Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Fair Wages for Whom?

Hmmm...Tough topic to say the least but I wanted to address some things that have come to my attention recently in regards to fair wages.

First last week I read the following about Greenfield Farm organic co-op which was started in Ohio by a group of Amish:

Our feasibility study showed that 50 percent of Americans don't care what they eat as long as it's quick, cheap and tastes good," Wengerd says. "The other 50 percent care, but maybe 20 percent are willing to pay a premium for it. They're looking for wholesome food that is safe and they want to buy it from people they trust."

20%?!?! Well, to say the least that is not very many. Oh yeah---in the scheme of things population wise I am sure it is a lot of people but well...really it's not even a quarter of the population.

O.k. so the next part that came to my attention has to do with my own products. Yarn, fiber, fleeces etc.
We have a local show coming up (Christmas on the Square in Chickamauga, Georgia) and we will be renting a booth there to sell our remaining pelts, fibers,yarns and fleeces from this year.
Recently I put some of my yarns in the local hometown museum ---per their request. I went recently to pick them up to take to this show I will be going to. Unfortunately none of them that I had left there had sold. The lady who runs the museum told me that she gets raves over my items but they don't sell because everyone feels they are too pricey. Well, for one---it is a "small hometown" museum not MoMA in New York City by any means of the word, so of course people don't walk in expecting to find "quality"products that are somewhat costly. Nor are they expecting one of a kind art. Which is basically what my yarns are. And two---it's not that they necessarily go there specifically for yarns or fibers either. But...

Anyway what does this have to do with the above title? Well, fair wages---for me of course.
Let me just lay out what goes into developing my items start to finish and as you read it remember that many "value added" products from other farms have just as much effort in them as my products do. Then the next time you are considering specialty items---whether it's art, yarns, gourmet foods, organic products or whatever-----you can decide if the price really is worth spending based on a greater understanding of the work that may be involved.

So, yes, my products can be expensive. Why? Well, because in the end everyone touching my product, except for me, receives a "living wage". I suppose that living wage is open to interpretation but let me give you some examples of things that reflect the cost of my finished products. No where in this little "dialog" will I subject you to the "I have to spend my time feeding and caring for them" cost either. Why you ask? Because that particular "wage" is paid back when I have good food from my farm on my table. I do not pass that particular cost on to those that buy my added value items.

So, for the complete cost of fleeces and yarns here we go:

First: I shear my sheep. And lets just pretend that whatever lambs they have pay for their for their feed throughout the year. At this point my wool starts at zero dollars. However---it takes me about 15 minutes with blades (initial investment of about $400 dollars) and some electricity and shearing oil to get the fleeces off my sheep. I get about 2 to 1/2 pounds of usable fleece off of them after I spend time skirting manure and the worst junk out of them (another 15 to 30 minutes of my time per fleece). If I don't skirt---the mill can potentially refuse my wool or worse the end product might not be the best.
How much should I pay myself? What is my time worth here?

Second---I box my fleeces up and spend my husband's money to ship them to a mill. This includes the gas to drive them to the post office.
Not all mills are equal in either price or quality of finished product but the average to wash, card and turn my fleeces into basic roving is about $11 a pound based on sending in at least 5 pounds of fiber (some require no less than 8 pounds) of each color I want run. If I don't have the minimum I either have to store the fleeces until I do or pay a set up fee ranging from $10 to $25 dollars extra per batch.
Do I pay myself for the labor of boxing and shipping like I would receive if I did that job for another company?

Third---I pay to have them shipped back to me.

Fourth---I take my product and using my electric scales weigh out 2 ounce sections of roving, wrap it in a paper label I make from purchased supplies (marked with my farm name, price, weight and fiber content). Do I pay myself for the time invested? Should I consider the electricity? Obviously paper and ink has to be considered.

Alternative fourth---I dye my fiber (my best seller by far). This uses not only the dye I purchase from a company paying others at least minimum wage, but my time, my gas to run my stove, vinegar to set the color and my water that I purchase from the city. It is also wrapped in a label.

