The president of Sonoma Direct Sustainable Meats since 2005, Marissa Guggiana is curating the charcuterie section of Slow Food Nation.

Cheap vs. expensive food

Is ‘value-added’ really the way to go?

By
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.

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.

baby New Zealand lamb
A lamb on a New Zealand ranch.

“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.

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1. by Fasenfest on Aug 29, 2008 at 1:50 PM PDT

I completely understand the dilemma of which you write. I see how quality foods - simply organic, free range and sustainable, is becoming a niche market out of reach for the many. I too struggle with the middle ground and wonder what will become of those folks who cannot afford the best that agriculture and purveyors can offer.

The way I get around this personally is to grow a lot of my food and to go directly to the farms where I can get the best price for bulk produce I then put up thereby adding the “value” myself. But this takes time and knowledge and changes in our lifestyles and market accessibility that must be part of the conversation.

In other words, I do think there are new ways of making healthy and delicious foods available to many more people then the niche marketers generally reach but it will require that we take over and renew our ability to do these things for ourselves.

I often marvel at how much folks will charge for a jar of dilly beans or jam or applesauce just because it is “locally made”. Certainly there is some odd thinking going on here. But, again, some of this is about us not thinking things through. Good news is that more and more of us are.

2. by Walter Jeffries on Jun 3, 2010 at 12:45 PM PDT

There is a related issue. The processor takes almost half of our income. We raise pastured pigs. About half of the price goes to pay for slaughter, butchering and transport to the butcher. If we did the work ourselves we could double our income or cut the number of animals we must sell per year in half. So we’re building our own on-farm USDA/State inspected slaughterhouse and butcher shop. It is our family’s current big project. Standard “industry estimates” is that it costs 2.5 million dollars to build a meat processing facility. They’re thinking too big. We’re building our nano-scale version for less than $150,000. Check out http://SugarMtnFarm.com/butchershop for the story of our journey as well as followups linked to that about how we’re paying for it out of pocket and with customer CSA Pre-Buys. Other farmers could do the same thing. Don’t think big. Don’t get out. Think and do sustainably small.

3. by Fasenfest on Jun 3, 2010 at 2:06 PM PDT

Walter,

Your effort and instincts are genius -- a small USDA processing facility on your land. You are on the money. Being a direct-farm meat purchaser, I have taken the time to decimate many of the challenges you highlighted in getting really well raised, grazed and processed meat from a farmer. Suffice to say it is not enough to just order your meat share from a farmer but to understand the complexity they confront within the processing system (which, as you highlight, are many). Furthermore, doing so helps you understand who is who; who is selling you a concept and who is selling the real thing. Getting “market share” is not always preceded by being market fair or clear. That I have found out the hard way. But kudoos for you for being part of the next generation of really small scale meat processors who understand that reclaiming the system might be the best way to change the system. For me, in Oregon, I have found the meat purveyors and processors that are aligned with my values but it took time, real time and effort. But having done that, I know to support them in whatever way they need lest they go away. As for the costs??? Higher costs do not necessarily eliminate a larger market (particularly when buying direct farm whole or half animals- I find doing so lowers the cost significantly) but requires that the consumer learns to put to good use everything available on the animal. In other words, there is a very good chance that we can absorb whatever higher costs there might be by just becoming better cooks. There is an education piece inherent to that but that is where we, the consumers, get to participate. Head cheese anyone?

4. by Walter Jeffries on Jun 3, 2010 at 3:26 PM PDT

Eating nose to tail is a key point. Our family eats ‘low on the hog’, the things left over from what sells well. We work to educate and encourage consumers and chefs about cooking more adventurous oddments. Our son who just turned 18 is working on a series of articles we’ll do on our Farm blog about cooking with unfamiliar fare.

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