Better Business, Better Food…Better Community?

    At a grand opening for a new retail market operated by a farm family, celebrants posed for a group photo on the sidewalk and cheered as the farmer remarked on the importance he placed on his customers being able to come directly to the farm. He invited them to come, not just to buy meat, but to see for themselves how the animals are raised.

    Several other small farmers from the area were in attendance, along with members of the farmer’s church community. Each of these farmers possessed a world of agricultural knowledge and were happy to share with the lay person, though each of them also had come into farming as adults, after careers as computer programmers or in the military or something else utterly unrelated.

    Much is made of small farmers and locavore customers who prize meat raised humanely. In these conditions, people say they can taste the lack of stress the animal experienced as it was raised. But seeing this movement of small farmers and buyers in the rural setting, it seems to me the most striking aspect of this movement is how it builds community among like-minded people.

    There are several characteristics that set these farmers apart from the farms that grow lettuce on an industrial scale in California or oranges in Florida, or even beef in this same county. This is a community centered around polyculture—raising a variety of animals and vegetables, as opposed to a monoculture, which in much of the U.S. would typically be just cows, or corn, or soybeans. Centered, also, around grass-fed animals, and careful management of the herd and the land to avoid overgrazing and thus creating a wasteland and the associated stormwater runoff. But most importantly, more than techniques, this community is built on connecting farmers to their customers—the ones that will actually eat the meat the farmers raise, as well as their eggs, milk, and produce.

    Of course, there are also plenty of small farmers who view the interaction with their “fans” as a necessary, but not cherished, aspect of what they do. It’s a task they’d gladly give up to have more time to farm (or maybe just time to themselves!).

    There is also a question about how much communing a farmer can reasonably do with a clientele that is centered in the big city and its suburbs, rather than in the small towns and countryside near the farm. But other farms are betting they can find enough of a local market in their own communities to avoid having to sell to people in the distant city. They’ve gone beyond farmers’ markets, opening their own retail stores in some cases.

    These people are intensely committed to the principles behind what they are doing, and you can feel it when you interact with them at the market. How many people can ditch their wage careers and take up the plow? Probably not so many, as the life of the farmer is not for the faint of heart. What will be worth watching is whether, as prices for food trucked and shipped from around the world continue to rise, the allure of the small farm will begin to keep pace with the dominance of the supermarket.

    (Photo by mewwhirl CC BY-NC-ND)

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