$9 JAR OF PICKLES
Two years ago I pulled into the city of Reedsburg Wisconsin (population 9,487). I was there to meet with the founders of Worm Farm Institute, Jay and Donna Neuwirth. Over tea, Donna explained why their annual Fermentation Fest and the accompanying FarmArt DTour are so damn cool. One of the things that caught my attention was when Donna mentioned the selling of local food at prices that sustain local growers…
“…like $9 pickles jars. Very high end food. But it’s also good for the locals because they see what is valued and kind of develop ideas.”
What makes a jar of pickles worth $9? That’s “twice the price” we would pay for run of the mill pickles. The question really stuck with me because my mother is a small grower. I’ve sat down with her in the greenhouse to crunch the numbers, going over the profit/loss and balance sheets, how to finance another greenhouse, and how to grow a product that was different than what you find at Home Depot. How does a small grower make the numbers work? This is a huge question in rural areas like her home in Prairie Farm, Wisconsin (population 443).
Wisconsin is where I spent a great deal of my childhood and it’s where much of my family lives today. For the most part it’s farm country with rolling hills of crops, big sprawling oak trees, and cows, many many cows. 1.25 million cows actually.
The biggest urban area in Wisconsin is Milwaukee (population 600,000) but Minneapolis and Chicago are right over the state’s borders. And little tiny Reedsburg is planted equidistant between these three cities - in a Bermuda Triangle of food production - about 3 hours from each city.
Donna explains: “Eighty percent of what any farmer grows goes to an urban consumer, and so urban people are involved in all the decisions made about how land is used in this country.”
Exactly two years after I first met Donna, now I’ve anchored my rolling recording studio here for the FarmArt DTour, a 100 mile loop through farm country. The whole event is part of Fermentation Fest with art installations in corn fields, performances in different habitats, and food stands offering a bevy of fermented goods like beer, cheese, and my new favorite “kickapoo kimchi”.
My mother rode along with me and together we asked over 100 visitors, vendors and growers, “What local food would you pay double for?”. The answers ranged across all five food groups and taught me that small boutique farmers can charge more than they think… This episode looks at the questions of what makes food twice the price. When does food transcend a commodity and become something more to the customer?