Pricey Produce: Why We Pay More for Organic

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It’s no secret that the local farmers’ market isn’t always the financially savvy way to buy produce. Safeway sells avocados 3 for $5, while Sandy sells them at her neighborhood market stand for $4 a piece. So why do we continue returning to Sandy? Because her produce is local and organic, two words we Northern Californians just can’t resist. In this article, we’ll discuss what makes organic farming expensive, difficult, and desirable to many.

Before we go any further, what does the term ‘organic’ really mean? The USDA defines organic produce as grown without using “most conventional pesticides; fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge; bioengineering; or ionizing radiation.”

Yes, sewage sludge. It’s basically grown without synthetic substances such as pesticides (for the most part, though some herbicides are now being permitted). However, that doesn’t necessarily explain the higher cost. Here are three main factors that keep this natural, organic farming on the pricey side:

Paying for the label:

Of course, organic farmers can’t just claim they’re abiding by these ground rules. They pay a hefty price for that small green sticker that reads “organic.” According to the USDA, certification is broken down to three fees:

  • Initial application fee: $325
  • Annual certification fee: $10,000 - $150,000 +
  • Annual inspection fee: $550 (thoug h it varies)

Due to these costs, some local farms choose not to pursue the organic certification, even if they abide by the organic guidelines. These farms usually choose titles such as “sustainable” or “biodynamic” farming.

However, many farms do choose to apply for the organic certification. Because the costs of organic farming tend to be so much higher, consumers need reassurance as to why they’re paying more for their produce. The aforementioned green sticker does the trick.

Fewer Pesticides, More Hands:

“The number one factor in farming is weeding,” says Niko Comati, an organic farmer from central California. He explains that the quickest and easiest way to take out acres of harmful weeds is with chemicals such as herbicides and pesticides, used by conventional farmers.  “To operate under the organic certificate, we have to find other ways to weed our land,” Comati says.

“There are a few machines and tractors that are able to move through rows of plants and target only the weeds, but many crops are too delicate to withstand such gruff treatment around their roots. Therefore, the largest cost of organic farming becomes manual labor.”

Naturally the cost of labor varies dramatically between states and internationally between countries. For this reason, buying a tomato shipped from Mexico may be much cheaper than buying an organic, locally grown tomato. While many workers on local farms receive a California minimum wage per hour, the workers of Mexican farming companies earn around 100 pesos (the equivalent of $8) per day.

Size:

Finally, organic farmers don’t have economies of scale. With all the regulations and the amount of workers required for organic farms to function, they tend to be smaller and produce less food. That food will then have to be sold at a slightly higher price to make a profit.

There are also certain fixed costs farmers must accept, whether they take a sustainable, organic, or conventional approach. Purchasing equipment or sinking a well is going to cost each farmer the same amount. When an organic farmer uses less land due to the limiting factor of manual labor, the cost of operating that land is ultimately higher.

So— is it worth it?

The main reason many prefer organic produce is to avoid the pesticides conventional farmers tend to use which are, first and foremost, poisons. However, the small quantities at which we consume these chemicals keep the risk of negative health effects low. In the relatively short time we’ve been using these substances, studies have not found definitive evidence that they are harmful to humans.

According to the Environmental Research and Public Health Journal, the real worry stems from the fact that there is very little research on long-term exposure to these chemicals. For those who don’t want to take their chances, buying organic foods is the way to minimize that risk.

As for the taste— that’s for you to decide! Many claim the rich soil in which organic farmers grow their crops give fruits and vegetables a more full and satisfying flavor. But remember this might not be the case if you’re buying produce that has been shipped from long distances, even if it is organic.

When sending fruit across states or countries, farmers must harvest the produce at no more than 75% ripeness so it will last. This often sacrifices the rich flavor. Furthermore, amount of fuel it takes to send these fruits and veggies up coasts and across oceans is wildly detrimental to our environment.

The bottom line? “Buy local above all else,” says Comati, “if it’s organic, that’s even better.” Or best yet, eat it from your own organic garden!