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Fast. Good. Cheap. Pick two. How the Iron Triangle Applies to Your Food Choices

The Iron Triangle. Pick two of fast, good and cheap.

We can't have it all, although we think we can somehow engineer reality to get it done the way we want it, when we want it, for less. I know I have this mentality.

When I want to fix something in my house, build a new greenhouse, a new garden gate, fill in the blank, my carpenter says, Pick two of these: fast, good, cheap. If it's fast and good, it will not be cheap. If it is good and cheap, it will not be fast. And of course if it is fast and cheap, well... not good. I am finding this to be the case when I shop on Amazon, somewhat guiltily. I want it, I need it, I had the idea for it, and I wanted it yesterday. What a mentality we have gotten ourselves into.

And so I am retraining myself. I watch my carpenter walk slowly, take breaks, sand carefully, and build after measuring twice. Oftentimes, he will be nearing the end of a project, but it's time to go, so he just puts it at the top of the next workday's business. It's a pattern that I am working on adopting and it takes time and reminding.

I am working on a new For Farmers Movement project and have been interviewing chefs across the country. It is so much fun to talk with chefs about food. They have such respect for it, such reverence, and such a keen awareness about the problems our food system faces. Their livelihoods depend on it. It must be good. Beyond good. The purchase of it must allow them to earn a profit. And it must come out of the kitchen in a timely way. This project will reveal so much of what's in our food systems and our attitudes about food. I can't wait to share it with you.

I had a very candid talk with Chef Paul Hargrove who is the new head chef at a new restaurant in New York City that will flank Union Square Park, home of the famed Union Square Greenmarket where dozens of farmers come three times a week to sell their goods. The produce from the green market will take center stage at this new seafood restaurant.

Chef Paul has famous restaurants notched in his belt including Stone Barns and the Standard. He grew up in Louisiana, although the twang he might have otherwise had if he stayed near NOLA has certainly been New Yorked out of him. He grew up under the wing of a stepfather farmer, with whom he sparred occasionally about government subsidies and farmer pride over the idea of making farming easier. It was an education that supplemented what he took in at the Culinary Institute of America (the real CIA) and when he scuttled out from under one wing to under another.

The famed Stone Barns is particularly farm-facing, farmer-supporting, and righteous about the need for quality ingredients. Chef Paul takes that with him and also maintains a healthy sense of reality. Most people can't afford a $300 meal. And everyone deserves quality, healthy food that doesn't ravage the earth as it's produced.

Chef Paul and I were talking ethos and mottos and after a few weeks of noodling, he got back to me with this. "Fast, Cheap, and Good… pick two. If it’s fast and cheap it won’t be good. If it’s cheap and good, it won’t be fast. If it’s fast and good, it won’t be cheap. Fast, cheap, and good … pick two." Chef Paul has this laminated and it's hanging on his wall.

This quote is known as the iron triangle or triple constraint and is used in carpentry or construction, food production, software development, and easily in any pursuit you are considering. I think it is best to consider this triangle first to avoid the headache of falling into the idea that you could have all three.

Fast and Good. Here we have good, healthy, maybe organic, pasture-raised, rotationally grazed food production on land that comes out of the process better, stronger, and with more nutrient-rich soil. It is not cheap to produce or to procure. Farms can function at varied scales under this model.

Good and Cheap. This model has some similarities with the model above, but food in this model does not have bells and whistles and is likely very limited in scope. Maybe it's just egg production. It is not sold at high volumes. Eggs when the eggs are ready. And when chickens take some weeks off from laying in the winter months, you don't get eggs and the farmers don't get a paycheck.

Fast and Cheap. This model is more industrialized. Efficiencies are built in. We don't have to work cover crops to add nitrogen to depleted soils, we add chemicals at a large scale. We pack cattle into CAFOs and get them to slaughter weight with grains, and growth promotants in a hurry. We have more products and fewer people tending them for quality, health, and welfare.

There are downsides to each model. I am sure you can think of other examples for each. Feel free to reach out to me with your thoughts. Mainly, I am interested to hear this: when you are considering your own food choices, which two would you pick?



Dana DiPrima is the founder of the For Farmers Movement. For Farmers supports American farmers by sharing their stories, replacing myths with facts, and providing them with mini-grants and other helpful resources. Dana is the host of the Talk Farm to Me podcast featuring farmers and farm issue experts from across the country. She authors a weekly letter in addition to this blog. You can subscribe here. And you can join the For Farmers Movement to support your farmers here. You can also follow her on Instagram and Threads.


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