How Big Is Small?
Being a visual person, I picture my food-knowledge growth like this:
So I’m this little question-mark-head and because I have certainly not reached the end of the journey, I’m partway down the line. Learning, but I have a lot to learn. I eat better today than I did a year ago and a year from now, I will have changed again. The important thing to me is that I’m asking questions and moving forward. If you haven’t made all the food transitions I’ve made, no big deal. I’d just encourage you to get on the line! Ask questions and start moving forward.
You can see that the line is a continuum, a process and not a goal. And interestingly, neither end is visible. Yes, I can look back at some wonderful, formative food events in my life. Instructional, I suppose, but the past is also riddled with highly-processed foods too and who wants to think about that? Right. So I let the line ‘o knowledge slink off into the unknown behind me, thank you.
My desire to eat the way I do, which is as local as possible, from farmers whose names I know and, starting last year, lots of home-grown stuff too, is informed by a variety of factors. Eating fresh, local foods:
- is tasty
- is healthier for me
- is healthier for the farms, farm animals and our environment
- is healthier for our local economy (I like to think – keep reading)
- is incredibly rewarding and tasty
Did I mention how tasty fresh produce is? And how you’ll swell with pride when you slice a tomato you grew, sprinkle it with olive oil and sea salt and offer it for dinner? Wow, I highly recommend this to you. It’s an incredible feeling.
Viewed from above, that line would probably look a little more like this:
And I’m writing right this minute because the line just took a small step forward and a huge jump off to the side at the same time. I’d seen and read a little about the town of Hardwick, Vermont and the fact that it is “reinventing itself based on a local food economy” or some such. Sounded great when I heard the soundbites. I even admit to twittering that I wanted to move to Hardwick, which I only meant symbolically.
So I’m reading Ben Hewitt’s book, The Town That Food Saved which is about Hardwick and I am thankful to him for shaking my worldview a little. He makes two points that are interesting to consider:
First, he doesn’t like the term “sustainable”, largely because as he argues, “…agriculture is a human manipulation of a natural process.” He allows there might be a sustainable version, but he doubts there is one that can feed 7 billion people. Now, I admit to being in the choir of people who are constantly arguing for “buzzword agriculture”. (In place of “buzzword” you insert things like: sustainable, local, organic, pasture-based, etc.) The concept of sustainable sounds so wonderful, why wouldn’t you strive for it? But Ben is asking me to pause at that word and consider whether it’s a realistic goal. Interestingly, I heard a piece on NPR about the same time that described the life of leaf-cutter ants. Turns out they cut leaves not to eat them, but to drag them to their nests where a mold grows on them. The ants eat the mold. In other words, the ants are farming! Which I took as some sort of smallish proof that agriculture is at its core, a “natural” event. It’s natural that ants do it and it’s natural that humans do it, given that we’re part of nature and all. But I see Ben’s point that it may not scale up to 7 billion people.
In an interview recently Joan Gussow defined the term “unsustainable” by saying that it will stop. As in: our current industrial food system is going to stop…it is unsustainable.
Well, three cheers for that!
Part of me thinks it’s academic whether sustainable is attainable or not but that having the ideal in mind as an end goal keeps us moving in the right direction. Is there such a thing, for example, as a zero input farm? Maybe not, but moving toward as few inputs as possible strikes me as a good plan. I’m going to end by saying that I haven’t finished the book and I haven’t made up my mind what the definition of sustainable really is, but thanks to Ben, I’m thinking about it.
The second thing Ben has me mulling over is how a “local food system” treats the locals. He sets out his own working definition of a “healthy decentralized food system” this way:
It must offer economic viability to small scale food producers.
It must be based on sunshine.
It must feed the locals.
It must be circular.
So about that third one there. The idealized small farms we are clamoring for need to stay in business (part of sustainability to be sure) so they need to earn money. And their healthful product does not have the economy of scale that a large farm has. It is a lot of grueling work to farm organically and without combines and it costs money . If you happen to be a dairy farm, for example, you quickly learn that you can make more money selling as a premium product at farmers markets and even more than that if you make a value-added product like cheese. Selling your milk on the commodity market is not a financially smooth move. So this small, local dairy produces hoity-toity milk and cheese. Can its local, blue collar neighbors afford it?
Ben (and Joan Gussow) points out that much of what we all love about small, local farms prices them right out of reach of the actual local economy they find themselves in. So a farm looks to the nearby big city if there is one. Suddenly the sustainability and warm fuzziness of a local farm is in question if it is producing things that the community around it cannot afford to eat. How odd to think Farm X sells in Chicago and Farm X’s neighbors shop at Walmart for their food. This happens. A similar example:
Edible Cape Cod reported this past summer on a certain irony. Local Cape fishermen offload their daycatch and it is immediately transported to Gloucester (off the Cape). Never mind all the tourists, there are plenty of people who call Cape Cod home and the “local catch” goes right past them. They cannot get it. Or if they do, it goes to Gloucester and comes back. Hmmm. The good news is there is a fishermen’s organization that wants to change that and is starting a seafood CSA. Wish I could get in on that!
My farmer friend Rink DaVee challenged me a while ago with a question:
How big is small?
In other words, how large can a farm be to take advantage of some economies of scale and still be prized for being “small and local”? It is an important question. It could be a way to grow more healthful food than our “factories” currently grow, but at a cost its neighbors could afford. Think of it like this: Hardwick is a community and its developing food economy will be a laudable one if it serves the community. Now pick a small farm in central Illinois and imagine its community. To what degree is that farm contributing to its local community when it sells all its goods in Chicago? Is it enough to provide a few jobs? It is in the food business after all, shouldn’t it be giving food to its community? Please understand I am not criticizing the farm. I am learning from Ben to question the emerging system. We criticize large agriculture because it always sells its food far from where it grows it. Is the same thing happening with small farms? Do we justify that by saying, “Yeah, well, they only drive 150 miles to sell their produce.” Is that ok? What about the neighbors of that small farm who are still eating California-grown produce they buy at a big box? Farmers, please hit the comment button below and chime in here. What are your neighbors eating?
Ben’s question about whether we want our “local” food system to also feed the folks near the farms and Rink’s question about size are the sort of thing we “local food advocates” need to puzzle over more than we do. I learned from four meat producers recently too that much of our food system, even the farmers market-based system that we prize, is fraught with grey areas. Guess that line under me should be a little fuzzier!