Friday, February 04, 2011

Locavore Shopping

Followers of this blog know that the geography of food is an important aspect of environmental geography. I once had the great privilege of sitting with Michael Pollan, who is well known as the author of The Omnivore's Dilemma and Food Rules, among other important books about food. (The humorous and insightful Food Rules starts with just three: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. The rest of the book is just examples.) At the lunch, Pollan explained how he overcame the initial skepticism of publishers about his work. He was trying to get support for writing about agriculture, and he was getting nowhere. People are not interested in agriculture, he was told. When he presented the same ideas as writing about food, however, he suddenly became a bit of a rock star. It is in part because of his work that people are rediscovering the connections between the two (agriculture leads to food; food comes from agriculture).

This is all by way of introducing Pam's latest blog project, which is focused on the kitchen and table, but has clear implications for our region and the planet as a whole. Una Nueva Receta is a challenge to ourselves to dust off the shelf full of cookbooks and start using more than the 2-3 favorites in each one. We will do our best to combine the recipe-a-week imperative with the idea of using local food. As with all of the blog projects Pam has initiated, this one involves good books, and one of the first is Jonah Raskin's Field Days, which she is reading aloud to me. The book is a pleasant account of a year spent at Oak Hill Farm in Sonoma, California, and it leads the reader through many of the interesting connections to be made among a field, a table, and a region.

As Pam was reading, I particularly enjoyed his description of the store at Oak Hill Farm, and I decided to post that excerpt for readers of the Nueva Receta blog. Raskin writes that "the Red Barn Store drives the farm," which captures the ways that a good farm store can connect the consumer to the bounty of local lands, season by season. In several successful farm stores I have visited, though, the connection between the farm store and the land has another dimension that may be slightly more complicated. It seems to me that a successful farm store needs to strike a balance. The products of the farm need to be the cornerstone of the store's offerings, but the right mix of additional products -- and even some services -- can be equally important, both for attracting customers and for augmenting the revenue of the store. If the sale of off-farm items keeps the farm profitable, that is an important contribution to land protection and to the ongoing integrity of the enterprise. If these items come from another farm in the region, all the better!

In my own town of Bridgewater, the store at Hanson Farm has grown in recent years, and provides customers with an interesting mix of goods that now includes ice cream. The time and energy the owners have invested in the store have helped to ensure the vitality of the farm itself.

Addendum: A geography student who is working on local agriculture with me this semester read the post above, and reminded me that farm stores are not the answer for all farmers. She is, of course, correct. Farming is difficult and retail is difficult; only farms operating at a certain scale should even attempt both, and those farms need to have access to a location that is convenient for shoppers. Those farms that are able to operate stores can help both themselves and neighboring farms, by providing outlets for those who are not able to run a store.

My student also reminded me (I have great students!) that for many farmers the answer is a farmers' market. These are increasingly popular venues for those who produce good food to meet those who wish to buy locally. As with a good farm store, the markets have many benefits beyond the opportunity to buy food; they can also help build community. My own town of Bridgewater has had a market off and on over the past few years and is in the midst of plans to bring it back. Participation in these markets is an strategic decision on the part of farmers and organizers; a critical mass of both customers and farmers is required, as is a reasonable balance in the number and types of offerings. 

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