Last option----I spin the wool. Dyed or natural matters not. To make a fairly bulky 2 ply (the quickest to spin) requires about 2 hours of my time to get about 100yards from start to finish and about 3.5 to 5 ounces of fiber depending. There are people that can spin faster but most spin at about my rate. If I spin something thinner it requires much more time. Lace weight takes a long time. I don't spin that for sale anymore---only personal use. So should I charge $2 or $3 or even $5 dollars and hour for spinning (less than minimum wage) or more?

So....basically the point I am trying to come to is what IS a fair price for something. For me my competition is cheap labor yarns in the $4 range, made by large companies in other countries, who get volume breaks and buy wool from farmers that raise sheep for meat. Most of those farmers consider their wool a throw a way side product. No matter that I try and raise a premium product that's sustainable and organic my price for my labor is what kills me.
So consider that the next time you are trying to decide exactly how much are you willing to pay.

Think about also, that if I charged just $3 a hour for my labor, the cost of living in the U.S does not allow for me to be able to support myself on that price---if that were my sole supporting job I mean. Of course, just considering my wage at $3 an hour and no cost for washing, shipping, dying etc, the price for my yarn is about $2 higher than the "average" competition already when I spin yarn. How could a person in the U.S even make a living on something like that. To bad that some of these skills will fall to the wayside because of our "advances in technology". All these technologies do cost us though. The unseen costs of water use, electricity, large buildings to heat and cool and all the concrete invested in the parking areas etc etc.

Another thing you may not have know is that most farmers that sell to the local "wool pools" average about .50 cents per pound of wool. Even for a large sheep that is about $4. Just enough to pay the guy who shears the sheep. Or maybe they made .50 cents or a buck per sheep. Whoopee!---their going to get rich on that aren't they!

When we, as Americans, are trying to decide how much to pay people for something we have to remember not to compare their job here in the U.S to the same job in say...China or India. Not only do those people in those countries make less, but even if they make a "good wage" for their country---- their cost of living is still quite a bit less than living here. In the end it gives them an advantage when comparing my product made here in the U.S to theirs. By the way---look at the label the next time you buy yarn. Most all of it is made overseas. Just like a lot of things we buy now.

So flip that object over----even if you still buy it---and look to see where it was made at the next time you are out shopping. You might be surprised at how infrequently you see "made in America".

Don't get me wrong---I am not whining about money. Well, in a general sort of way I am.
However I do want people to understand exactly what is encompassed in the cost of a farmer's prices.
As I said I wouldn't in the beginning---- I didn't even touch on the time I spend feeding or caring for my animals---nor food costs or fencing. At one time land prices were set, per acre, at the price of the lambs that a person could get off them in one year. After that---your land was paid for and you could profit from that point on. No longer is that the case for farmers. Land is very expensive and that is just the first hurdle before feed, animal purchases, labor, equipment, storage facilities and on and on.

Here's an article on wealth and income inequality. to top it all off. It has some corporate issues in it----but I am not even trying to bash corporations or anything. I just want people to consider wages and what people really need to live on.

Have a great day all!!


http://www.twofroghome.com said...

Have you read "The Wal-Mart Effect"? The author talks a great deal about this very subject. He talks a great deal about how Wal-Mart and other large corporations have outsourced so much that most folks think/believe everything should be cheap...

Anyway, great post..

farmer, vet and feeder of all animals said...

No I haven't read it but I will. I am sure though that I have a pretty good idea of what it will say!

Shauna said...

I'm catching up on your blog, and I must say, you really talk about some very pertinent issues that all of us should be thinking about. By the way, I am an American, and I am more concerned with healthy, humanely produced, and safe food than I am with cheap food. And most importantly, I am interested in supporting local smallholding farmers. Since we started eating locally produced food for the bulk of our diet 6 years ago, I haven't seen that much of a difference in our costs. The fact is that we are eating whole foods, which tend to cost less than the unhealthy, craptastic processed junk that a lot of people eat. The bottom line is that I (and many people I know who are NOT rich) are willing to pay more to ensure that farmers get paid a fair price for their food, so that they can stay on their land and help support the small, rural communities that we are losing left and right to development and monocropping, industrial agriculture. Thanks for the great post.

farmer, vet and feeder of all animals said...

Shauna---not even considering all the things you brought up. Farm fresh food REALLY does taste better. That in and of itself is worth the extra money. However I also get extra vitamins and minerals and no chemical additives :-D Always a great thing in my opinion!