Reflections on a Sliding Price Scale

Co-farmer Stefan here. I wrote the essay below as an op/ed piece that was published here in the Intelligencer (paid subscription required to view the whole newspaper version).

I’m biased, but personally, I think sliding-scale prices are fascinating. I wanted to encourage readers to think a little bit about what they are actually valuing with their purchasing dollars … and what they would like to be supporting with their buying choices. Perhaps you’ll find some interest in the essay, and if you have any comments, do let me know!


Pick Your Own Price

Imagine that you could choose the price you pay for the things that you purchase. You would have the freedom to choose any price within a specified range, and you would receive the same product whether you paid at the high end or the low end of the range. Totally your choice. It’s just a question of how much you want to support the merchant. How much would you pay? Would you pay the minimum? The maximum? Right in the middle? Whatever your answer is, why would you choose that approach?

I manage a new Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm in Upper Black Eddy, Pennsylvania. The farm is named Tinicum CSA, and we’ve made a real-life experiment out of these pricing questions by offering the shares in our farm on a sliding price scale. Basically, we sell memberships in our farm at the beginning of the year, and then our members come to the farm each week during our harvest season to pick up their share of the produce. The twist is that we decided to offer our members a price range for our shares instead of a fixed price. Folks are free to choose what they will pay within the range.

My co-manager and I both apprenticed at a CSA farm with a sliding price scale. It seemed to work fine at that farm, and we liked the possibility of making our farm accessible to a wider diversity of members. We wouldn’t be able to offer the lower end of the sliding scale without some folks signing up at the higher end, and the lower end of the scale makes our farm just a little bit more affordable to anyone operating within financial constraints.

So that’s the setup. But the interesting part is the result: The result is that the majority of our members have chosen to pay above the minimum. Which seems a little bit counterintuitive, a little bit countercultural. Aren’t people “supposed to be” seeking out the most gain for the smallest price? It has left me wondering, “What does this mean, really?”

A couple things seem clear enough. For one, it means that a lot of people actively want to support our farm. Like us as farmers, they believe in what we’re doing enough to give us a bit of voluntary financial support. Great! Thank you! And this is no big surprise. If people were never willing to put up money for a cause, then something like Kickstarter.com would never have gotten off the ground and non-profits could scarsely exist. It’s also clear that plenty of folks around here can afford to pay more than the bare minimum for their food. Again, this is no big surprise, and it’s wonderful to know that there is so much generosity associated with that ability.

Pushing beyond that, however, I really appreciate how our sliding price scale has opened up huge new dimensions in the relationship between John and I as farmers and our members as our customers. It’s not simply an economic relationship anymore. It’s not just, “You give me money; I give you lettuce.” Now it’s also about goodwill. Support. Community. Now it’s partly about some of our members choosing to pay at the high end of the scale and therefore willingly subsidizing the membership of other members. As such, our members are committing to each other as well as to their farmers.

Moreover, it powerfully reworks the question of value. What’s the value of a share in our farm? Well, without a price tag to assert that its value is precisely $29.95, a potential customer has to consider freshly what is the value of what they’re buying. Sure, the value is partly about the quantity and quality fruits and vegetables that our members receive, but it’s also partly about supporting a local economy, supporting non-toxic farming practices, helping a neighbor make a decent living, teaching your kids where good food comes from, and much more.

What if a clothing boutique worked this way? What if, instead of glancing at price tags, you had to choose what the shirt or scarf was worth? What would go through your head? How much would you pay, and what would you be trying to fund with your payment?

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