Saltspring Island -- Call me an egghead if you will, but it took some plain and simple farm chores before I finally figured out the explanation for the big riddle of today's food system: why did the chicken cross the continent instead of just crossing the road to get to the other side of a local market?
It was a postcard-perfect late-August morning on our little Saltspring organic farm. Working at the edge of an apple orchard on rolling hills, the blue sky and warm sun above us, we were a good though mostly volunteer crew.
We had lots of time to chat as we lugged the portable chicken fence about 100 feet away. We sank poles every 10 feet or so, pushed the chicken coop and watering hose to their new position and chased down a few wayward chickens, which gave my daughter Anika loads of laughs and a lot of bruises.
I checked my watch for the first time that day. The little job of moving chickens onto new ground where they could do their free-range scratching on pasture for vitamins and munching on fresh bugs for protein took four of us about two and a half hours.
I pulled out my scratch pad and did the math on the eggonomics of eggological eggriculture.
I think I've concocted a rough but reasonable formula that lets us know how much we should subsidize farmers who produce local, ethical and sustainable food. No, scratch that. How much farmers who produce local, ethical and sustainable food are presently subsidizing us.
No, scratch that again. How much consumers and taxpayers should happily pay for a warranty label that protects local, ethical and sustainable food and avoids the costs that come with breakdowns like avian flu, contamination by antibiotics and the disappearance of local farms.
Here's the formula I worked up. The 10 hours total time we spent switching fields and fences that morning is the core job unique to enviro-friendly, free range and pasture-grazing poultry operations.
If poultry are to escape being cooped up but still remain protected from predators, they have to be fenced in. If that's to be done without exhausting and despoiling the ground, the fencelines have to be moved about every three weeks.
If our crew had been paid the minimum wage of (in BC) $8.50 an hour, this little job would have cost about $85. That money can't come from the sale price of eggs. Customers already squawk when they see the $4.50-a-dozen price tag on that quality of farm-fresh eggs at the farm stand. That's as much as any will pay.
If egg sales from the 35 chickens here are to pay for the work of moving fences regularly plus grain feed (the biggest expense), a henhouse, regular henhouse cleaning, a watering system, payments on the farm itself, costs of managing and staffing the farm stand and a return to the farm owner, you can see the problem.
The egg is often promoted as nature's perfect food, but my back-of-the-envelope calculation explains why local, ethical and sustainable eggs are so low in the pecking order.
Farmers who sell a perfect egg are selling it for less than the cost of production, which is not how we encourage a sound business practice.
And environmentally correct and health-conscious consumers who pay extra for the real cost somewhere in the range of $8 a dozen can legitimately complain that they're personally bankrolling things that everyone gets the benefit of.
I'm speaking here of limiting antibiotics to sick humans instead of squandering their effectiveness by mass use on chickens; saving land and water from contamination by chemically sprayed feed or piles of damaging chicken manure; preventing the easy spread of avian flu, which has already cost the globe $10 bill and which spreads like the proverbial wildfire though congested poultry ops; preserving family farms that keep our countryside a beautiful respite.
When benefits are shared that broadly (not "captured" by the individual consumer, as economists would say), it's generally considered fair that they be paid for out of taxes. If my quick math is at all close, that would mean taxpayers through government rewards would pay green farmers about $85 for every 21 dozen eggs (the amount produced in the Saltspring operation each cycle before the chicken yard has to be rotated.)
This amounts to roughly half that $8 a dozen. The other half, $4, would be paid by consumers, who are charged extra only for the superiority of the egg, not for the production process as well.
In this eggsellent plan, all consumers and citizens including folks who don't actually eat eggs would enjoy the health and enviro advantages while saving on unseen tax expenditures that now subsidize more damaging forms of egg production.
Seen from this perspective, farmers provide services that last a long time. They are no longer mere producers of commodities, eaten in minutes. That's why the public purse should pay for these benefits in a separate transaction from the payment for the commodity, just as we do with many other purchases that combine both goods and services.
Compared to the cost of propping up a damaging food system, moving farming into this new sustainable service economy is mere chicken feed.