Garden of Bargains

J. P. Morgan, the celebrated financier, famously observed, “If you have to ask the price, you can’t afford it”. I’ve always viewed this quote as a sort of anti-proverb along the lines of “You can’t be too rich or too thin” and “Living well is the best revenge”. These are members-only bromides to comfort the comfortable and disconcert everybody else.

Mr. Morgan made his famous utterance when asked about the cost of maintaining his yacht. But he might as well have been referring to the costs of Old Master paintings, gems, mansions or railroads—all of which he acquired in abundance. I doubt the plutocrat was thinking of the cost of purchasing fresh tomatoes, red peppers or lettuce.

But even J. P. might have paused at the prices on view in today’s grocery produce aisle. “Surely, you jest”, I imagine him thundering. “What species of priceless vegetables might these be? Virtuoso Faberge´ fancies? A still life by the Flemish master Martinus Nellius? Alas, at these mad prices, include me out!”

As I write, U.S. prices of fruits and vegetables are rising at an alarming rate. Yet in January the government’s Economic Research Office and the U.S. Department of Agriculture confidently estimated a modest rise in U.S. grocery prices—a mere 2-3 percent, up from the .8 percent increase in U.S. food prices from 2009 to 2010.

The estimated increase was hardly likely to precipitate howls of outrage from TV’s talking heads or have editorial writers pummeling their keyboards to produce fevered polemics. So, no worries, right? Wrong.

The Associated Press reports February’s increase in wholesale food prices represents the biggest jump in the 36 years. Retail food prices, meanwhile, rose 3.9%, the most since November 1974.

Government economists overlooked a few variables. Take corn, an obvious factor. For starters, there were Iowa’s unseasonably warm July 2010 nights, causing the corn crop to mature too early, resulting in diminished output and higher prices. With rising gas prices, there is increased demand for corn-based ethanol—which already accounts for 12.5% of the U.S. corn production—again lifting prices. And corn reserves are the lowest they’ve been in over 15 years.

The economists must have been blinded to the 15 percent spike in global food prices from October 2010 to January 2011, and the 30 percent price rise in the past year—the biggest jump since the UN started tracking food costs in 1990.

And—no disrespect to Iowa—let’s not forget weather’s impact on global food output. The last year has not just seen a perfect storm or two, but a perfect storm of storms. Devastating droughts and floods in Australia and Russia. Floods in Canada. Low rainfall in Europe and South America. Excessive rain in India. Record-shattering winter freezes in California, Mexico and Florida.

Up to now, America has been insulated from the more extreme food price gyrations. For one thing, Americans spend only 10% of their income on food, while in less developed countries food costs can devour 50% of a family’s budget. Americans have another advantage, too; world food prices are reckoned in dollars and our country remains the world’s leading food producer.

Take the briefest stroll through your local grocery and the folly of the government’s food price projections is apparent in every aisle. Food prices are rapidly increasing. Produce prices have doubled in some parts of the country.

Fresh fruits and vegetables are the most volatile of items in the supermarket. Many foods in a supermarket’s main aisles are more processed food products, than food per se. They are manufactured, rather than grown in a field. Reckoned in real dollars, the prices of fresh fruits and vegetables have doubled since 1980 relative to other grocery items, which have budged only a little.

What’s the sticker-shocked consumer to do? My fellow Americans, the answer to rising food costs is right there in your own back yard. The savings you can realize by starting your own home garden will astonish you.

Let’s talk tomatoes. Right now, medium-sized tomatoes at my local grocer’s are priced from 80 cents to $1.20. A single tomato plant in your home garden will, at a conservative estimate, produce 40 to 50 medium to large fruit in a summer—a bounty that would set you back anywhere from 32 to 48 dollars at the supermarket.

It gets better. A seed packet contains 25 guaranteed seeds out of 30 total. We set the average plant yield at 40 dollars, and multiply it by 25. Your little tomato patch yields you a thousand dollars worth of store bought tomatoes from a seed packet that costs you three or four dollars. Your return on investment? 250 to 1 or 25,000 per cent. J. P. Morgan would not pass up that kind of opportunity.

And your homegrown tomatoes are ruby red, juicy beauties, bursting with just-picked flavor and fragrance—everything those store-bought “virtual tomatoes” aren’t.

The home gardener can reap extraordinary savings on every fruit and vegetable. Your garden of bargains produces a healthy harvest of culinary pleasure, serenely wholesome recreation and out of this world savings. As J. P. might put it. “If you have to ask the price, grow your own.”

This entry was posted on Wednesday, April 13th, 2011 at 4:27 pm and is filed under Original Posts. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.
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13 Responses to “Garden of Bargains”

  1. Lj Orlin said:

    I completely agree, George!

