Volatility

December 16, 2017

Community Food Movement: Maine’s Food Sovereignty Act

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“Certified organic” increasingly becomes a farce as it comes to equal industrial “organic”. The latest degradation: Hydroponics now can be certified “organic”. On its face that’s absurd and Orwellian. What could possibly be called organic about growing vegetables in fortified water? You might as well allow synthetic fertilizer of every sort. The industrial organic sector is industrial first, organic second.
 
The organic certification was never more than a second-best stopgap. The only real solution is the Community Food movement, the relocalization of food production and distribution. As much as possible, buy local from farmers you know. But just buying local as a consumer isn’t enough. Community food is a rising alternative economic sector. We need to continue building and defending this rising economic and agronomic movement.
 
Toward this goal, campaigners in Maine worked for years and finally attained a legislative victory as the state passed its Food Sovereignty Act in 2017. This Act makes Maine the first state in the country to have such an ordinance. The Act frees municipalities to regulate their own local food systems if they choose to pass an ordinance taking on such responsibility. The Act applies only to food produced and sold directly to consumers within the town. Anything produced for wholesale or retail distribution remains subject to state regulation (so Big Ag can’t use this as a loophole to find a corrupt town and set up shop there).
 
Since production and sale must take place within the town, the geographical scope is more narrow than the average farmers’ market. (Although many Maine towns are quite large geographically.) Nevertheless this is an example of the kind of act the Community Food movement must fight to enact in every state, as a way to boost local food production, processing, and distribution.
 
No surprise, the thugs at the USDA insisted that if the state relinquishes authority over meat and poultry to towns, that only means the feds will have direct authority over it. This forced Maine to enact an emergency amendment to the Act stipulating that meat and poultry remain under state regulatory authority. This power play gives a perfect example of what we’re up against.
 
 
It also demonstrates the limits of legislative action.* Campaigning for food sovereignty laws, just like campaigning for GMO labeling and/or GMO/pesticide bans, is at best a supplement to the work of building the affirmative movement. In the case of community food, this includes building the economic and physical infrastructure of relocalized food production and distribution.
 
There’s lots of people already doing good work toward that eventual goal. We need to scale that up, in tandem with escalating the campaign of ideas. As for our personal lives, the Earth’s call to anyone is to commit your life to the cause. That’s a very hard sell in this Mammon theocracy where even among the people who superficially have the right ideas and good intent, most still objectively adhere to Mammon in the way they view the world. Even fellow travelers of the necessary ideas fundamentally don’t understand the concept of subordinating one’s “private” existence and existing fundamentally as a political animal, a public citizen. All we can do for starters is to systematically propagate ideas which are fundamentally against the whole grain of this theocracy and try to find fellow atheists versus the superstitions of Mammon, technocracy, scientism, productionism, who want to work on that propagation project. This is one of the basic building blocks necessary to build a true cultural, spiritual, existential movement dedicated affirmatively to the necessary agroecology/food sovereignty transformation, negatively to the total abolition of poison-based agriculture. This campaign of ideas is the necessary counterpart to the intertwined actions of building agroecological science and food sovereignty practice.
 
That’s the ultimate need. What individuals and small groups can do right now:
 
1. Take on as much of the propagation work as you can.
 
2. Become active building up the community food sector as much as you can. Growing some of your own food in a garden is a good first step, and the actions quickly scale up from there. In my case, in addition to my intermittent market gardening I’ve worked at a farmers’ market, herbal medicine garden, and am director of two community gardens.
 
3. In your personal lifestyle get as independent of the system, as “off-grid” (using that term both literally and metaphorically) as possible.
 
4. To the extent you have to remain enmeshed in the system for the time being, at least be clear in thought and word that this is under duress. I still have to drive a car, but I never think or say anything other than that the car as such has to go. This is contrary to the climate crocodiles who wring their hands and then tout hybrids and electric cars (i.e. fracking cars, nuke cars, coal cars) as some kind of answer. No, that’s just a more pernicious form of climate denialism.
 
5. In general: Do the most good you can and never do evil. I have never once heard of an example of an evil action that was necessary in any way. That’s always a lie.
 
Much of this focuses on ideas and propagating ideas. I’m forced to be a writer since for now I lack any greater scope for action. In Eric Hoffer’s terminology, I’m an activist by nature who’s been forced into the role of the “man of words”. For now there really is no greater scope for action in America, since the necessary movement doesn’t yet exist in any tangible, coherent form. Or, any rudiments which may be cohering are not yet visible to the general culture of dissent.
 
So it follows that the first, prerequisite step toward building this movement is to propagate the necessary ideas for this movement. Not even at first to convince people, but to force the existence of truly alternative and practicable ideas into the public consciousness so that, when the cultural tipping point suddenly comes (history demonstrates that we have no idea when it will come or what proximate cause will trigger it) and lots of people are suddenly looking for a new idea, this set of ideas will be one of the sets laying around ready to be taken up.
 
