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Organic vs Conventional Plant Prices 03.07.12


Go into any large garden shop and the price of organic produce is inflated way beyond what is justifiable by the costs of production and materials.



Organic seeds is a classic case, even from a specialist organic supplier like our local Graine del pais , which has a great range of ancient seeds types as well as the full vegetable growers spread tend towards the more costly side. A good solution is to go straight to a professional seed supplier, my favourite is Agrosemens. The seeds, particularly when bought in 10 gramme packets represent very good value. But apart form me who wants a 1,000 basil seeds? Well stored correctly, or even frozen, they will last a good 3-5 years, and secondly if your group together with follow gardeners and buy collectively then you will be surprised how many seeds you get through in a season.

In Spring I dropped into VillaVerde and was aghast at the fact they were selling a single certified organic Tomato plant for 3.50 euro, as opposed to 1.50 for a similar conventional Tomatoe plant. Now it’s true that some products in the organic process costs more than their industrial alternatives.

But let’s break it down, firstly the pot is the same in both organic and industrial growing, between 5 and 8 cents for a 9cm by 10cm pot. A pot that size takes around 0.3 litre of soil. Now I pay 9 euro per 70 litre bag of certified organic , which means that the organic soil needed costs 4 cents, lets be generous and say that conventional soil cost half the price, say 2 cents. So far organic costs a massive 2 cents more per plant. Organic seeds are more expensive that treated ones, however, particularly when bought in bulk form professional suppliers the variance per plant is in the 1/000 of a euro per plant. Seed fertility is not as good with organic seeds than with industrially coated seeds, so organic producers tend to say pop slightly as many into a pot to ensure success.

Now of course comes the vague bit, conventional plants will receive a good NPK fertiliser, if they are grown in a greenhouse a fungicide is probably applied probably combined with a pesticide. I can’t say what all these chemical cost, but broken down to a per plant cost it will be a couple of cents top. In organic production, and I speak for myself here, I find the high quality of the planting soil I use contains everything nutrient my plants need until retail time. They may get a spray of mild baking soda mixture or home made nettle tea if I see signs of problems, but a well vented location in the Poly Tunnel, and spreading the plants out instead of growing in one large block means that I rarely get problems. Large scale organic operations may be quicker reaching for a commercial organic solution, but again the cost per plant is in the handful of cents range and not higher.

So if the material price difference is in effect minimal, were does the extra cost come from?- Well three main causes. Labour, marketing and distribution economies of scale and retailer pricing.

Labour

The first one is perhaps the most significant, organic growers spend a lot more time ’off their tractors’ as they say here in France, constantly working with plants, inspecting them for any signs of problems- this is necessary to ensure a quality produce. If say each plant gets 3 more minutes of attention in organic than conventional, and the minimum wage, which is how farmers calculate the cost of man hours here, is around 9.40 euros so each organic plant gets 47 cents more labour than conventional.

Marketing and distribution economies of scale

This really depends on the size of your operation, for a small producer like myself this represents a serious cost, both in direct costs of driving to markets, renting a stand and in the opportunity cost of packing the Landrover the night before, getting up at 5am and the 6 or so hours I’m at the market, packing up and driving home- and the quantities of coffee needed to keep me going. However for larger operations, I recently visited an organic producer who pumps out 60 million plants a year, the costs are not so different from conventional production, although the total orders per client are smaller so a broader range of clients is essential for big producers with the associated higher costs in sales and business development.

Retailer Pricing

Certain supermarkets claim that they do not charge their usual retailer mark up on organic produce. I remain sceptical. However what is clear is that many garden centres and suppliers do not feel the same reticence. In the VillaVerde’s case the cost of production between a conventional and organic Tomato as I have illustrated is no more than 55 cents yet the price difference is 2 euros. Some one is making a killing out of organic, and its not the buyer.

So my advice is cut out the middle man, attend local markets, find small scale local producers and buy direct. We get more money, you get cheaper plants and someone who will be more than willing to give advice on how to get the best out of your purchase.

Peter Shield

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