.

Most people do not think of themselves as wealthy. The rheumatologist who is paid $200,000 a year looks at the plastic surgeon down the hall who makes $400,000 and thinks to himself, “I’m not all that well off, not really rich.” And the plastic surgeon looks at the health insurance executive making a million and a half, and thinks the same thing. But I tend to cast my glance downward, at the poor devils toiling in cubicles for a low wage, or slamming together burgers in a fast-food joint, or driving a stinking, vibrating truck for endless miles, and I think, “How lucky I am, how incessantly well off.” If such a one came to my stand and I was offering eggplant at three dollars a pound, how could I look him in the eye?

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Bruce runs his business in cash, and I imagine that he has a satchel full of thousand-dollar bills under his mattress. I do not suppose that this makes his bed any warmer on a winter night, nor makes the sun shine more brightly on his fields than on mine, nor makes a peach taste more sweet. Where Bruce has the clear advantage is in the word: “aubergine,” a lovely, musical word, almost a poem unto itself, especially compared to the inharmonious Anglo-Saxonism “eggplant.” I believe that I too will take to calling that lustrous black fruit an “aubergine.” But I will keep my price at a dollar a pound.

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1. by Chris on Dec 1, 2007 at 7:49 AM PST

Hey Mike,
You should take the time to figure out how much it costs you to get your eggplant to market and charge accordingly. Yes $3.00/ pound sounds high but I generally charge $2.00/ pound because that’s what it costs me to grow it. And it’s not that far off from the grocery store price, and mine was just picked the day before market, so looks great!
We farmers need to be fair to our customers, but we need to make sure not to undersell ourselves as well. That way we can keep coming back for our community of eaters.

2. by misskei on Dec 5, 2007 at 6:05 PM PST

Is it unseemly for a farmer to want to turn a profit on the food s/he grows? Farming is hard work, and the resulting product is worth something; so is the experience of being able to see the person who produced your food and be able to trust in the quality of it. $3/lb for eggplant seems like a bit much, but then have you seen the prices at Whole Foods?

3. by anonymous on Dec 6, 2007 at 1:43 PM PST

I agree to an extent with both sentiments. I don’t take the value of good land lightly. I don’t agree with the idea of profiting from the hard work of underpaid subordinates. But I do think that food these days is ludicrously cheap considering the amount of work that goes into it, as well as the externalized environmental and social costs that often accompany industrial agriculture. I would rather my local organic farmer earn a million bucks than some company hawking plasma screens and zippy convertibles. It’s a matter of where our priorities lie. You put in long hours, expose yourself to financial risk, and wake up early so that we can have this beautiful, practical, life-giving wonder in front of us. I think you deserve the three bucks.

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