Beth Cooper Howell takes a look at how farmers seem to end up with the tiniest cut of the money made along the production chain.
Vegetables are life’s big business venture. We’re always being told to steam them, eat five-a-day, choose carrots over cake, embrace the leaves, go easy on the tatties and mentally prepare ourselves for the moment when we’ll finally accept salad as a hearty lunch.
I was vegetarian for 10 years, but I’m no rabbit.
Pushing lamb chops and chicken off the menu was easy – I gorged on cheese and carbs instead. And that’s the fattest I ever was, since sugar also isn’t an animal.
So I’ve never been a domestic farmer either, despite being quite a health activist and corporate conspiracy theorist.
If people want to sow seeds in tyres in backyards, they’re welcome to it – and I’ll part with silver to share the bounty, without getting muck on my hands.
As much as I value organic, cruelty-free and local-is-lekker spinach, it’s obvious that someone who kills a 40-year-old fern just by looking at it isn’t going to raise a litter of radishes and tomatoes any time soon.
But I feel a little guilty about being such a convenience-first sloth.
Sometimes, when I bag a tray of pre-packed mielies at R30 for four, it seems criminal that my grandparents casually harvested their own, by the dozen, inbetween raising three sons and several chickens, building a house and running a business.
I’m a lazy consumer – every retailer’s dream.
And it’s the lazy consumers who seem to keep vegetables and other edibles rocketing in price – including the rocket, which has to be the most expensive piece of trendy weed ever to grace a plate.
Thankfully, I hate it, so I’m not forced to pay its outrageous selling price.
I do like cauliflower though – and when I read last year about a farmer who’s being fleeced by a very popular, well-known and supposedly humanitarian-minded retailer, I nearly bought a pack of GMO-free seeds in protest.
It goes like this: Mr Farmer spends thousands to produce his cauliflowers, which end up on said retailer’s shelf at up to R45 a head.
Now here’s the crazy bit: he gets R4 per head for his efforts (the bang-on cost to produce each head), while the retailer not only rakes in a fortune – but takes up to 60 days to pay Mr Farmer.
This means that the nice man who grows your cauliflower – which is even more popular now, thanks to the carb-free dieting craze (cauli-rice, anyone?) – isn’t making any money for doing so; which means that the bulk of your cauliflower budget is going straight to the suits.
Something is suspiciously wrong with this picture. And part of it is the nonsensical idea that to counteract the evils of Big Corporate, we need to grow our own cauliflower, or milk our own cows, or trample our own wheat.
A recent article about the dairy industry concerned me, too.
Supposedly, we are to blame the drought for increased dairy prices.
However, claims the writer, an expert in local food production, this is a lie; farmers have barely benefited from the tiniest of price increases, while retailers have tripled theirs. Why?
What we really need to do is hire a mini-bus and take turns fetching our veggies and milk from Mr Farmer down the road, perhaps on a Saturday – with a discount for picking our own (or bringing our own bottles).
I may not grow veggies, but I’m a dab hand at organising lift clubs. Who’s with me?
St Francis Bay freelance journalist Beth Cooper Howell takes a look at the other side of life in Woman on Top, her weekly lifestyle column for The Herald.