The price of food — Part II: Carrots

As I introduced in the first blog post in this series, The Parsley Incident inspired me to dive into the murky water of comparing supermarket products with farmers market products to illustrate why shopping at a farmers market is, basically, better.

Together, we’re going to try and work out if being motivated by a cheaper price when choosing what food to buy is genuinely good value, or if it’s actually going to cost more in the long run. To do this, I’m going to use more than just the price you pay for the product. In this analysis, I’m going to apply the 5 reasons why we believe you should shop at a farmers market to reveal the true value of each product. These reasons are:

  1. the food is fresher and therefore tastes better
  2. the food is fresher and therefore lasts longer
  3. the food is fresher and therefore is more nutritious
  4. the market connects people to each other and builds community
  5. the market keeps money local

Let’s start with the hard data

The first subject for this exercise is the perennially favourite vegetable (seriously, I’ve never met anyone who didn’t like them): carrots.

carrots-jr-packaging

Brand/product Jack Rabbit Premium Carrots Queen Street Growers carrots
Supplier/grower address Sumich Group
42 Cedric Street
Stirling, WA
Queen Street
Moruya, NSW
Distance from place of
purchase (as the crow flies)
3,185km 600m
Packaging plastic rubber band
Net weight 1.032kg 1.032kg
Number of units 10 10
Total price $1.69 $4.00
Price/100g $0.16 $0.39

On price alone, there’s no contest. The West Australian carrots are a whopping $2.30/kg (or $0.23/carrot) cheaper than the Moruya carrots. And by the way, I swear I didn’t rig the weights. They genuinely came out at exactly the same net weight and had the same number of carrots (see pics below).

Now let’s look at our other five assessment criteria.

1. The food is fresher and therefore tastes better

In this case, there’s also no contest. The carrots from Queen Street Growers were picked from their garden 600m away from the market on the morning of the day I bought them at the market. The Jack Rabbit carrots came from a building in Perth, according to the label, so where they were actually grown, I can’t tell you. Neither can I tell you when they were picked, when they were packaged or when they were shipped 3,185km to Moruya. Actually, probably to Sydney, then Moruya, so add on some kms. That the Queen Street Growers carrots are fresher is easily asserted.

Next was the smell and taste test. I have recruited my two kids (aged 11 and 8) to be my (blind) smell and taste testers. I’m also a tester, because I’m a grown up and kids can’t be trusted, but I have less impartiality. I used raw samples for the carrot test.

Once again, no contest. The Queen Street Growers carrots smelled sweeter. The Jack Rabbit carrots had next to no smell. My kids said they couldn’t smell anything with the Jack Rabbit carrots (see, that’s why they can’t be trusted). When they tasted the samples, they quickly and distinctly picked out the Queen Street Growers carrots. They didn’t even pause to consider. I questioned their integrity, not believing there could be such a noticeable difference. I went so far as to accuse them of cheating (peeking) and trying to please me. Then I tried the samples myself. I had to apologise to my kids. The difference in taste was significant.

The Queen Street Growers carrots were so sweet. The Jack Rabbit carrots were bland by comparison. Look, they were OK. In fact, if you didn’t know what a Queen Street Growers carrot tasted like, you’d probably be happy. But not only do they taste better, the Queen Street Growers carrots were juicier. They shone when you cut them. They had a lighter, crunchier texture. The difference was striking. They were clearly better quality. But is the better quality worth an extra $0.23 a carrot? Some would say yes, others no. Let’s move on and see what else my testing revealed.

2. The food is fresher and therefore lasts longer

There is undeniable value in food that lasts well. The fresher the food is, the longer it lasts and the less waste there is. You can buy larger quantities, reducing the cost, and not worry about it losing condition before you finish it.

