'Know Your Farmer' is Dead

I was recently sitting in a meeting during which someone disdainfully threw out a comment in regard to “this whole ‘know your farmer’ thing.”  The utterance stuck in my mind, but not because I was offended.  Obviously I am quite engaged with the continued proliferation of local food, and hearing the words through an outsider’s mouth allowed me to evaluate a gastronomical locution with a fresh mind.  ‘Know your farmer,’ frankly, does sound a little cliché.

Any new idea, trend, movement, or concept follows a fairly predictable growth pattern.  Pioneers think it up.  These are weird people who are willing to live outside the lines and explore ideas everyone else thinks are outlandish.  Settlers are the people who watch the weirdoes to see if their newfangled idea is viable, and if it is, they adopt it, improve it, and spread it around to curious consumers who are driven to try something new.  After a critical mass of curious consumers adopts the burgeoning concept, polite society accepts its viability and the once obscure idea goes mainstream.  With the exception of mainstays like electricity and automobiles, the peak use of a product also frequently leads to its demise, as market saturation robs away the unique characteristics that appealed to everyone in the first place.  In short, ideas go from obscure, to desirable, to everywhere, to lame.

From what I understand of food history, knowing your farmer was obscure in the late seventies and eighties.  The folks vending at farmer’s markets during that era were pioneers willing to stand against the norm and follow a dream of integrated farmer-consumer relationships.  In the nineties and early two thousands local food gained a foothold in conscious consumer circles and, for the first time, the greater powers (agribusiness and food processors) started to take notice of the shifting consumer preferences.  Capital ‘A’ agriculture took a defensive stand, making a point to discredit local food as unsafe, unreliable, and, in short, a joke.  Today those same critics are completing the cycle by desperately eating their own words and trying hard to prove that they, too, believe in knowing your farmer.

Look around: grocery store advertising is dripping with farmer pictures and profiles, fast food restaurants hang banners with plaid-adorned families posing in front of tractors, and everyone, including gruff meeting attendees, carries the thought of knowing your farmer in the forefront of their minds.  It’s everywhere.  It’s lame.

Somewhere in the heap of literature stored in my office is an admonishment I recorded that states, generally, when the words you, a small business owner, have been using to describe your business start showing up in the coupons section of the newspaper, it’s time to purge that lexicon from your system.  Claims lose credibility when they’re adopted by companies who obviously cannot deliver on the promise.  In other words, when McDonald’s tells everyone their drive-thru Happy Meal connects them to farmers, even actual farmers who are trying to connect with people lose integrity.  People get so much exposure to false claims they stop believing the real deal when they see it.

The idea of knowing your farmer is not actually dead, just the words associated with the concept.  I believe there is enough momentum behind real food to take quite a chunk out of mass produced, thoughtless chow and funnel that money back into our rural economies.  For this to happen we need farmers willing to catch the vision accompanied by infrastructure in the form of abundant regional abattoirs, equipment dealers offering tools designed specifically for diversified homesteading, distribution networks for specialty crops, and maybe even flour mills and milk processing plants, to examine just the tip of the iceberg.  All of this takes an enormous amount of money, and to attract such funds from consumers (cumulatively, households spend enough on food each year to sustain this dream, but most of those dollars are directed to leave town) they have to see something in local farms that they cannot get in the store.  They have to believe in the idea, and they’ll never truly do that if we keep repeating the same dusty old adage.

Such is the challenge to small business owners of all kinds: complacency is not an option because there is always a better capitalized someone out there looking to mass produce your culture.  Survival mandates an effort to stay ahead of the curve and modify the vision as it develops in order to remind customers why it’s worth their effort to deliberately support regional businesses.  ‘Meet your farmer,’ then, should be left to the QR codes stamped on the side of frozen hams in the meats department, replaced instead with the next step of the vision: revitalize your town.  This is the true advantage of local food, as associated commerce keeps dollars circulating through your neighborhood in a way that’s impossible when sustenance is trucked in and money is trucked out.

Everyone knows their farmer these days. Trying to rally support for something so common is a losing battle, so it’s time to adjust the sails. What are some creative ways farmers can stand out from the crowd? I’d love to hear from you; send feedback to clarionfarms@windstream.net.