Bohanon: Why One Economist Cans His Own Spinach

June 8, 2015

by Cecil Bohanon, Ph.D.

On June 6, I harvested a bushel basket of spinach and mustard greens planted in early April. Most of the crop was washed, chopped, placed in 10 half-pint Ball jars, and processed for an hour in a pressure canner yielding about two kilograms of cooked greens for future consumption. The rest of the crop went to a spinach salad my wife and I had with dinner.

Economists teach about the benefits of specialization, so isn’t an economist who cans his own vegetables schizophrenic? The economist should specialize in producing economic commentary and use the proceeds to buy greens in the market. So why do I can food?

Well, er, because it’s cheaper to grow greens than to buy them: The spinach and mustard greens were “free”? But not really. I had to buy the seed, extra soil, soil enhancers, canning jars and lids. Add the time, effort and sweat I put into the soil preparation, the planting, watering, weeding, harvesting, washing, chopping, cooking and processing the greens, and my half-pint jars are likely the most expensive canned greens on the face of the planet.

So should I say I am adopting a philosophy of oneness with the earth, living only on food I produce on my own; I am part of the whole food — local food movement and nothing is more local than your backyard? No, that doesn’t work either.

My wife and I dressed our spinach salad with blue cheese, olive oil and balsamic vinegar. These dressings were not harvested from our backyard, but came from exotic and far-off places such as Wisconsin, Italy and Greece. If we only ate what we produced, our household’s caloric intake would decline by 99 percent.

It feels good and wholesome to eat your own lettuce and dine on a free-range chicken bought from a local farmer you know by name (perhaps both the farmer’s and the chicken’s name). But let’s face it — most of us are going to get our food from the mass, impersonal, corporate food-supply chain.

OK, how about this: Food grown in the backyard is better quality than the store-bought stuff. This is going somewhere. Saturday night’s home-grown spinach is as fresh as it gets, and any genuine Hoosier can recite the delights of home-grown tomatoes. On the other hand, when a slug slinked out of the backyard lettuce on my plate last summer, my youngest son was not convinced by my defense: “Look, son, extra natural protein!”

So in the final analysis, the backyard vegetable farmer pursues his hobby because he likes it. It probably isn’t helping his pocketbook or the planet; it isn’t about high ideals or virtue; it’s just fun, and that’s all it needs to be — no other defense needed even for an economist.

The late Russell Kirk reported that during World War II, the city of Geneva, Switzerland, offered residents individual garden plots in public locations. They were so popular that, after the war, citizens of the city wanted them to continue. Economist Wilhelm Roepke thought the program was great; economist Ludwig von Mises thought it was a boondoggle. Upon touring the plots, “Von Mises shook his head sadly: ’A very inefficient way of producing foodstuffs,’ he lamented. ‘Perhaps so,’ Roepke replied. ‘But perhaps a very efficient way of producing human happiness.’”

Cecil Bohanon, Ph.D., is a professor of economics at Ball State University.

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