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Time, money, and the "$50 tomato"

At the end of last summer a friend of mine was telling me about a client of his gardening business who said at one point in the price negotiations, “I hope you’re not going to sell me a $50 tomato.”

The reference, I learned later, was to a book called The $64 Tomato: How One Man Nearly Lost His Sanity, Spent a Fortune, and Endured an Existential Crisis in the Quest for the Perfect Garden, by William Alexander. I haven’t read the book, but the reputed high costs of gardening are second only to “I’d love to garden but I haven’t got the time” on the list of reasons I hear from people for not growing their own food. Another close contender near the top of the list is something that usually comes out as, “I kill whatever I try to grow.”

Each of these arguments has merit, but only as symptoms of the underlying conditions in which they are made. It might take a village to raise a child, but it takes a worldview and the infrastructure it generates to validate an argument. For some time now, I’ve been trying to understand a world where it makes no sense to grow food.

My own reflections on the topic started one day when I bought a bunch of radishes at the supermarket. Radishes, while not exactly a staple food, are arguably one of the easier food plants to grow for most people and in fact are the first crop I was successful with as a child gardener. As an adult when I looked at the cost and the amount of pre-tax income I’d have to earn to buy the radishes, converted to time, I wondered why I would ever bother growing them. It made no sense economically: end of story. Plus, what if I do invest the time and effort, and fail? And that’s where gardening stops for many, many people.

But even then, I felt there was actually more to the story. And no, I’m not going to write at length on the intrinsic value of having intimate relationships with one’s food plants, a topic I’ve explored elsewhere. Nor is it my intent to analyze the perversity of market pricing that externalizes costs resulting from fossil fuel use, fertilizer and pesticide runoff, or the abusive working conditions of farm laborers, though this is also worthy of consideration and an important part of the picture. Instead, what I feel is most important here is the personal time and money equation that results in part through the mechanism of perverse pricing. It’s on this level that people’s decisions get made. This is basically how we got to a place where it makes no sense to grow food, or where growing food came to be seen as a kind of luxury activity for the privileged.

Yet the time/money equation that had me pondering my purchase of commercial radishes is changing for many people, and with it the decisions they are making. My view of the fundamental shift we have seen in the last few years here in the USA is that we are changing from a people who on aggregate had more money than time to a people who on aggregate have more time than money. When a person has disposable income but little free time, this puts a premium on convenience and speed. Here in the “developed” world, what this means is that not only do we feel there no time to grow, thresh, mill, and bake grain into bread, we often don’t feel we have time to make our own sandwiches or even to get out of our cars to get them from those who make them for us.

No doubt there is an economy of scale in operation that makes the livelihood of, for example, a baker viable under fairly broad market conditions. But let’s be clear about this: bread in itself is a ready-to-eat convenience food, and occupies a place along with butchered meat and apples that are grown and bagged by others on the time vs. money continuum.

I started seeing the basic economic paradigm shift – from more money than time to more time than money – during the first stage of the most recent economic downturn in 2008-09 when in many instances one or both parents in two-income families lost a job, significantly affecting the market for child day care. Among the home-based industries that have fallen prey to market forces, childcare is quite a big canary in the contemporary economic coal mine. It is a prime indicator of the personal time/money decision making process, and little wonder. Even with the increased “child care productivity” leveraged by stratified age groupings and non-biological adult-to-child ratios, when there’s no money to pay for it and a parent out of work at home, the economic incentive to outsource one’s childrearing with curb-service daycare simply evaporates.

There are many, many aspects of life that change as people get pushed out of the mainstream economy with its productivity treadmill, and families find themselves possessed of relatively more time and less money. One of the changes is that growing food starts making sense again, if one can find a place to do it. Effective resource stewardship is another aspect. Call me frugal, but it seems pretty wasteful to buy special bags so that yard leaves can be hauled away in the fall and then buy bagged compost trucked in from elsewhere in the spring. Left alone, the leaves will turn into compost with very little coaxing. But this presumes a couple things: time and the willingness to use it. The “$50 tomato” comes down in price very quickly when time is used to grow plants from seed, when developing friendships bring tools and know-how, when a little muscle and a lot of patience turn waste into compost, and, in general when human energy and clever management of time and resources supplant a product-centered, money-driven approach to problem solving.

Another change is, presuming that with less money one can still locate something to eat and strategize a way to stay out of the rain (I’m not suggesting one could live with no money at all), there’s time for the valuable work of connecting with others and educating one’s self on issues, if one has the inclination. As we’ve seen recently, one might just set up a tent in a park on Wall Street and start asking important questions and demanding real answers from those who work and live in the towers overhead. Yes, and I’m sure it isn’t lost on those looking down at the colorful tents and personalities that there are important political dimensions to this social shift that goes by the name of unemployment. After all, to employ is to use. Unemployed, unused people can definitely find ways of making themselves useful. Unused people have time to protest, to organize, and to do all kinds of interesting things.

In day-to-day living, the shift to more time than money could mean it makes sense to turn flour into bread, cook for big groups, collectivize living and transportation arrangements, care for one’s own and other people’s children, share, trade, and barter for tools, skills, and basic necessities, read and play instruments rather than pay for entertainment, and talk with the neighbors.

For every one of these activities, the mainstream economy has a product or service that offers a shortcut that costs money. But if we really look at carpooling, for example, what we’re seeing is people willing to give up a bit of convenience and use a little extra time to save money. Somewhere another car sits empty to the benefit of its owner, the air we breathe, and the global climate, and to the detriment of the national GDP, which is as much a measurement of waste as of wealth in a society where the two are easily confused.

The irony is, sometimes the products and services being marketed aren’t even much of a shortcut. Once in the thrall of a money- and product-centered mindset, we will sometimes even endure inconvenience and lower quality to participate in the illusion that the more we pay the more it’s worth, and that when money changes hands something intrinsically good is happening – the shopping culture. And, while a lot of what we buy is needless, it seems to me that even with necessities like food, it really doesn’t take much more effort to, say, make a better, cheaper, and healthier sandwich at home than run out to buy one because one “deserves a break today.” Granted, I sometimes gratefully take a cup of coffee from a friendly face at a cafe, but honestly, I can always brew myself a superior and cheaper cup than I can buy. The “$50 Tomato” has its counterparts in many formerly free or inexpensive but lovely things that emerge from the market as grotesque extravagances like $3.75 cups of coffee.

In the end, an important piece of my hope for the future is that productive people are productive people, and will find ways to use time to add value to their lives directly when sidelined by the mainstream economy’s avenues for value creation. Spending time instead of money when money is short makes sense, and as we awaken from the idolatry of commerce I see a strong possibility that Americans will paradoxically find themselves possessed of more entrepreneurial drive than ever.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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