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Organics: Are They Affordable?

June 1, 2012 |

It’s a statement that many of us have overheard or mumbled to ourselves; “Sure I’d like to buy organic and eat more healthfully- if I could afford to.” Some, like this writer, have rejoiced at a weighty organic heirloom tomato only to abandon it at the checkout counter when its price comes in at $4.00. By association organic = precious = expensive. Or does it?

Most of us are not economists, but we are aware that two variables dictate the value or price of any given commodity: supply and demand. The question then is how does the supply and demand of organic food measure up? The answer comes from trips to the store or farm and conversations with people who consider this question every day.

Demand for organic impacts price

Mike Maguire, the Director of Produce for Demoulas Market Basket, a chain of supermarkets with 65 stores spread throughout Massachusetts and New Hampshire has observed sales of organics for over a decade.

“Going back 15 years, stores gave them 20 feet of space, then 12, then four, then they disappeared,” said Maguire providing a brief history. But Maguire is quick to confirm that demand for organics has not only returned but is growing.

“We have 80-100 organic items in the store (at any given time). Consumption is up, marketability is up. Organics have become more democratic,” says Maguire.

Price-wise, Maguire has seen a trend that runs counter to that of virtually every other food, specifically those foods produced by conventional farming.

“Prices (for organics) over the past three years have come down,” states Maguire adding that the reason for the ease in cost to consumers reflects an increase in availability. According to Maguire more farmers are producing organics. And as it happens many of the farmers he speaks of are New England farmers.

“We buy as much local as possible. Why drag (produce) across (the) country? (With locally grown food) there is less loss, less freight,” says Maguire.

A call to Steve Sylven who handles external communication for Shaw’s supermarkets reveals that Maguire’s views are not unique to Market Basket.

“We’ve (undertaken) a huge produce initiative over the last year (at Shaw’s),” says Sylven. “We’ve expanded some of our organics. There’s been an increase in general.”

Zach Dunham an associate in the grocery department of a Shaw’s located in Beverly, Massachusetts provided support to Sylven’s assertions.

“I see a lot more organic vegetables,” said Dunham. “(And) most of our organic milk sells out between our twice weekly deliveries.” The store’s Wild Harvest brand organic milk sells for $4.49 for a half-gallon. For comparison, a half-gallon of Garelick brand conventional milk offered by Shaw’s sells for $3.29. A half-gallon of Stonyfield organic milk on the shelf beside the other two brands is priced at $4.99.

A comparison of organic and conventional prices

That Shaw’s views organics as important is immediately apparent upon walking through the automatic doors at the chain’s store on Dodge Street in Beverly, Massachusetts. On Tuesday May 22, the first display of products customers met on entering the supermarket was broad tables holding baskets of packaged organic carrots, cherry tomatoes, avocados and onions. The carrots were priced at 99 cents for a one-pound bag and $1.89 for two-pound bags (21 cents more than one-pound bags of conventional carrots), the plastic cartons of tomatoes at $2.99 and the avocados also at $2.99 each. Inside, in the extensive produce department there were a good many other bargains to be had. Six-ounce packages of Shaw’s brand organic portabella mushroom caps were stickered at $3.99- precisely the same price as six-ounce packages of Shaw’s brand non-organic portabella mushroom caps.

Comparing the pricing of organic processed foods with their conventional counterparts at Shaw’s reveals several points. One is that organics generally do cost more. Another is that making comparisons isn’t always so simple as comparing prices. Conventional peanut butter for instance is not the same product ingredient-wise as organic peanut butter. Paying $5.99 for a 16 ounce jar of Teddie brand peanut butter gets a consumer 16 ounces of pure ground organic peanuts whereas paying $5.75 for a 28 ounce jar of Skippy peanut butter gets a consumer non-organic peanuts blended with non-organic sugar, hydrogenated vegetable oils and salt. Similarly a 12.7- ounce jar of Maple Gold real maple syrup sells for $10.49 while a 36-ounce jar of Shaw’s Original Maple Syrup sells for $4.55. Here, though the Shaw’s brand maple syrup at first glance looks like the better buy; a second glance, though, reveals that the less expensive syrup contains almost pure high fructose corn syrup and not an ounce of real maple.

