Do the math

In 1939, a year or so after he moved to Maine from New York City, E.B. White wrote an essay called “Security,” (anthologized in One Man’s Meat) in which he documents his first attempt to raise turkeys. Five of his six birds died, and he calculated that the cost of raising the sole survivor was $402.85. In 1939 dollars.

About a third of that was his time. And, as he notes: “There is nothing harder to estimate than a writer’s time, nothing harder to keep track of. There are moments – moments of sustained creation – when his time is fairly valuable; and there are hours and hours when a writer’s time isn’t worth the paper he is not writing anything on.”

Even without his time, though, that’s one expensive turkey.

Intuitively, eating from land and sea seems like it should cost less than eating from Stop & Shop. After all, the food is free. Sometimes, though, it’s like those ads on television where you get a Porsche for $19.95. The $70,000 shipping and handling is in the fine print.

We just traded in our 2008 shellfishing license for 2009, and filled out a survey asking how much shellfish we harvested over the course of the year. Best we could figure, we got five pecks of oysters and fifteen pecks of clams. That’s fifty gallons of shellfish – almost a gallon a week. The fish-market retail value of all that is probably nigh-on $1000.

Weigh that against the twenty bucks for our shellfishing license, and it’s a clear win.

But then there are the handling costs. There are clam rakes and peck baskets. There are waders and shellfishing gloves. We’re all in at about $350, including upgrading the cheap nylon waders to the expensive neoprene ones. (Don’t ever buy the cheap version of anything that might leak.) Even if you don’t amortize the equipment over its life, we’re still ahead. If you do amortize it, we’re way ahead – just how far ahead depends on who’s doing the amortizing. I figure waders last twenty years, and clam rakes, a thousand. Kevin figures five years for everything.

Either way, we’re in the black on shellfishing. Fish fishing is an iffier proposition. Licenses are $27.50, and we each need our own. Then there’s the handling – the rods and reels, line and lures, nets and flies and tip-ups. And, oh yeah, there’s the boat (shipping!). If you divide our costs so far by our trout so far, we’re running about three hundred dollars per fish – and it’s a really small boat. If we get the bigger boat that Kevin keeps talking about, I calculate we’re going to have to catch 3,472 trout to break even. But then, the bigger boat lets us go for stripers, and maybe even lobster, so who knows?

Land-based enterprises can also go either way. Gardening is a definite win, particularly because we get unlimited free compost from the dump and we grow haut couture heirloom tomatoes. Hunting, though? I can’t say because we haven’t done it yet. One deer’s worth of venison would pay for a lot of camo gear; a pheasant or two, not so much. (We already have guns, so they’re grandfathered in.)

In aggregate, it seems clear that our food-collecting enterprise is a net positive. Not so much a positive that we’d be satisfied if we were doing it for the money, but positive enough so we don’t throw in the towel and move back to New York.

But that’s before we factor in my time …