Friday, July 06, 2012

Does urban farmers' virtue differentiate them from rural ones?


I know the association of urban ag/slow food/organic/locavore movement with all things virtuous has been going on for some time, but just because the movement has proved so self-congratulatory (and mostly bourgeois) didn't necessarily make rural farmers the "bad guys."  I figured that, more than anything, the slow/local/urban ag craze was, at worst, implying (if only to those too myopic to look beyond their own food needs) that large-scale farmers (and, by extension, rural communities and populations) were (becoming) obsolete.  

But a story in the New York Times a few days ago left me wondering if the urban ag trend (the fruits of which I admit to regularly indulging from my suburban home in greater Sacramento, where many posh farmers markets surround me) also makes rural farmers look less virtuous, even a bit like "the enemy."  Kirk Johnson's story focused on what he called a new business model of farming, one marked by smaller-scale farms on the outskirts of cities, producing food primarily for metropolitan areas, including their fine dining establishments.  Johnson asserts:
[T]he movement toward local food is creating a vibrant new economic laboratory for American agriculture.  The result, with its growing army of small-scale local farmers, is as much about dollars as dinner:  a reworking of old models about how food gets sold and farms get financed, and who gets dirt under their fingernails doing the work.  
* * * 
Economists and agriculture experts say the "slow money" movement ... a way of channeling money into small-scale and organic food operations, along with the aging of the farmer population and steep barriers for young farmers who cannot afford the land for traditional rural agriculture are only part of the new mix.  
OK.  That's an interesting business story.  I have written herehere and here of some of these phenomena, e.g, the obstacles facing new farmers and the aging farmer population in the United States.

But then Johnson goes on to suggest that this small farm/locavore phenomenon is not only in opposition to intensive production agriculture, but also in opposition to rural places, which he seems to collapse into "big ag." Johnson writes
A looming shortage of migrant workers ... could create a kind of rural-urban divide if it continues, with mass-production farms that depend on cheap labor losing some of their price advantages over local grown food, which tends to be more expensive.  
[While] big agriculture ... struggle[s] to find willing hands ...[l]ocal farm sales are becoming more stable, predictable and measurable.
Johnson goes on to note that the USDA has adjusted upward the value of "local revenues" from food sales to $4.8 billion.  The adjustment came from including sales to stores and restaurants and not only those at "road stands and markets."  (I wonder if that prior accounting included urban farmers markets.  I've written some about the distinction between road stands and farmers markets here).  Johnson notes that the economic pathway for these small scale farms that sell their food locally is somewhat supported in the new farm bill (which a NYTimes editorial recently labeled "mediocre")

Certainly, a lot of locavore/organic/slow and boutique food is grown in urban, suburban and exurban locales.  Read more here.  What Johnson overlooks--especially in writing of a "rural-urban divide"--is that these more "virtuous" types of food are also grown in rural places.  I (and my students) have written of instances of this herehere, and here.  Also illustrative is Low Gap, Arkansas, shown in these two photos I took in May, 2012.  Low Gap is a wide spot in the road in Newton County, where I grew up.  Low Gap is not even a Census Designated Place; nor does it have a wikipedia entry.  (As the sign indicates, it is near Shiloh, a similarly obscure place).  So I was surprised a few years ago to see it listed as the provenance of food on the menu at the Greenhouse Grille, 80 miles away in Fayetteville, where I doubt that even 1 in 100 diners had previously heard of Low Gap, let alone know where it is.  Surely this is not a lone example of a small, rural farm producing organic food for an urban population (yes, Fayetteville is urban, part of the Northwest Arkansas Metropolitan Statistical Area) and--if the sign above is any indication--for its rural neighbors, too.  Ditto Rivendell Gardens, also in Newton County, pictured in this post.  It is probably not appropriate, then, to suggest that urban/suburban farmers have cornered the market on either virtue or small.  

One thing seems certain:  If urban farmers are now sole (or even primary) bearers of the badge of agricultural virtue, we have come a long way not only from the rural yeoman farmer of Thomas Jefferson's day, but also from that of my grandparents (read more here) and a fair number of rural folk still operating smallish farms across America.

Yes, I know I am a little sensitive about this, but food and ag are two of the only justifications that rural people and places have for their existence these days.  If they lose the virtue associated with these--if only rhetorically--to "the city," they arguably lose a lot.   

Plus, I just think Johnson's invocation of the rural-urban binary in this way is misplaced.  Or maybe his use just reflects a common lack of precision in how the terms "rural" and "urban" get used.  Many of the farms Johnson refers to are far enough outside the cities they serve to be in places that are rural by several definitions, or at least exurban.  Alternatively, when Johnson talks about small farms and urban ag, he may actually be thinking less about where the food is grown and more about who is consuming it.  And that is as much a matter of class as it is geography.  

P.S.  On July 8, 2012, the NYTimes published this story on the front page of the Business section, "Has Organic Been Oversized?" which disputes the popularly held connection between small and organic.  It also disputes, in a sense, the authenticity of the designation.  Here's a key paragraph:
As corporate membership on the board [that sets standards for organic labeled products] has increased, so, too, has the number of nonorganic materials approved for organic foods on what is called the National List.  At first, the list was made up of things like baking soda, which is nonorganic but essential to making things like organic bread.  Today, more than 250 nonorganic substances are on the list, up from 22 in 2002.  
Cross posted to Legal Ruralism.  

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