It seems as I get older years are passing faster than ever, and questions of why we continue doing what we do become more relevant and that little bit more urgent and yet that little bit harder to keep doing. I don’t know if anybody else experiences that, or am I just showing my age?
When we were on the cusp many years ago of taking on a lease for another farm, a friend and a professional agronomist who advises us and some of the biggest conventional veg farms in the country told me: ‘there is no money to be made in veg, don’t do it!’.He was right. We never got into veg growing and selling for the money, that would have been pure madness. We took on the farm, not heeding his advice, expanded our production and 6 years later discovered we had to get smaller to survive.
The fact remains the same today, it is very difficult to make money growing and selling vegetables. But what about the modest aim of breaking even, of making enough of a profit to reinvest in the farm and business? I think that is a fair and reasonable goal, don’t you? A goal that is necessary to survive.But when the playing field is not level for all players then it becomes very difficult to compete.
When the larger sellers (Aka the supermarkets) have a monopoly and control the selling prices and the prices given to growers then it gets difficult. When those players decide to loss lead and sell fresh produce for next to nothing that leaves the growers and other independent retailers with nothing.
As I was planning our farm for the year ahead, I did a little calculation on cucumbers.We grow cucumbers ourselves, and we also buy between 400-600 cucumbers per week to supplement our own crop from other Irish organic cucumber growers.
But here’s the deal, please bear with me.If a cucumber plant generally produces from end of June to end of September (if you are lucky and the weather is with you) and if you harvest on average 1.5 cucumbers per plant per week, that works out at about 18 cucumbers per plant per season. Now if you factor in that the cost of raising a good plant is about €3, this plant then needs to be planted into a polytunnel, the ground needs to be fertilised and prepped, it needs to be dug, and the plant needs to be supported throughout the growing season, and it needs to be pulled out and composted at the end. Each week, it needs to be side shooted, watered and managed, and harvested, I have budgeted here maybe 1.5 hour in total per plant over the 3 months.
Between fertility and labour, you are looking at approx. €22 per plant, so in total 18 cucumbers are costing us €25, and that is the best we can do, or €1.40 per cucumber. That is before we store it in a cold room, quality check it, allow for wastage and pack it into boxes and deliver it to your doors.
Now Cucumbers in supermarkets are generally sold for say €0.49. How does this add up? Based on my rough back of an envelope calculation; it doesn’t. It can’t. But it conveys a very powerful message, it tells us as consumers that fresh produce is not worth anything, it is cheap, and it should always be cheap.
What does this do for a business like ours, apart from feeling undermined and at times wondering why on earth do we continue, it makes it very difficult to survive. People often say this is madness and ask what can be done, should there be more grants for food production?
Why should one of the most important things we part with money for, one that has a profound impact on our health and on our planet, be sold as cheaply as possible? My take on it is simple, pay a fair price for the food the farmer produces. Pay enough so they can reinvest into the business and into the farm. Pay enough to allow them to pay their suppliers and their people fairly, then we can have a fair and sustainable food system that is not always under immense pressure to cut costs and hence cut corners. We need a food revolution.Your support brings that food revolution one step nearer, thank you and happy new year.
PS: Our Farm shop is closed tomorrow Sat the 30th of Dec. It reopens on Sat the 6th of Jan. Even though we are closed on Monday we will be delivering as normal apart from our delivery run to Mayo on Tuesday which will move to Wednesday. The deadline for orders for Dublin Wednesday delivery and Mayo/Galway Tuesday delivery will change to 11 and 10am respectively on Tuesday the 2nd.
You can order now to get all our lovely fresh produce dropped to your door next week.