Thursday, May 19, 2011

How Much Does a Trip to the Grocery Store Actually Cost?

I’m a big fan of trivial knowledge. My kids say I have too much stored in my wazoo file, that place in your brain that stores those useless bits of knowledge that a) nobody uses, b) nobody cares about and c) everybody wonders “Where you learned that.” I don’t know why, it just is.

Anyway, one of those bits of pseudo-intellectual fluff is that it takes 15 calories of energy to bring one calorie of energy in food to your plate. That’s a lot of calories expended for calories consumed. Not a good rate of return I’d say.

Most of this energy is in the form of petroleum fuel and petroleum- and natural gas-based fertilizers. In today’s mega-farm world, it takes a lot of oil and natural gas to grow food. It doesn’t take that much to produce it yourself, though, and that’s the point of today’s rant. Since more people can relate to cost in terms of dollars and cents rather than kilocalories gained in exchange for total kilocalories expended, I’m going to use that method for demonstrating this idea.

Let’s follow the cost of bringing a pound of tomatoes to the table if we produce it ourselves. We’ll use tomatoes as our example, but the principle is the same regardless of which vegetable we use.

What does a fresh tomato really cost?
What does it pay in benefits?

My nearest source of seeds (other than the ones I save myself) is about 3 miles away.  It costs me about $0.27 per mile (gas only; does not include depreciation, insurance, taxes, time value, etc. Just the gas.) to drive my truck at today’s gas prices. So for a round trip to this store, my cost is:

Gas:                            $1.62
Seed Packet             $1.50
Sub total:                   $3.12

So far, so good, not too costly. But I need some good potting soil to start the seeds, so off to the nursery I go. It’s only about 6 miles away, in the other direction, of course. While I’m there, I’m going to pick up a bag of fertilizer, organic, a bag of calcium, to avoid blossom end rot, and a bag of planting mix for use in the final growing pot. I’ll get these at the same time to save the cost of another trip.

Gas:                            $3.24
Potting mix:               $7.49
Garden Lime:            $6.49
Fertilizer:                    $8.99
Planting mix:                        $6.99
Total so far:                           $36.32 (plus some sales tax, not figured in)

Wow, this is starting to add up! Nearly $40.00 and I don’t have a single tomato. This could be discouraging if I wasn’t able to plan for the future. I can see that at some point, I’ll have tomatoes so I continue undaunted.

Now, I start the seeds in the potting mix and wait for a few days before I see the sprouting plant. I water it and wait some more. After a few weeks, the plant has grown enough that it is now time for me to transplant it into a larger pot. It’s still too cold outside to put them there, but I don’t want the roots to be too bunched up. I’m using a recycled pot to transplant them, so I don’t have to add any cost to it.

I’m also not figuring in the cost of the water I’m using yet. Since I’m on city water, and it’s not cheap here in the desert, I will have to add that, but let’s just say I’m watering it with what’s left over from my glass at dinner.

Eventually, I will need to transfer this growing plant into the large, sub-irrigated pot that I’m making just for this purpose. Although I already have some of the materials on hand as leftovers from other projects, I’m going to add some cost to the project to reflect the true cost. The only things I won’t add are the plastic bottles I use at the bottom of the bucket that serve as the water reservoir. Since I scrounged these out of the trash (avoiding the landfill) there were free to me anyway.

Cost of the bucket as the Habitat for Humanity Re-Store:       $2.00
Cost of the plastic pipe used as the filler tube:                           $0.45
Cost of the zip ties used to hold it together:                                $0.06
Total so far, including all of the above expenses:                                 $38.83

Still under $40 so we’re not doing too badly.

This sub-irrigated pot uses about 4 gallons of water per week. I don’t mind that since all of the water goes directly to the plant for its use and not down to join the water table in the soil. My water costs here are about $1.45 per thousand gallons used, then my 16 gallons of water per month would cost me about $0.03 per month. Figure another 4 months, and I’m up to a whopping $0.12 for water costs.

I know this bit about the water costs sounds trivial, but think about how much water I would be wasting if I had a couple of rows of tomato plants in a traditional bed. Think about how much my lawn is costing me. Sub-irrigated containers use about 20 percent of the water that the traditional method uses. That means that my plant would cost $0.60 for the same output. Only, it wouldn’t be the same output because I have found that this method actually produces larger plants, larger and heavier fruits than the traditional method. But I digress….

So we add that twelve cents to the cost, and add a dollar for what we might have missed along the way and we are right about $40 for the plant. If I get a yield of 25 pounds of tomatoes for my troubles (and I’m sure to get at least that much if not more) then my cost per pound is $1.60. During the summer, I can get store-bought tomatoes for that much, during the spring and fall, I can’t come close to it. In the winter (if I bring my bucket inside which I can do because it’s portable) a fresh tomato would be worth its weight in gold.

So now, if you compare the cost with doing myself and buying my tomatoes, I’m not really ahead all that much. But this is for one plant in one bucket. Imagine what would happen if I spread my costs for gas, fertilizer, soil, amendments and materials over, say, a dozen buckets. If they all yield as much as this one does, and there is no reason why they shouldn’t, my cost decreases to about $0.55 cents per pound, or a third of the cost of the single plant.

If I buy more tomatoes at the grocery store, am I going to have my costs reduced? Of course not, but that isn’t the point.

The real benefits of raising your own versus buying them at the store are not the dollars and cents benefits, they are much more important, though often less tangile.

Here are some of the benefits that aren’t figured into this calculation. See if any of them would be worth something to you in your own personal cost comparison analysis.

Variety—how many different kinds of tomatoes can I grow? How many heirloom varieties are there? How many different kinds of shapes, sizes, colors and flavors can I grow?

Freshness—when I pick it off the plant after letting it ripen thoroughly, I notice the difference immediately. And it’s a positive and distinct difference for the better.

Nutrition—No chemicals, no pesticides, no herbicides, just sunshine, water and good, organic nutrients go into the production of my tomatoes. Can’t say that about the ones in the store.

Convenience—I don’t have to drive to the store. I can walk out into my back yard and pick them. And since almost nobody goes to the store for just one item, even if they only need that one item, think about how much money I’m not spending.

Availability—I don’t have to worry about truckers’ strikes, (everything where I live is brought in from somewhere else) recalls, salmonella, e. coli infestations, or any other issue that you see on the evening news.

Fun and Satisfaction—Don’t ever overlook these two concepts as having value. They are priceless. How do you think I feel when I get to provide, literally provide for my family in this manner? No amount of money could ever make up for what I would lose on that.

Labor and Exploitation—I don’t have to use “undocumented workers” or other questionable labor sources for my produce. I don’t have to support paying sub-standard wages for labor in my fields. (Since I don’t pay myself in cash…well, that just opens up a whole new discussion.) And I’m not taking advantage of anyone. Nobody suffers at my hand because I grow my own tomatoes.

Service—Since I’m growing more than a dozen tomato plants, I’m sure to have more than enough to share with others. How can you put a price on helping out another family? How can you put a price on the feeling you get when you give something to someone?

Independence—How much is the feeling of self-reliance worth to you? To me, it’s priceless.

By not providing ways to produce for myself, I am adding all of these costs to the price of the food I and my family eats. That’s just too steep a price for me.
All of a sudden, this little project seems like a religious, political and social statement.

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