Saturday, April 28, 2012

The Value of Alternative Food Options

The essay that follows is not what I normally post on this blog. Its intended audience is not my CSA members, my main readers, but other small farmers. After much deliberation over whether or not my blog is an appropriate venue for these words, I've chosen to post the essay here in order to give it an online home. Once posted here, I can place it in front of its intended audience. I hope it is obvious that the essay is not aimed at my CSA members, who have clearly made the decision to support small farmers. 

Thank you all for bearing with me as I get this off my chest.

As the co-owner and farmer of a 60 member CSA presently in its fourth year of production, I am gratefully aware of the current irrepressible wave of people eager to connect with the source of their food. When folks find out what I do they beg to stop by the farm and get their hands in the soil or show their kids where food comes from. Average bloggers aspire to butcher their own chickens. It's awesome. But for all the excitement about local food and enthusiasm for farming, there is another wave that small farmers cannot help but notice: the wave of consumers gritting their teeth and quietly asking their farmers to bring down the price. We charge two dollars for 12 stems of kale and in our community (an especially low income area) that is considered exorbitantly expensive. What is that about? Why have Americans come to expect high quality food for unreasonably low prices, and what - if anything - can the current crop of small farmers do about it?
                First, we have to acknowledge that Americans have a long history of separating ourselves from the source of our foods, even at a cost to our health. In an 1803 letter to soldier and farmer David Williams, Thomas Jefferson lamented the fact that the science of agriculture had lost "its primary dignity in the eyes of men". In our country's infancy - well before anyone could imagine the levels of mechanization our food system would eventually encompass - Jefferson already saw that Americans were looking away from their farmers, willing to accept the food on their plates without a critical understanding of how it arrived there. One hundred years after Jefferson attempted to sound the alarm, Upton Sinclair's The Jungle (Who can forget poor Jurgis, the Forrest Gump of his time?), described a dangerously unsanitary centralized food system that would have been entirely foreign to Jefferson, and famously, albeit unintentionally, terrified America into scrutinizing its food system. Were mistakes rectified? Did the public cry out for wholesome foods instead of a system which delivered mass-produced-rendered-whatnot? No. We just cleaned up the messiest parts. A little.
                Laws were created to ensure meat inspection and prevent the sale of poisonous medicines. These laws eventually led to the creation of the Food and Drug Administration as overseer of America's food and medical systems. They led to an institutionalized food system complete with line after line of food safety standards for farmers and food handlers to meet. A system poised to become even larger and further removed from the people it feeds. I'm not going to argue that food safety is unimportant. If a centralized food system is going to exist, then certainly standards need to be in place to ensure that all of the centralized food is handled appropriately. Such a system, left without oversight, will harbor cut corners with the potential to harm workers and consumers. Instead, I'm going to argue something entirely different. I'm going to argue that Americans need to fully understand what it means to feed themselves with food that was produced in an institutionalized, centralized food system, and also understand what exactly they are paying for when they choose to purchase and eat food that was grown outside of that system.
                An institutionalized system in which food carries a government guarantee of safety is convenient and, I believe, necessary to a centralized food system. Consumers can be comfortable in the knowledge that their food isn't going to cause them immediate harm, and growers know exactly what is expected of them in order to bring their products to market. But comfort and convenience come at a price. If every grower aims to meet the same expectations, eventually every grower ends up growing more or less the same thing, which leads to a lack of choices when we buy food. Sure, we have a lot of options at the grocery store, but they are the same options at every store. If a consumer wants something else it simply isn't available. If a grower wants to produce and sell something that doesn't already have standards set for it within our institutionalized food system he is faced with challenges - whether laws, the high start-up costs of following an uncharted path, or apprehensive produce managers - which often prove insurmountable. What exactly is the loss here? What would we have access to if our food system was not limited by standards? I can't say. We truly do not know what we are missing.
                If institutionalizing our food has bred sameness, centralizing it has bred true uniformity. The centralization of our food system has also left us with lower quality, less nutritious foods and, it's at the heart of the price issue.
