I've been meaning to write something like this for a while. Being at Better World x Design over the weekend (x said like "by") I heard a lot of people at various panels say that what we need is a more personal relationship with our farmers. This was met with nods of assent. The Better World x Design conference pushed me towards finally writing something on this issue of "knowing your farmer".
I don't think getting to know our farmers is really that important, and I would go as far as to say that knowing our farmers is a sign of dysfunction.
Take farmers' markets. I go to the farmers' market almost every week. I love the farmers' market, by the way. But think about the logistics of a farmers' market: they're kind of absurd. A farmer, who works all week doing very difficult and financially precarious work has to come personally to the farm stand so that you can get to know him/her? That makes sense? And then, at the end of the farmers' market, when some of the stuff is inevitably not bought, the farmer has to take all his/her stuff back to the farm? That makes sense? Didn't we invent stores so that farm goods could be transferred once, instead of back and forth on the same day? Didn't we develop careers in train, truck, and boat transportation so that farmers could focus on farming?
We go through these rituals because we lack information that is reliable about what is good to eat. The best of many bad ways for us to figure out that our food is local is to literally talk with a farmer. That's ridiculous. The farmer has better things to do. I know this not only because I've thought it through in my own head, but also because people I know who farm have said as much to me. Farmers' markets are a pain in the ass.
Skits like this one on Portlandia are not a sign that we care too much about
the environment, but a sign that we have no information with which to make good choices.
This pattern of people using proxies for good information when better information isn't available is present throughout all sorts of decisions we make. It's one of the reasons we grab onto brand names. They carry messages that we assume mean something. The physical presence of a farmer really doesn't actually mean anything. That farmer might keep his field hands in shacks and spray DDT everywhere, for all we know. The brand recognition we're buying into is that if we see a farmer in person, that means quality. But does it?
If you care about food, you should care about transportation. You should support tolls on deliveries, because when deliveries are tolled, the things closest to us will cost the least, and will be the natural things we buy. We'll still be able to buy things from farther away, but we won't do so unless someone closer is completely unable to provide those things.
If you care about food, you should care about transportation: You should support increased, frequent, reliable transit, because cities without transit would take up to 37% more space (i.e., potential farmland) if everyone needed to drive.
We want all sorts of labels. Is this from the U.S. we want to know? But some food from far away is better for us to eat from a sustainability perspective if the shipping methods used use less fuel (e.g., shipping things by boat). The lettuce from the middle of the country might take more fuel to arrive here than the apples from Argentina. What if we had a carbon tax, so that the price was apparent?
We are a society of individuals. We think of ourselves as taking personal effort upon ourselves to change our own habits in the pursuit of a better world. And no doubt, this is a partially true perspective on the world as it really works. But we also need to think about how systems that rely on personal effort always fail. I wake up in the morning at apply personal effort to riding a bike or taking a bus to work, despite many signals pushing me the opposite way. In a country where those decisions are made to be normal, people just wake up and do those things. There's no effort. The same should be true of food. This idea that the pathway to food change is "getting to know your farmer" is one of those things that makes me cringe every time I hear it, but for so many people it seems to be a key talking point. We need to align incentives in such a way that the person with a last dollar in their pocket buys decent, organic, local food because that food is what appeals to their pocketbook.
Hoping that food is going to change by getting a consciousness shift to me is much like hoping that transportation choices are going to change by "encouraging" biking, or putting out a hip new transit ad. The real choices that people make are always on a bell curve tracking their personalities, agency, and priorities. There just is never going to be a supermajority of people who both have the interest, the power, and the organizational skill to maintain all the information they'd have to maintain to choose the right thing each time. Even for those of us who try to do this, we're swinging wildly. Is something I buy at Whole Foods better, or just more expensive? Who knows.
It's not an elite activity to care about the world. When you buy organic food, you're not just protecting yourself, or spotted owls, you're taking an affirmative step for the people who have to pick the food you eat, so that they aren't exposed to poison everyday. It's not an elite activity to care about transportation, and to choose a life that is less reliant on cars. But when we have the wrong signals, and when we have to take up all this personal effort to do the right things, it feels like doing the right thing is an elitist act.