The Curious Religion of the $176 Green Beans

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Sunday my wife
and I watched the PBS program "Victory Garden" which featured
a "victory garden" project in San Francisco last summer.
This consisted of about 2 acres on a plaza in front of City Hall
which was transformed via sandbags and imported soil into an urban
garden. Green beans, corn, tomatoes and other assorted veggies were
being grown — organically we're told — in round sandbag encircled
plots. Water was supplied by an in-ground plastic drip irrigation
system.

The show's
reporter swooned and burbled over the wonderful benefits of this
project. He interviewed two young waspish males who were the project
managers along with the SF mayor who was equally enthusiastic. The
garden had attracted a large number of sightseers who wandered among
the plots as if they had never seen garden vegetables growing before.

Viewers were
informed of the origins of the "victory garden" concept
and name (wartime government propaganda to encourage civilians to
grow their own food) and were repeatedly told about the healthful
benefits of organic produce and sustainable gardening. On cue Berkeley
berchef Alice Waters arrived parroting the same mantra.
News clips showed what were described as volunteers doing some of
the original planting.

The project
managers were also promoting a citywide urban-gardening program
and eagerly hoped this would go nationwide. More puzzling was why
the PBS reporter took all this at face value, as if growing garden
vegetables was some brand new idea. Every week on "Victory
Garden" there is a segment about using garden-grown vegetables
in soup, stew or salad. Yet here it was touted as breaking news.

As sometimes
backyard gardeners ourselves, I asked my wife just how sustainable
this project really was. I couldn't resist doing a rough calculation
of what this project might cost.

Assuming a
short three-month growing season, I arrived at the following:

  • direct cost
    of soil, sandbags and sand, nursery grown starter plants, irrigation
    system, transport to site, $25,000
  • cost of
    two project managers ($60K/yr each) for three months each, $30,000
  • cost of
    one 24-hour security guard on site, 3 guards ($60K/yr) for three
    daily shifts for three months, $45,000
  • cost of
    one project office/utilities, @ $1,500/month for three months,
    $4,500
  • cost of
    on-site water and power, $500/month, $1,500

This conservative
estimate totals $106,000. Security might seem expensive but you
aren't going to have a successful garden in downtown San Francisco
if it isn't guarded around the clock from dogs, drunks, the homeless,
vandals and other poachers. Project managers don't work for free
either. I didn't include removal costs either; those sandbags aren't
going to last forever.

Based on the
TV footage only about 15% of the actual area was cultivated. My
estimate is a potential of about 1,000 servings of vegetables under
cultivation. Due to disease, weather, fungus and insects, I assume
about a 60% viable harvest from the total potential yield, or 600
net servings.

Dividing the
total cost of $106,000 by 600 yields $176.67 cost per vegetable
serving. Assuming that a normal portion (4–5 oz.) of organic
produce costs about 50 cents retail, this public garden project
(using free planting and harvest labor) is about 353 times more
expensive than your local supermarket or organic food emporium.
This is a liberal production estimate since certain crops like corn
often fail in small plots and San Francisco summer weather is notorious
for fog and cool temperatures. This analysis also ignores the subsidy
of free land and labor.

Conveniently
the "Victory Garden" episode did not address the ultimate
crop results from this garden.

Upon hearing
the term "sustainable" by the reporter for the umpteenth
time (he was positively giddy over this project) and my rough financial
calculation results I launched in to full rant mode before the show
was over. My long suffering spouse offered consolation.

"This
is the secular equivalent of religion," she assured me, "so
these claims aren't meant to be taken seriously. These are articles
of faith, not science."

And right she
is.

This type of
food production is only "sustainable" if you can wheedle
a $352.50 subsidy out of someone else to make it possible. Of course
no one voluntarily pays this. It is "sustained" totally
by money extorted from hapless taxpayers.

Readers of
LRC know the only way this madness is sustainable is at the point
of a government gun.

We know that
voluntary market exchanges — which happen tens of thousands of times
a day in grocery stores and markets nationwide — are the only true
sustainable form of agriculture. You pay your fifty cents for a
bag of fresh organic green beans and sustain an entire supply chain
going back to the farmer.

Of course the
government subsidized PBS network will not follow you into the market
to marvel at this miracle happening every day. Nor will anyone be
gushing over how sustainable it is. Instead we take its (sustained)
existence for granted.

This "Victory
Garden" style religion of sustainability exists only in the
fuzzy nexus of statist logic, where concrete municipal plazas burst
forth with yummy organic veggies at a cost of only $176 per helping.
Prices do not matter to socialists at PBS and San Francisco municipal
government. Costs are irrelevant in the new religion of Green Sustainability.
In this belief system "sustainability" means that the
trivial barriers of economic reality are of no real concern.

This is sustainable
of course, so long as the government doesn't run out of bullets
and prison space to keep plunder flowing to the new state funded
priesthood of Sustainability. Who are we to question their revealed
Truth? Economic reality is for unbelievers and heretics.

Don't those
$176 green beans taste really, really sustainable? Just shut up
and eat your veggies…

February
2, 2009

Mike
Holmes [send him mail]
is a practicing CPA in the Houston area.

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