Can the Mainstream Lead?

I think the answer here is simple: No. By definition, the mainstream is not the cutting edge… it follows and adopts where others have lead.
Why do I ask this question? The other morning I was asked if why (in the opinion of the speaker) mainstream ag was not leading the way on local food systems. Knowing that I am involved with local food, she was not surprised that I agreed with the sentiment, but shocked that I was untroubled by it.

Aside from offering my usual observation that “mainstream Ventura” ag is  quite different than “mainstream American” ag, I pointed out that this was simply not a realistic goal at this point in time. Right now, nobody knows what a sustainable, locally based food system would look like. We don’t know what policy to follow to create such a system,  although we have some ideas. The distribution channels and business models needed for such a system are unknown. CSAs and Farmer’s Markets are useful and interesting evolutionary stepping stones, but the limitations of these models are already apparent, even though we are nowhere near taking local food to scale. (Some people react poorly when they hear me mention “scale”, considering it a codeword for “industrialized food.” But the reality is that feeding 300,000,000 people is a large “scale” challenge, regardless of the size of the farms doing the feeding.) We can imagine the place that we want to go, but no-one has seen it. There is no map.

So yes… I am comfortable that “mainstream” agriculture is not out in front. I don’t think that can realistically be expected, and I certainly hope we will be thoughtful and prudent in mandating any changes in grower behavior to compel leadership. The maps will be made by small growers experimenting with crops and customer relationships and farming practices. Some of us will fall off the edge of the earth. But the survivors will redfine what is possible, and realize the reward for their venture. Then the mainstream will follow, making the original  into the ordinary, commoditizing yesterday’s breakthrough, while the innovators look to jump a generation ahead once again.  And that is how it should be.

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