Toward that great goal, the second necessary preliminary step is to form the skeleton of a future mass movement in the form of coherent organizations, of whatever size attainable, which will undertake whatever wedge actions are possible for the time being but whose primary action will be to propagate the ideas as far and wide as possible.
 
All this must take place in tandem with building up the community food sector. We especially need more local retail producers, and processing infrastructure, and political organization against the state’s repressive campaigns. The community food movement already exists as a vibrant movement with great scope for all the action one could desire. We need for the whole thing, from organic horticulture to market gardening to abolition of pesticides/GMOs to a global agroecology transformation, to evolve into one coherent cultural force.
 
 
Propagate the new and necessary ideas.
 
 
*As a general rule within-the-system action is worthless, especially at the higher levels of government and especially where people seek positive policy, as opposed to resisting bad policy. But there are some wedge issues which cut across the system’s calcified political lines, where especially at lower levels of government dedicated pressure groups can get action. I argue that food is one of these potential wedges, and that organizations dedicated to the right kind and mode of food action can get good results, both directly and in terms of driving a broader cultural wedge. That’s the wager I make with my writing.
 
 
 
 
 

January 17, 2016

There’s Lies, Damned Lies….

Filed under: Food and Farms, Mainstream Media — Tags: — Russell Bangs @ 6:32 am

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…Although this pseudo-scholarly garbage about farmers markets in the New York Times isn’t even slippery statistics, but just a scary headline and empty innuendo. That’s our NYT, shilling for corporate food and agriculture as usual.
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The piece is nothing but a scary headline and innuendo. If you read it closely, you see that the hack who wrote it has found literally zero evidence that a single farmers market transaction ever made anyone sick. Rather, he’s talking about nothing but a statistical correlation between “farmers markets per capita” in a state and the incidence of certain food-borne outbreaks. Assuming this correlation really exists at all, by his own testimony he knows nothing about what this means or what was the source of the foods that caused the outbreaks. Maybe the more filthy the supermarkets and fast food outlets are in a region, the more popular farmers markets become. Or maybe the kinds of people who report food-borne illnesses are more likely to support farmers markets. There’s just two of the possible explanations for the correlation which would mean the outbreaks aren’t from farmers market food at all.
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But the author and the editors very much want to convey the opposite impression to the reader. The fact is that the piece has zero substantive content and zero evidence for what it implies in such an inflammatory. It’s pure innuendo, pure rumor-mongering. There’s a few lame disclaimers buried toward the end assuring that most readers won’t see them, and these are immediately contradicted by yet more guilt-by-association innuendo, at this point reaching the level of slander, about how people shouldn’t assume farmers market produce has no unsafe bacteria and that they should wash farmers market produce better. This is true of course, but there’s no reason to think there’s a significant problem. Like I said the fraud who did the “research” has zero evidence that a single tomato from a farmers market gave a single person a single tummyache. This is a piece of pure academic fraud.
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Meanwhile the piece talks only about whether or not farmers market produce is more or less bacterially safe than industrial food and implies that this is the only reason people shop at farmers markets. Not a word about pesticides and the many other ways in which much farmers market food is usually much safer and healthier than industrial products.
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They don’t call it the corporate media for nothing!
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September 1, 2011

How Many Farmers’ Markets?

Filed under: Food and Farms, Land Reform, Mainstream Media, Relocalization — Tags: — Russell Bangs @ 3:26 am

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The proliferation of farmers’ markets in recent years is one of the most exuberant demonstrations of the rising vitality of the relocalization movement. These markets are a boon to small farmers, are a key part of food relocalization, provide healthy food, arouse an interest in local food and farmers among the public, help educate the public on the very nature of food production and distribution, and at their best provide a public space where people can come together as communities for socializing and recreation, for learning and fun. The expansion of these markets is a primary first-stage goal for the movement.
 
But the rapid success of this expansion is causing some growing pains. For a few years now people have wondered if there are getting to be too many farmers’ markets. Small farmers complain about having to spread themselves out among more competing markets, incurring worse logistical costs, in order to bring in the same revenue they used to achieve at one or two markets.
 
The latest to push this theme is the corporate NYT. The basic line is the same – too many markets cutting up a finite cake.
 

Some farmers say small new markets have lured away loyal customers and cut into profits. Other farmers say they must add markets to their weekly rotation to earn the same money they did a few years ago, reducing their time in the field and adding employee hours…

Rick Wysk, who spent the morning pulling beets out of the eight acres he tills at River Bend Farm in nearby Hadley, says his business at farmers’ markets is half what it was five years ago.

“You have a certain amount of demand, and the more you spread out the demand, you’re making less,” said Mr. Wysk, who has been selling at markets for 13 years. He believes his business is further hurt by additional markets that opened this year in Northampton and Springfield.

“We’re Western Mass. We’re not New York City. We’re not Boston,” Mr. Wysk said. “We’ve got people, but not the population in the bigger markets.”

More densely populated areas, however, seem to be where the problem is most acute. In Seattle, farmers have spent the last few years jumping from new market to new market. In San Francisco, there are simply “too many farmers’ markets,” said Brigitte Moran, the executive director of the Marin Markets in San Rafael, Calif.

