I don’t care about “organic” food. I don’t look for “vegetarian diet” on my egg cartons. Those are empty phrases invented to dull the sensitivities of consumers seeking superficial reassurance. The only food buzz words I care about are “sustainable” and “local,” and the only place I know I can reliably find them is at my farmers markets.
The effort to support local providers, processors and vendors is a fight against Americans’ purposeful ignorance about our food. Factory farms and high-volume processors have gotten enough bad press that most consumers are afraid to learn much about the plants and animals that feed them. It’s understandable to seek comfort by looking no further than the word “organic” stamped over the picture of a smiling cow on a clean, bright package. The bigger business farming has become and the more inscrutable giant food corporations have grown, the more separation has developed between consumers and the dirt. We are no longer comfortable seeing dirt on our potatoes or heads on our chickens. What used to be—what still are—the facts of life are now rejected with the equivalent of “Ew, gross.”
No matter how you do it, making food is hard, dirty, often dangerous work, and in most steps of the process, it doesn’t pay very well. Whatever your food source, someone has to break a sweat to turn the soil, clean the barns and pick the squash. Someone has dirty their hands washing vegetables, cleaning carcasses, sorting, packaging and delivering the end product. Whether it’s a carrot or a calf, it’s not going into our stores or restaurants until it has been transformed into a pristine package belying its earthy origins.
Yet, the more you understand how plants and animals get to the American plate, the more important local food sources become. For me, supporting local farming means I have to drive further than the nearest grocery store, pay a little extra and still have to wash dirt from my potatoes. I say I’m doing it to support my local farmers, but the end truth is that I’m helping myself.
The benefits to me are inherent in the small business model. As independent owners, the vendors at my market make decisions for the health of their flocks and fields, rather than that of their shareholders’ portfolios. They can give more attention to each acre of corn or litter of piglets than can managers of thousand-acre corporate farms. The vegetables they bring to market are harvested only a day before I buy them.
This means more than happy pigs and crispier lettuce. This means healthier food in my fridge. The fresh lettuce I buy at market has more nutrients than plastic-wrapped grocery-store greens that have been in transit for two weeks. The meat I buy comes from animals that don’t require antibiotics to survive crowded feed lots, and they lived on varied diets resulting in more nutrients in their flesh. Also, all the farmers I know either kill their own animals, or transport their own livestock to slaughter, rather than paying an intermediary to ship them hundreds of miles. Even if I didn’t care about better treatment for the animals, I do appreciate having fewer potentially health-damaging stress hormones in my pork chops.
The treatment of the humans on farms can also affect my health. Small-scale production means less risk of an underpaid worker squatting in a field to relieve himself because the nearest bathroom is two acres away and he can’t afford to lose the production time. This obviously mass-produced poster shows the chances are better than we’d like to imagine.
My local farmers simply cannot afford to treat their workers like equipment. As smaller businesses with fewer employees, they must give them more responsibility than workers on corporate holdings with assembly-line tasks. With those additional responsibilities come additional training, and I have heard over and over from farmers that trained workers are a nearly irreplaceable resource. They will do anything feasible to keep those valued employees in place, including paying them a livable wage. A rising tide raises all boats.
So that’s what I get by sacrificing my Saturday mornings to put a few extra dollars into the hands that raise my food: Healthier food. Safer food. Better-off neighbors. Better-off me.
When I choose whether or not to eat locally, I have the power to support my neighbors or to drive them out of business. Given the alternatives, it’s not a hard choice to make.