By Paul Schwennesen
PERC Enviropreneur Fellow
I make my living at farmers’ markets and know my core clientele well. It generally doesn’t sport “Gun Control Is Hitting Your Target” t-shirts, so it struck me when such a one showed up at our booth. In answer to my teasing, the wearer asked a telling question: “What could be more conservative than eating what my grandparents ate, eating it in season, and knowing my farmer neighbors?”
I had to admit he was on to something.
The local-foods movement, springing from a generally affluent, generally left-leaning, and disenchanted consumer base, has been so thoroughly identified with a “liberal” mantra that the movement is often derided by the right. To be sure, much of the poetic allegiances, arbitrary “local” circumferences, and irrational fears of all things Monsanto grates on the nerves of those who pride themselves on reasoned decision-making. Yet for those of us who see folly in centralized power, this movement has something to tell us. It is reinventing how many of us eat — and how an increasing number of us produce — food.
Danger to the Individual
The litany of abuses by centralized power against the individual is long and predictable. But centralization in agriculture, that hazy realm from which our food spontaneously appears, poses its own set of dangers to individual aspirations. Now that fewer than 2 percent of the population is directly engaged in food production (down from 25 percent at the beginning of Franklin Roosevelt’s failed drive to “save the farmer”), the fact that agriculture has been massively consolidated is inescapable. While this is not entirely a bad thing (obesity now trumps hunger in our collective top-ten list of concerns), it does present a troubling side. When the vast majority of meat processing (87 percent) is done by just four companies, the system is top-heavy and fragile. Coupled with the crony-capitalism of a powerful lobby, centralized agriculture makes youthful entry into agriculture difficult and financially reckless. The local-foods movement offers an alternative to this agricultural-industrial complex, presenting producers with healthier profit potentials and reviving a more diffuse and independent agrarian production base.
In an address to the Wisconsin State Agricultural Society in 1859, Abraham Lincoln stated that “no other human occupation opens so wide a field for the profitable and agreeable combination of labor with cultivated thought, as agriculture.” The advent of highly mechanized industrial production systems has largely erased this intellectual and emotional bond that Jefferson and Lincoln relied on to create virtuous citizen-farmers. But now, perhaps even as a result of this, a newfound appreciation for old patterns has sprung up. Many alleged leftists have found that concepts of freedom and individuality resonate strongly if rooted in a land ethic and in local produce. For them centralization in markets and among corporations is of more pressing concern than centralization of political power, and feeding their dollars into local agriculture is a palatable way to participate in a free market. Ironically enough, while many so-called liberals express skepticism about laissez-faire economies, they are the first to indignantly resist intrusion by bureaucrats into local farmers’ markets.
It has always struck me as exemplifying the beauty of a free market that I sweat and toil to serve a clientele to which in general I’m ideologically opposed. I serve customers who, if their Obama bags, Che t-shirts, and “profit is poison” bumper stickers are to be taken seriously, are decidedly anti-capitalist. And yet during the course of our clearly capitalistic transactions, we both find pleasure in the process and discover a newfound respect for each other.
The revival of local food and local markets is an interesting phenomenon. While it still marches under the banner of the left, it blurs the political distinctions enough that the right ought to feel comfortable joining in. They say politics makes for poor digestion. Who knew that what we digest makes for good politics?