Moving Beyond the Niche of Local Eating

Categories: Talking Points
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Cows at Marin Sun Farms in West Marin.
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Today's notes on national stories, local trends, random tastes, and other bycatch dredged up from the food media.

Bob Comis, a farmer in upstate New York, just posted a duo of complementary essays on Grist and the Stony Brook Farm's blogs that I find electrifying. Comis started raising pigs on pasture a few years ago, selling his pork through CSAs and farmers' markets. His goal: to return to the way it was done in his grandmother's time and to know every customer. However, reading through old farming books ― the only way he could get information on pre-CAFO techniques ― he discovered that the halcyon days he was trying to emulate never existed; the Chicago stockyards did. So his goal has shifted: Now he wants to build large-scale regional distribution systems:

I can say that I want to see my pork in Price Chopper, because behind the veil of the many myths of the local farm and food systems movement is a reality that we need to deal with. The energy and counter-cultural impulse to buy local, to buy directly from the farmer, is more than the vast majority of our population can or ever will be able to muster ― heck, it is more than I can muster half the time! ... If we insist on such a marketing model, local food will never account for more than a pittance of total sales, 1 percent, maybe 2 percent, possibly 3 percent (which is about where organic is right now).
To get beyond niche level, we need to radically change our marketing model. We do not need to sacrifice the integrity of our cultural model. We can and will continue to farm ethically. We can and will continue to be remunerated well enough to make a decent living. We can and will be able to afford to pay our employees living wages. What we cannot do is insist that we farmers look into the eyes of every consumer of local produce.
Comis talks about the need to rebuild small, regional slaughterhouses and form regional distributors that can take his products to grocery stores as well as mom-and-pop butcher shops. Many of us already buy milk, yogurt, and meat from regional producers ― dairy operations like Straus Family Dairy and the Organic Valley co-op and brands like Painted Hills and Niman Ranch that sell meat raised by a network of small family farms. By no means is it time to get rid of the farmers' markets we've built up over the past two decades ― but it is time to think beyond them.

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