A quick survey of price comparisons at Shaw’s turns up a fact that may surprise some. The best deal to be had in buying organic may be found in the cereal section. Here it was discovered that a 13-ounce box of Cascadian Farm Organic Multigrain cereal sells for $4.29 as compared with $3.79 for a 14-ounce box of General Mills non-organic Wheat Chex.

Organic options beyond the supermarket

Consumers concerned about making healthy choices both in how they spend their money and how they eat are being provided an expanding array of choices beyond super market walls. Since 1994 the USDA has been tracking the number of farmers markets known to operate in the United States, and since 2008 the agency has performed comprehensive yearly updates. The records show that in 1994 1,755 farmers markets were up and running and that by 2011 this number had grown to 7,175.

The USDA plays an active role in this development. Under Environmental Quality Incentive Programs begun as pilot programs three years ago the USDA is offering assistance to farmers to encourage them towards better land use practices. Under the EQIP Organic Initiative, the USDA is offering growers technical and financial assistance for conservation practices related to organic production such as integrated pest management. Funds for this initiative also help farmers to obtain and maintain organic certification.

“The program is very popular here in Massachusetts. A lot of small growers are interested in being certified,” says USDA Public Affairs Officer Diane Baedeker Petit.

To this point the current trend and renewed interest in organics and its affect on the affordability of food produced sustainably appears straightforward. A conversation with Massachusetts grower Jack Kittredge, however, quickly muddies the water.

A division among organics

“There’s quite a division among organics,” says Kittredge. “Organics sold at Whole Foods are largely coming from one source, California primarily versus (small Massachusetts farms) that grow 4-6 months of the year not producing large quantities,” he explains. Kittredge asserts that at Whole Foods you’re not going to find local producers. “A Concord farm supplies raspberries to Wholefoods (but overall) less than one percent (of the organics the chain sells) is locally produced.”

Kittredge whose organic certified farm is located in Barre, Massachusetts owns 55 acres in all, but grows crops on just eight to ten. He says the size of his farm is typical of the state and is by Massachusetts’ standards considered large.

“We’re mostly growing on thin, rocky soil like you would in a home garden doing everything by hand,” says Kittredge.

From where Kittredge stands when it comes to organics or foods produced sustainably, the best value is found at CSAs.

“If you are the sort of eater that looks at what’s in your market basket (or weekly CSA share), if you buy what’s in season and cook for yourself, you can eat quite economically.”

The $4.00 tomato

That said, there still remains the fact of the $4.00 tomato. For her part Green Meadow Farm Field Manager Megan Kershaw meets this reality with nary a flinch.

“But you’ll pay $4.00 for a beer,” is her response to incredulity expressed at such pricing.

“I’m sort of a stickler. I don’t think we should budge price-wise. There has to be that break even point,” she adds in support of her position.

And it seems that Kershaw and her colleagues know their business and the customers they serve well. According to Kershaw, over the past six years the membership of the CSA at Green Meadow Farms has been growing. The farm only offers full memberships; they choose not to trouble themselves with half, third or quarter shares. This indicates a high level of commitment and satisfaction in those feeding their families with the produce, eggs and meat produced at the farm.

“Those who try the free-range meat will come back for more,” says Kershaw. “Free range pork doesn’t taste anything like the Stop & Shop meat,” she adds.

Green Meadows Farm has 300 laying hens and collects 250 eggs daily on average. According to Kershaw, their breed of choice, Golden Comets, are both good layers and good foragers. The hens have access to an infinitely diverse diet thanks to moveable chicken houses that are rigged with portable electric netting. The grain they get to supplement their foraging is an organic custom blend supplied by Green Mountain Feeds of Vermont. The price for a dozen eggs produced by these happy birds is $7.00. This may at first seem high compared with a dozen New England’s Best Free-Range eggs sold at Shaw’s for $4.19, but New England’s Best eggs are not organic. Pete and Gerry’s brand organic eggs produced in Monroe, New Hampshire also sold at Shaw’s come in slightly less than those of Green Meadows eggs at $2.99 for a half-dozen.

Green Meadows Farm, Shaw’s, Market Basket and their grocery chain competitors all place importance on carrying organics, but mostly they place importance on satisfying their customers. Therefore it is valid to ask shoppers their opinion on the value of organics. Asked whether the benefits of organic food are worth paying more for Shaw’s shopper Nancy Priest answered without hesitation.

“Yes,” she said, “If you can cut back on junk food you can afford organics.”


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