Have you ever watched a group of chickens chasing a grasshopper? It’s a chaotic event. There is squabbling and pushing and shoving all taking place in the midst of constant, rapid movement as the flock pursues their prey. The grasshopper keeps on hopping, here, there, wherever it desires, and hens follow closely behind. Intensity levels ratchet up each time the victim narrowly escapes demise; the agile creature creates a moving target that is nearly impossible to hit. When the hens get close, the target moves.
I see the chicken-and-grasshopper scenario playing out in the local food movement on several levels. On one hand, customers are seeking an alternative to commodity food, but, as they turn to Google and social media for answers, they discover nobody knows exactly how to define what they’re looking for. The quandary of producers represents the other side of the spectrum; many desire to tap in to the burgeoning local food movement, yet each new year brings new demands that outpace the speed at which previous years’ requirements can be incorporated.
The breathless speed at which society tries to keep moving requires new standards for all areas of our lives to be established on a regular basis. Buzzwords are the band-aid solutions that create a façade of trendiness that can keep up with a culture continually seeking the next big thing. My problem with a persistent focus on what’s next is that it never allows what currently is to establish. When nobody knows what we have we don’t know what we’re aiming at and we cannot learn how to hit the target.
Gresham’s Law states that ‘bad’ maintains a competitive edge over ‘good’ through the use of devious actions and rule bending. This theory thrives in environments of chaos because nobody will hesitate a moment to question what they’re purchasing or who is selling it. In the case of what we eat, our reality of confusion results in a huge amount of misrepresented food for sale at markets and stores claiming to feature local, authentic products. It’s easy to lie when customers can’t say what’s correct.
If we want to strengthen communities and their surrounding farms via a small scale food system, our next focus absolutely must be in creating a stable target to aim at. Interestingly, I don’t think this will happen by formulating one standard for everyone to meet; trying to condense so many variables into one system is extremely difficult and will result in a very bland landscape. Rather, consistency can be found when producers stop looking for what’s next and start owning their individuality.
When my family started marketing beef in 2005 we didn’t begin at a conference listening to someone tell us what we need to produce in order to attract customers. We started with our own reality and worked backwards from there. That’s a tough approach to take when it seems everyone is out to find something they heard about on the news, but it gave us stability; we already knew exactly what we do, so explaining ourselves to folks at a market was naturally easy. Customer turnover at first was enormous, but we stuck to our guns and slowly accumulated a following that appreciated our stable approach. Today our biggest challenge is trying to keep up with demand.
The same results, I believe, can be true for other farmers. By chasing trends we’re allowing the world to define who we are. Aspiring direct marketers should rather create an island of stability by defining who they are, not who they think other people think they should be. People have to be able to catch the grasshopper, to hit a target that doesn’t move, and a farmer who understands his business is the best equipped person in the world to provide stability.
Some customers will catch and release and move on in search of a destination they still haven’t defined, but, eventually, many more will accumulate who appreciate the reliable story. When a customer and a dedicated, confident farmer meet, a beautiful thing happens: the chaos stops. Suddenly the squabbling hens are far away and no longer an issue. False food claims from underhanded salesmen stand out as though they are a neon sign in the middle of the night, eliminating the problem. Good food and good relationships rise to the top because both the farmer and the customer know exactly what target they are aiming at, and prolonged experience makes hitting the objective easy.
Our culture needs activated consumers who can recognize what they want for their families instead of waiting for advice from a trendsetting life coach. In order to activate customers, a landscape filled with confident farmers following their own clear direction is a necessity. Stable variety will provide opportunities for consumers from all walks of life to find and hit the target they are aiming at when they set out to purchase groceries. The beauty of all of this is that everyone already possesses the knowledge required to define what it is they do and what it is they want. Conferences, webinars, and search engines can only generate ideas; the direction to a steady target already exists in your own unique reality. Identify yourself, tell the world, and let them catch you.