Putting Value on Our Food

Last weekend I harvested my winter wheat. I felt all Winslow Homer Reaper-ish while using an antique scythe I found hanging in our barn.

My wheat field—call it what you will—was a 20 x 20 ft. patch of amber waves of grain within my vegetable garden. I broadcast-planted it last fall using Turkey Red seed from Anarchy Acres and was ecstatic when this spring it came up as lush as any of the neighboring fields. My reasoning for this cover crop experiment is to put nutrients back into the soil during the summer and then come winter—when the north wind doth blow—I can cozy up with wheat weaving and a slice of homegrown bread. Oh, how hygge of me, eh?

Larry Newberg family tree collection

Well, surprise, surprise. Harvesting this little patch turned out to be a lot of work—scything the stalks, gathering them into sheaves, hanging them to dry, threshing grains from the head—seriously, what was I thinking? When I see pictures of my Swedish ancestors working large fields completely by hand, I’m in awe.

Today, even as mechanized as farming has become, there are still segments that require laboring by hand just as a they did a century ago. Interestingly, these are the segments that most directly feed humans, especially those that feed us healthy, organic food.

The True Value of Food

In the spring issue of Yes!, the Journalism for People Building a Better World, an industrious food composter, Kevin Holtham, said “I believe food should be free, and actually it can be free.” I see where he’s coming from, how growing one’s own food enables us to, in a sense, eat for free.

However, “free” is a highly contingent word. Sure, growing your own food saves you from having to buy it from a store. But it’s certainly not free if you apply value to the time, labor and resources necessary to get out there and do the growing. Let’s be real, there’s a lot more to producing that tasty tomato than meets the Instagram eye.

As an organic farmer making her living from the land, Casey O’ Leary of Earthly Delights Farm & Snake River Seed Cooperative agrees.

“’Food should be free’ is dangerously close to ‘food should be cheap,’ and both completely undervalue the work of food production and the humans doing it,” commented O’ Leary so eloquently in the next issue of Yes! “Access to healthy food should be a human right? Absolutely. Food should be free? Nope. It smacks of the kind of romanticism of farming only possessed by those who have never tried to make a living doing it, and it undermines our efforts to advocate for a living wage for farmers and farmworkers.”

O’ Leary hits a sensitive nerve. When it comes to food, generally speaking, we Americans are a demanding lot. We want our food—an abundant selection, at that— but, heaven forbid, not only do we not want to do the work to produce it, we also don’t want to pay much for others to do it for us. In truth, Americans pay far less of their income for food than other people of the world, yet our health care spending is so much more. Obviously, the food we’re buying isn’t as healthy as it should be. And obviously, cheap (processed) food doesn’t pay.

That Old Scythe is a Reminder

Food author Michael Pollan instructs us to eat like our great-great-great grandmothers ate. To be sure, these lovely ladies didn’t open plastic packaging to get at their food. Neither should we. Remember, the foods that are the healthiest for us to eat often require the greatest effort to produce.


Next week, August 4-10, is National Farmers Market Week. Here’s a chance for Americans to show that, yes, we do value good food and we support the farmers who work hard to grow it.

Looking for a farmers market near you? Check out this national farmers market directory. It’s where you can find food in its purest, healthiest form; unprocessed and produced by human hands.

Go for it!

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