    I just paid 90 cents for one (non-organic) fresh Roma tomato to use in a special salsa recipe. The avocado for the recipe cost $2.
    At the same time my food stamps were reduced from $183 per month to $168 per month. I think this is the “shared sacrifice” our President is calling for. Proprationately my share is unfair.
    But the shock I feel about a single Roma costing nearly a dollar makes me know that I’ll grow tomatoes this summer.

    • George said:

      Thanks for the delightful post. I’m sorry you have to pay so much! Here’s a suggestion—try ‘Big Mama’ and ‘Health Kick’ (1/2-1/2) instead of Romas for your sauce and try ‘Fresh Salsa’ for your salsa. You’ll save much more time in the sauce, and gain much more flavor in both the sauce and the salsa. Roma’s good, but they require more work than ‘Big Mama’ while ‘Health Kick’ adds a “zip” that is uncanny. Never tasted a better marinara than with those two tomatoes.

      As for winter: sausage—try freezing fresh Italian sausage. I can feed off it for a month. One bit goes a long way. Thanks again.

  2. Lj Orlin said:

    Another thought… that’s great for this summer and fall but come the long Northeastern winter and I’m back to no fresh vegetables.

  3. Martha Stewart said:

    Will we get tomato sauce this year?

    Moving to Whidbey Island, replete with a vineyard, next year.

    • George said:

      Dear Martha,

      I shall send you my very best sauce—but I need your address. I lost it—I am so sorry. You and Dean were so nice to me. He introduced me to Kindle! Do you still go to Alaska?

      Best, George

  4. Tess said:

    Love your writing style.
    I will plant more tomatoes this year.

    • George said:

      Dear Tess,

      Love your compliment. Thank you, in advance, for your enthusiasm. I wish you the best of luck.

  5. Geoff Valdés said:

    Great post. You touched on an important point missed by many food commentators that the price of real food (fresh produce, etc) is rising far faster than the price of processed food commodities. But you hit the nail on the head when you bring up flavor. I came to gardening initially out of a desire to have more independence; however, it’s the taste of the veggies that keeps me going. Flavor makes abstract political and economic notions real.

    • George said:

      Hi Geoff!

      Thanks very much for the thoughtful compliment. I agree: I once actually disliked most vegetables as a normal course. The exceptions were potatoes, cabbage (which I adore), broccoli, Brussels sprouts (adore-adore) and beets. I didn’t even care for tomatoes very much. But “taste”—the actual thing—can change surprisingly fast. I thought I’d never become a vegetable fan, but now I love them all! It took about 3 weeks. Doctor’s orders, which might have triggered the psychological disposition. Now I even enjoy carrots, which used to disgust me. And the kicker is when I grow them myself. However, I even tolerate store-boughts, with the exception of tomatoes and bell peppers, which are almost uniformly tasteless in every grocery store I have shopped.

      The reason for all this vegetable angst is because I grew up, and began my horticultural career, in flowers—100%. By the time I had worked on nearly every commercial garden flower, pot plant and cut flower imaginable, I had no more juice! I used to go to the zoo, or the desert, to get away from it all. That is one reason that my totem plant is the kalanchoe—I just adore it. It possesses qualities of fleshiness and bloom in just the right way that it impressed me deeply. But it took a few years for me to get completely comfortable with the vegetable world, per se, in the commercial sense. I have been very lucky. Few have gone deep in both parts of the garden industry. Thanks again!

  6. Gail said:

    We were wonderin if you where going to have an open house in the Doylestown location like you did awhie ago. It was a fordhook farm off new britain road. Please let me know dates and times.

    • George said:

      Dear Gail,

      Our Open Houses at Fordhook took a pause last year. We needed a rest, as did the test and display gardens. Our two Open Days this year are May 22 from 10:00 A.M. to 5:00 P.M., and Friday, August 19, Saturday, August 20 and Sunday, August 21 from 10:00 A.M. to 5:00 P.M. Parking on the farm, since we built a parking lot near the top meadow.

      Thanks for posting.

  7. Marshall Smyth said:

    Time to plant really big gardens. I’m doubling the size of my garden this year, getting a gopher getting cat, and planning a greenhouse to start building later this summer. My eyes are also set on another even larger garden to build next winter. They have to be fully netted and framed here in the forest.

    I do not really understand all the price indexes and inflation rates, I just know that 3 years ago groceries that cost 177 dollars now cost 330 dollars.

    • George said:

      Dear Marshall,

      Sorry for my overdue response. Have you considered a terrier? The Scottish Terrier might be an excellent choice for gophers. But I’m not certain; although I do know they are without equal in home intruder defense. I’m happy to hear that you are expanding your garden. Naturally, it warms my heart. But it is also the right thing to do, as food prices in general have risen at even slightly higher rates since I wrote the blog entry. Plus, no question about nutritional and taste superiority. Thanks again for your many responses to our blog.

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