What price a lettuce? (27 weeks to go…)

by Max Akroyd

Yesterday evening, with snow falling all around, I picked a bowl of salad for the family from the polytunnel. This made me very happy. That lettuce and stuff cost me over 100€.

If I factor in the capital cost of the polytunnel, the seed, the delivery cost of that seed, the seed compost and the module I raised the seedling in, the organic slug pellets, the mains water I watered it with … You can see how I get a little less smug and arrive at a tidy three figure estimate – and that’s without any consideration at all for my labour. Fortunately, I’m very cheap! And it’s not as if winter salad is exceptionally expensive. I suspect a well-grown, heritage aubergine would cost considerably more. In other words, there’s no way you could sell that baby and recoup your true costs. Ever.

Is there something else you could do with your land which makes economic sense? Well, we can forget ‘gardening’ in the form which has evolved in my lifetime. Seen the Gardener’s World garden these days? You’d need a platinum credit card to fund one like that. Every planting scheme seems to rely on a dozen potted plants hot from the garden centre. You can’t blame people for feeling disappointed with the yield from their plot if they’ve been lured into spending a king’s ransom thus…

What about farming? Big agriculture – the thing that puts a bag of salad on the supermarket shelf for a couple of €s and makes my product look exorbitant and ridiculous. A picture of mechanised efficiency and completely reliant on cheap fuel. I haven’t seen any of that since 1972. If you stripped out the state subsidies and other sleights of hand the whole industrial agricultural enterprise would crash. (And if every watercourse could sue for being violated with nitrates and the soil could claim for the depradations of modern farming practice – it would burn).

Moreover, the same strains on Big Ag. are fundamentally challenging the wider economy. The costs of raw materials are rocketing up and meeting the ability of the consumer to pay on its way down. State subsidy of our way of life, using money borrowed from countries who don’t bother with welfare, is almost over and done with (see Ireland). Which might please those ‘wealth creators’ who claim to provide all that tax revenue in the first place – until they realise that no one can afford their fees any more or wants to buy an i-Toaster next Christmas. Like a thief in the night, historical reality – or karma – is stealing the props from under the edifice of industrial civilisation.

What a mess. If all we’re left with is a bunch of raw resources and our own energy, no easy profit, no unearned wealth and added value stripped out – how will we fare? The economy of Finistère is in the vanguard of this new reality! It’s not pretty. But any suggestion that growing your own is inherently too expensive is patently absurd. We are all evidence that subsistence can be achieved without heaps of capital expenditure because our ancestors didn’t have our sort of money. Unfortunately, after all their grinding efforts, they probably looked like this (well mine did, anyway):

It’s not what we’re doing, then, but how we’re doing it. Manure is free, commercial bullshit very expensive. Maybe grab what you can from the sinking ship of abundance and make the coming peasant makeover a bit easier on yourself? Growing your own should liberate you from the market: a pig as cornerstone of the household economy subverts the market economy. With that market in tatters, it’s not the viability of growing your own that’s in question. It’s everything else.