                What do I mean by centralized? In a way our food system is the opposite of centralized. We know the story. A large seed company produces tomato seeds at a facility (why don't they call it a farm?) in China or Mexico. That seed is grown by a tomato farmer in Florida who is growing a monocrop in sandy soil that isn't really fit to support vegetables. The poor growing conditions mean the farmer has to apply synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and fungicides which are produced all over the world. The resulting tomatoes are shipped to regional packing facilities or factories where they are packed or processed and sent along once again to stores or restaurants. So, in truth, hands in several countries have taken part in the production of any given mealy, pale orange, salad bar offering - which, as I said, seems the opposite of centralized. (We all know how bad this is for the environment and our taste buds, but it is kind of a win for teamwork, isn't it?) What hasn't happened is any sort of farmer to consumer connection. Those individual interactions between farmers and eaters across the country have been removed from our food system in favor of efficiency. Instead farmers are encouraged to specialize in one crop which is sent on to someone else for marketing or further processing. It's the specialization of farmers and the elimination of the farmer from marketing the end product that I'm referring to when I say centralized.
                 The uniformity, diminished quality, and flat-out cheapness of food enter the picture as farmers fit themselves and their products into this centralized system. Vegetables have to fit into an assembly line, and assembly lines only function if all of the parts are interchangeable. They also need to stand up to a lot of handling and all of the traveling described above. I'm pretty sure farmers and consumers alike are all too familiar with the drawbacks of this part of the picture. We know that breeding vegetables for toughness and uniformity rather than taste and nutrition leads to flavorless low nutrient vegetables. But equally important to realize is that this assembly line aspect of the system also makes the vegetables cheaper, just as any mass produced item is cheaper than its artisanal counterpart. A hand thrown vase costs more than a factory produced vase. Consumers see that the two items are different, with different production costs, and are willing to pay more when they desire the higher quality handmade item. Vegetables raised from seed to market by the same local grower are equally different from vegetables raised on big farms - even big certified organic farms, which are just another arm of the existing food system, with its own set of occasionally questionable standards (though organic is the arm within the system producing the healthiest, least environmentally destructive food) - and consumers need to learn to understand that difference. 
                Clearly food from small farms is not the same as food produced by large agribusinesses, and it makes sense that it should carry a different price tag, but shouldn't farmers define what it is, rather than point to what it is not? I was going to list the individual choices my husband and I make every day to ensure that we provide our customers with nutritious vegetables while simultaneously building soil fertility and avoiding the destruction of other resources in the process, but one great thing about small farmers is that every one of them is different. We each do our best to make the right decisions for our particular circumstances and grow the best foods for our customers - a stark contrast to the uniform, profit driven growing methods seen within the mainstream food system. A description of our particular growing methods is just one of many awesome alternatives and so does not fully illustrate the differences between small, local farms and behemoth agribusinesses. Another fabulous thing about small farmers is that if customers want to know about their growing methods or make sure their food is safe, they can simply ask their farmer. Small farmers are right there, selling food directly to their customers.
                As a farmer I know it's a challenge to keep all of the above in mind when standing behind a table at the farmers' market. My vegetables are my babies, my art, and, in some ways, I suffer for them accordingly. When a customer questions their value it is difficult not to feel personally hurt and respond on an emotional level. But if I truly believe in what I am doing as a local farmer (and I do) I, and other small farmers like me, need to hold my head high and confidently remind people that I am offering an alternative to the existing broken food system in this country and my prices simply reflect the cost of thoughtfully produced food. At that point, the consumer must make his own thoughtful decision.

1 comment:

  1. What a great post about the contrast of the institutional and local foods. This issue of cost of food produced for a local market is something that we farmers, and supporters of local food must continue to talk about. The seemingly higher prices of local food are often a reflection of an attempt at a living wage for the farmer; in contrast, the institutional food system is built on exploiting labor and resources to cheapen (in both senses) food. Thank you very much for posting this.