Monday, July 12, 2010

On cherries and paychecks - Part 2

Last week I submitted the following challenge: We employ farmers and expect them to guard our health, our children's food supply and our environment. The current market system mandates efficiency at the cost of ecology, worker health, and anything else not protected by legislation. How can we incentivise farmers to be innovative, creative, and responsible?

As I noted in my previous post, it's a difficult question. I certainly don't have all the answers, but here are a couple of ideas of changes that might offer farmers a better environment to work in.

1. Change how you view food.[1]

You walk the aisles of a grocery store, scanning rows of identical cans of soda, boxes of identical stuffing mix, chicken thighs tightly packed in identical trays, neat pyramids of identical apples. You judge them by the colorful packaging, or if you're like me, the sales price. The food industry - buyers, wholesalers, marketers, and retailers have spent inordinate amounts of energy trying to offer a homogeneous product. It makes sense: Uniform products can have a uniform price, uniform quality standards, uniform handling procedures. However, this also allows the retailer to sever the connection between the food they sell and its source. As soon as you no longer see a pail of cherries from Greg's orchard outside town, but instead just see a nondescript plastic bag of cherries, your retailer can switch out Greg's cherries with cherries that were picked unripe a week ago in Chile and you'll be none the wiser. If you see food merely as a product on a shelf, your grocer needs only to keep that product uniform and the supply steady - where that food came from, how it was produced, and how its history affected the environment and communities that produced it becomes moot.

The thing is, food is not a product; the farm is not a machine. Food is grown, raised on someone's land, land that has unique soil, limited water, and unpredictable weather. It is the result of a labor of love and the outgrowth of a living organism, of a carefully tended ecosystem. You can't force tomatoes in the winter or grow carrots in clay. That you can buy any food you want any time of the year doesn't mean that technology has conquered the forces of nature; it means that you are among the richest people in the world, with access to markets emperors of yore never dreamed of.

Greg and Katie hand sort through ripe-picked cherries, delivered same-day to local customers
Until we learn to remarry a particular food to its source, we will never truly value either. Appraising a bag of cherries merely by their color is like judging a man by his. If, however, we learn to understand that all foods have a history, we can use other attributes as better measures of quality. So next time you peruse a grocery aisle, look past the flashy packaging and search for tell-tail signs of the real characteristics of your food; Where was it grown? How was it grown? When was it grown? By whom? Where/when/how was it processed? Some of these are hard to see in the typical grocery store, even if you know what you're looking for and read the fine print. It's easier if you shop at a farmer's market so you can ask the farmer. In fact, getting to know the qualities of a farmer will often tell you much more about the qualities of his produce than looking at that produce in a grocery store ever could.

Of course, once you stop seeing cherries and start seeing farms and farmers, you'll start valuing cherries grown by good farmers more, not only because they taste better but also because they are connected to other things you care about. Which is good, because they cost more. But before you freak out, shut your laptop and head to the kitchen to stave off the impending guilt with a couple of hot pockets, let me assure you that just because good food costs more doesn't mean your food budget has to grow. Which leads me to my next point:

2. Wield your dollar shrewdly.

At this point you may be tempted to just concentrate on purchasing organic foods. After all, if we buy organic carrots, this will incentivise farmers to grow carrots more responsibly, right?

I'm not so sure this is true. Think back to the video above. A simple rewards structure, where good performance is rewarded and bad performance is not, does not work to motivate anything beyond rudimentary cognitive tasks. In other words, buying organic carrots will motivate farmers to do just one thing - grow carrots organically. Sure, a new quality standard has been introduced, but it's not a very holistic one. The USDA organic certification mandates nothing about social justice or environmental responsibility.[2] And remember, we're not looking for just a higher quality standard. We're trying to motivate farmers to take initiative, to be creative, to take pride in their work and the health of their farms. Setting up another hoop for them to jump through to get their paycheck accomplishes little.

Let me go back to a quote from the video above:

"The best use of money as a motivator is to pay people enough to take the issue of money off the table"

In other words, we don't just want to pay farmers more to grow better food. We want to pay them enough that they have the freedom to pursue mastery in what seems to them a purposeful direction.

A weekly CSA basket. CC
One way in which to accomplish this is a system called Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). In this system, a number of farms and consumer families form a cooperative in which the consumers fully support the farms, allowing those farms to engage in ecologically sound and socially equitable agriculture. In return, each family receives a share of the farm produce, usually in weekly boxes. Since farmers aren't being rewarded on a per-lb basis, they can concentrate on farming well rather than just maximizing production. Of course, this also means that consumers have to share some of the risks of farming; if an apple crop fails, you may receive fewer or smaller fruit. Furthermore, consumers are forced to live in harmony with their local agricultural production, and cook whatever shows up in that week's box. Still, this system greatly reduces waste, as well as shipping, marketing and retail costs. The consumer gets fresh, well-grown produce, and the farmer is given freedom to pursue his goals to the best of his ability, rather than being forced to conform to the whims of the market.[3]

A final word on money: Good food grown right should cost more. Food currently represents a historically minuscule part of the average budget. However, if you can't afford to increase your food budget, you can still afford to buy conscientiously. This is because:

1. If you eat right, you'll need to eat less. Natural foods are more nutritious than processed foods. Organic produce is more nutritious than stuff that's conventionally grown. It's science.
2. Your CSA basket may or may cost more than you usually spend on vegetables. But if you start actually cooking from scratch, you'd be surprised how much money you can save. So consider eating out of your own kitchen a couple more times a month, and leverage that money to support your local farmers.


[1] This section isn't an idea directly about incentivising farmers. However, it's a paradigm-shift that's foundational for better consumer-farmer relationships, including the ones described in the next section.
[2] Many organic operations, especially those started in response to the consumer organic craze, are quite unsustainable. A farmer can buy a few acres, intensively grow crops until the land is exhausted, and move on. Farm sustainability cannot be achieved through legislation - it requires motivation on the part of the farmer.
[3] To find a CSA near you, check out


  1. Wonderful! "Isles" for "aisles" gave me a new way to look at Vons, your favorite store.

  2. I appreciate this line of thinking Noah.. thank you for sharing your thoughts and wisdom!