While this is an easy argument to make for many fresh products, it’s harder to accurately determine in this example. I kept one of each carrot, stored in the same conditions for a couple of weeks. They both held up well in separate plastic bags in the crisper. Eventually, I grew impatient waiting for them to go limp, so I ate them. They were both a bit bendy and maybe the Jack Rabbit carrot was a bit bendier, but it was a negligible difference. Plus, it was too hard to accurately compare, given I have no idea when the Jack Rabbit carrots were picked or how they’d been processed before I bought them. Besides, it’s pretty unlikely that carrots get stored for very long in any household. They’re a staple vegetable, so this test carries less weight for a product like carrots.

carrots-qsg-weight

Another advantage that the fresher Queen Street Growers carrots present is the lack of packaging required. No plastic bag to throw away. Just the green stems, which you compost and the rubber band, which everyone saves, right? I mean, I save rubber bands. In fact, I collect them and return them to a grower once in a while in a big bundle. They’re always grateful. Yes, you can buy loose carrots at the supermarket and choose not to use a bag, but I chose a prepackaged bag for this test because it had some information about where the carrots came from.

3. The food is fresher and therefore is more nutritious

This argument is a slippery one, loaded with lots of “it depends”. But where our market is concerned, we stand by it.

Obviously, I don’t have any way to quantifiably test the products I’m comparing, so this criteria needs to be considered in a more abstract way. Without the benefit of testing equipment, we have to take the following into account:

  • the variety of carrot
  • method of production
  • ripeness
  • handling
  • storage
  • processing
  • transport

I’m not going to expand on all of that here (that’s for another blog post), but suffice to say, I can answer a lot more of those questions about the Queen Street Growers carrots than I can about the Jack Rabbit carrots. If I don’t know, I can simply ask Tim or Tobie next time I see them, but I can’t find anything on the internet about how Jack Rabbit carrots were grown. Only how they’ve been stored and packaged and even that much, not specifically. Some may see value in knowing about how their food is grown, others may not. Personally, I like to know that the food my kids and I eat is packing the best nutritional punch possible and the best way to know that is to go to the source.

And this brings me neatly to the fourth criterion.

4. The market connects people to each other and builds community

I know who grew the Queen Street Growers carrots. The Jack Rabbit carrots are anonymous. OK, I know we’re getting down to the “that’s nice, dear” part of local food, but I argue that it’s actually a very important part.

There is an implicit trust I place in Queen Street Growers every time I eat their carrots. The act of eating their carrots is an accumulation of goodwill. Perhaps if I ate Jack Rabbit carrots every time, then the goodwill would be accumulating between me and that brand, but it’s a brand. A stylised, buck-toothed rabbit in tracky daks, winking at me, as if to say “trust me”. Queen Street Growers are Tim and Tobie. Rabbits are the arch-enemy of their carrots. Eating their carrots is (I’m going to say it) an authentic experience.

There’s more to say about this particular topic — and I’ll get around to saying it as we continue with this series — but this is how communities are made. Eating carrots. Among other things.

5. The market keeps money local

It’s easy to be dismissive of this last one, because clearly the $4.00 I paid for the carrots from Queen Street Growers all goes to them, right? And you’d be forgiven for thinking it doesn’t cost much to bring their carrots to market, so more money ends up in local pockets, right? Surely the Queen Street Growers carrots easily contribute more to the local economy than the Jack Rabbit carrots in this sense. But this point is actually far more complex than that.

carrots-jr-weight

I’m lucky to have a friend who is an economics lecturer at Sydney University and he’s been helping me understand the reality of the whole “keeps money local” claim. It is true in very simplistic terms, but while it feels good to support the local economy — and we definitely should and farmers markets definitely do that — I’m interested in substantiating the claim that buying local food keeps money local. When I went to do that, the conversation with my friend revealed a very complex web of economic concepts and behaviours. Lots more of that “it depends” stuff.

I don’t want to shy away from complex discussions, but that’s too much information for this article, so I’ll write more about that another time as well. For now, let’s just focus on the simplistic understanding of this argument, in which case, the Queen Street Growers carrots get the tick.

Which carrot?

I’ll let you decide yourself. But remember, the question is about value, so let me put it this way:

Is the extra $0.23/carrot worth the better taste, the longer shelf life, the better nutrition and the contribution it makes to the community and the local economy?

Or perhaps this way:

Is the extra $0.23/carrot an investment in healthier people, healthier soils and conservation of fuel and water, effectively offsetting hidden costs, making it a cheaper carrot in the long run?

Tell me what you think in the comments below.

Onward to Part III: sausages!

One Reply to “The price of food — Part II: Carrots”

  1. Marie says:

    A resounding YES. And thanks for the analysis

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *