Since I’m a bit of a contrarian by nature, I rarely find an opinion piece that I can’t disagree with at all. But in this morning’s LA Times I found one.
“Sustainable agriculture is founded on the principle of farmer leadership. The first step to creating a sustainable food system is restoring stewardship, that elemental relationship in which a farmer balances food production with ecological health and social well-being. That is possible only when farmers are empowered: trusted to lead, respected financially, and encouraged—indeed, allowed—to be independent and free.”
This paragraph is lifted from a letter written by Lisa Hamilton to President Obama. (Read the whole letter here.) In it, she perfectly captures what I consider to be the defining challenge of a more sustainable food system: The fact that the people who best understand it are restricted in their ability to innovate and compete. Elsewhere in her letter, she points out that the bureaucratic burdens of operating within a highly regulated framework put the small farmer at a severe disadvantage. She cites the NAIS program as a prime example of a program, that however well intended it might be, makes it difficult for the farm without a major regulatory compliance to succeed.
I understand that some of this comes with the territory with a bureaucratic system. In one of my earlier professional lives as an employee of the federal government I saw it first hand. I recall feeling that I had to choose between getting the job done, or completing all the required weekly, monthly and quarterly reports that would demonstrate exactly why I didn’t. My immediate supervisor trusted me, but unfortunately that trust could not translate back to Washington. The bureaucrat’s surrogate for trust? Documentation. What a relief it was to leave that job for the private sector in Silicon Valley.
Part of the allure of the farmer’s market is the ability to reconnect with the farmer and experience the trust that comes from a direct, personal relationship. I’ve experienced it myself: contrary to my own prediction, at last week’s Outstanding in the Field dinner, few seemed to care whether I was organic. But they did want to know about me… they wanted that trust.
Can we maintain that trust in a food system beyond the very small and local? That remains to be seen. But I hope so. A sustainable system where farmers were trusted to do the right thing appeals to both the progressive and the libertarian components of my nature.
Without making a conscious decision to do so, I have divested myself from major banks. I no longer own Citigroup stock, and I no longer use BofA for my business banking. I belong to a credit union, finance my farm within the Farm Credit system, and am a customer and minor shareholder of our local Santa Clara Valley Bank. With all the turmoil these days, many critics of our financial systems say this is the right approach to take. It is what we should do. But I didn’t do it to make a political statement or encourage an alternative financial structure for our nation.
I did it because it works. Today I enjoy all the technological conveniences that used to be the domain of the big banks. Online billpay and transfers, ATM access all over the world… you name it. But I get much better service from people who not only know my name, in some cases they even know my dog’s names. Such is community banking in a small farm town. I get the chance to talk with the bank’s CEO on a regular basis as we serve together on several community projects. I would have needed a lot of money on deposit with Bank of America to get that kind of access.
What does this have to do with local and regional food? Right now, a number of people advocate for a local and regional model for our food system. It is what we should do, they say. Very possibly they are right. But in food, as in banking and energy (the other tack I could have taken for this piece) , we don’t do things just because we should. We go with what works for us.
Currently, local food systems fall short. Sure ,we have the Farmer’s market system, and a few CSAs, but access is a real issue. A few consumers with the knowledge, extra time, and disposable income gain the benefits… they get to meet their farmer. But this system hasn’t yet shown the ability to rival the mainstream. But it is growing and getting better. You still need to make sacrifices to eat locally but not to the same degree as just a couple of years ago. So maybe the day is not far off, when this is no longer something we “should do”, but simply “do.”
That will be when local food works.
Should cities manage their “foodsheds?”
A few months back, I was at a meeting of the Roots of Change Planning Fellows. This is a great group of people, and I always enjoy the vigorous exchange of ideas and opinions that it involves. While I often hear some with which I disagree, I had never heard an idea proposed there that really left me feeling ill. Until this meeting.
It was proposed that all major cities in California develop Foodshed Management Plans, as a way of connecting their urban consumers with nearby rural producers. Some preliminary discussions had occurred with the City of San Francisco Mayor’s office. Apparently there was a great deal of enthusiasm for exploring new ways to utilize the Bay Area’s farms for the benefit of the underserved populations in the city. Now, I applaud the concept of strengthening ties between the urban and the rural. It fills a great need for quality foods in the urban environment and provides a good business opportunity for farmers.
But putting the city in charge of it?
I expressed the opinion that this was the wrong way to go. Once a government entity (city or otherwise) has identified a resource, and produced a plan to utilize that resource, it will proceed to interject itself, to the detriment of all others involved. There was a fairly lively discussion, and my position met with some agreement, especially from other farmers. Ultimately, it was left that perhaps the idea needed a little refinement. I think many in the room understood my concern, but felt that I was perhaps being a little paranoid.
Sometimes you hate to be right.
An article ran in the SF Gate newspaper on June 6, 2008, stating that the City of San Francisco was seeking to take over the Heart of the City Farmer’s Market that has served the community since 1981. The non-profit which has run it will lose its permit, and the market will soon operate under the City Department of Real Estate, where it is expected to be a revenue producer for the city. Sadly, the scenario I had described had played out, only this time the resource grabbed was a farmer’s market not a farm.
Perhaps the famous San Francisco spirit of activism will prevent this travesty from actually taking place. But if not, would any of us imagine that it will be better for the farmers or consumers who are the heart and soul of this marketplace? I suggest it is more likely that the city, which knows nothing about operating a farmer’s market, will run it into the ground, leaving no market and no revenue. Would anyone like to be identified as a resource by a powerful urban neighbor?
I am saddened to see this play out, but I hope we can gain some wisdom to apply to the State of California’s visioning program.