December 31, 2007

The Farmer's Market Paradigm

Bill McKibben sees Farmers’ Markets as the wave of the future. In his new book, Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future, he lays out a vision of a world that is at once radically different and comfortingly familiar. He sees local communities as the antidote to modern industrial society. Not that everything about our society is bad, but we have gone about as far down the road to growth as we are going to get.

He points out that when you are struggling just to get by, more is better. People who don’t have these things will work hard to get enough food, clean water, and education. However, when you already have enough to get along comfortably, more stuff doesn’t really do much for you. On the other hand, as we have accumulated bigger houses and private cars and televisions, we have lost contact with the people around us. We are rich in things but poor in community. In fact, America is the center of what McKibben calls hyper-individualism. The American Dream is to make it by your own efforts. Our mythology is awash in rags to riches stories of people who have pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps. On the other hand, unlike other industrialized countries, many of us, with insurance or not, struggle to get decent healthcare, just to take one example.

Its not that he is against individualism, its just that he thinks that the ways that economists measure progress miss the point. GNP keeps going up but not everything that goes into that measurement is good for us and not everything that is good for us is measured.

When neighbors get together for a harvest feast from their community garden, it doesn’t contribute much to the GNP because they are not spending money. It may contribute a lot to their quality of life, though, as they enjoy the benefits of friendship and good health from working in the garden and eating healthy food together.

GNP doesn’t distinguish between useful growth and growth in pollution and wastefulness. A cancer patient contributes a lot to the economy as expensive medical treatments eat away their savings and the cancer eats away their life. We don’t have a commonly accepted measure for health and happiness, although some people are working on it.

People need both enough wealth to be comfortable and enough community to be happy. If the balance tips too much one way or the other we feel the effects of the imbalance. Not to romanticize poverty, those who are both poor and alone are the worst off. Nor is this book about America alone. He travels to China, India and Europe to see how these scenarios play out there.

At the same time, the Cult of More is leading us down the road to ecological disaster, oil will run out and global warming is a reality that will force us into new paths whether we like it or not. If the undeveloped world were to follow our lead, and they are doing exactly that, with China leading the way, the collapse will come all the sooner.

This is where Farmers’ Markets come in. We can’t afford to continue to waste precious fossil fuels trucking our food thousands of miles. Luckily, we don’t need too. Local food supplies have fed humanity throughout most of our history. We can do it again. The local food movement is centered in Farmer’s Markets everywhere. People are discovering that not only can they support their local economy and get delicious healthy food but they are finding the process ever so much more enjoyable. People are ten times as likely to talk to their neighbors at a Farmers’ Market than at the supermarket. And the money they spend will stay in the area to contribute to the local economy.

People are coming to realize that there are more important things than getting the lowest price. The best price may be the one that supports the local economy. Furthermore, modern small scale organic farming turns out to be more productive per acre than agri-business. Agri-business achieves its economies of scale by getting rid of the farmers, making money for distant owners in the process. If you are serious about feeding hungry people, teach them to farm their own land. Or make community gardens. Wherever we are, we can find land, and even small plots can grow food that can help make us more independent in our own communities and can strengthen the human connections that make our communities strong at the same time.

In my own community, on Washington State’s Olympic Peninsula, The Farmers’ Market has teamed up with the local Food Co-op, the Land Trust and the State University Extension to encourage local organic farming. The university teaches classes on farming and entrepreneurship. The land trust protects farmland with conservation easements. And the farmers’ market and the co-op provide a market for the produce. The co-op prominently labels local products and highlights the farmers who grow the food.

Of course there is more to life than food. Deep Economy also talks about renewable power, community radio and lots more. Get on down to your local independent bookstore for a copy. Or do like I did and get it from the library. And when you are done, pass it on.

1 comment:

nancyb said...

Thank you, Dan, for this. It was the first post I read of the new year and it fills me with hope. I have a garden and I have been turning over new soil this winter to make more room for growing. I feel so incredibly fortunate to be living in a community such as this that values their local farmers. It's funny, the more I grow, the more I am apt to buy from my local coop. Go figure.
I also depend upon my garden for my sanity. If I didn't have this opportunity to work with the soil, growing vegetables to share with my neighbors, my life would be dangerously unbalanced with the ugliness of political turmoil.