“We have this mentality of, oh, we have a Starbucks on every corner,” Ms. Moran said. “So why can’t we have a farmers’ market? The difference is these farmers actually have to grow it and drive it to the market.”

 
Of course this allegedly finite market exists amid the hostile environment of corporate patterns in everything including food production. It’s this which relentlessly tries to beat down what’s clearly a democratic movement toward healthier, higher quality, and more localized food. That’s the corporate NYT for you. It’s not the fault of Walmartization, land distribution patterns, food commodification as such. It’s those who are trying to break the pattern and relocalize who are making things hard on farmers.
 
Meanwhile, the piece itself mentions the alternative explanation: There’s not enough small farmers. This follows immediately after an indication that in some places there aren’t enough markets, and/or that existing markets aren’t big enough.
 

In some places, new or small-scale farmers who cannot get into existing markets create their own and siphon off customers. Other communities do not have enough farmers to keep up with all the new markets that are opening, Ms. Miller said.

 
The piece tries to juxtapose quotes in such a way as to make it look like it’s benighted farmers and communities who don’t know what they’re doing. But in fact such citizens are doing the best they can amid a harsh political and economic environment. This piece is an example of NYT starve-the-beastism. Fulsomely support corporate ag, do all you can to make the small farmer impossible. Then, when the small farmers’ attempts to thrive experience a speed bump, crow, “See? I told you it wouldn’t work!”
 
It’s a good measure of the corporate media’s lameness that this piece was unable to suppress the basic facts:
 
1. Farmers’ markets are thriving, and if they’re experiencing any difficulty, it’s a growing pain, not decrepitude.
 
2. If in some places there’s a mismatch between the number of markets and the market revenue of farmers, it’s far more likely that this means there’s not enough farmers to meet the demand for markets, than that the supply of markets has outrun some fixed customer demand.
 
This is a structural problem where the many parts of the solution take time. Perhaps a faster part like founding farmers’ markets may sometimes get out ahead of other parts like the rate of small farm startups. But this doesn’t mean there’s too many markets in an absolute sense, only in a relative and temporary one. But you’d never know that from tendentious corporate media “analysis” like this.
 
The corporate media frame assumes food commodification as normative and tries to keep farmers’ markets in their “locavore” lifestyle-accouterment ghetto. From that bogus point of view, it sounds logical that there’s a “fixed” saturation point.
 
But if the real point of farmers’ markets is to be part of the general relocalization movement, and every aspect of that movement is on a vector against the structural factors the corporate media assumes to be given, then it becomes meaningless to say there’s “too many” markets in an absolute sense.
 
Small farmers face difficulties for many structural reasons, including the fact that there’s not enough of them to meet community demand for markets. And that demand, exemplified in the mission statements of most markets including our own, go beyond just setting up a marketplace. The aspiration is a general community-building effort. Communities are trying to move ahead to meet expansive social, economic, and political needs, but we’re finding that in some places we’re outpacing the number of farmers available to staff these markets. (Also, the education of consumers on the benefits of shopping there has slowed down after the initial surge. So this is a long-term project as well.)
 
It’s tough to tell if there actually is a temporary saturation. A Portland market manager describes a plan based on market research:
 

Farmers Market spokesewoman Deborah Pleva says that the organization does not believe Portland has reached a saturation point for markets at all. Only three percent of produce purchased in Portland is bought from a farmers market; Pleva says they’re aiming to make that more like 10 percent.

 
According to numbers like that, there ought to be plenty of room for the current number of markets and then some. The fault, if there is a present-context glut at all, lies not with the community demand for farmers’ markets, but with the lack of farmers to sell at them, and beyond that with the structural, and often intentional, hostility of the system itself.
 
So none of this can be meaningfully discussed outside the big picture context of corporatism, kleptocracy, and the long-term relocalization movement.
 

August 6, 2011

Farmers’ Market

Filed under: Food and Farms, Relocalization — Tags: — Russell Bangs @ 1:05 am

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Good news and bad news about the weather.
 
The good news was that we finally had a market day which wasn’t in the 90s.
 
The bad news was that it rained almost the whole time. Off and on at first, steadily (at times heavy) for the latter part of the day.
 
So again the final result was a disappointing turnout (in an absolute sense). We got a great surge for the first hour, which we think may have been people trying to beat the rain. Then the customer flow plummeted.
 
Still, for a crappy weather day, the turnout wasn’t (relatively) bad. Indeed, people who weren’t there were surprised to hear that we did as well as we did.
 
The latest issue is that our anchor produce vendor is complaining about doing poorly. He blames lower turnout and especially the competition from our two new produce vendors.
 
While the depressed turnout is in part on account of the uncooperative weather, it’s also true that the customers love the two new vendors, and they’re almost certainly taking business away from the older one.
 
This vendor probably wasn’t helped by the fact that he had an issue for a few weeks with what some people were calling a poor layout, and an obnoxious employee. He seems to have become aware of that, since his layout and customer service have been improved in the last two weeks.
 
Still, this brings up a question about the market itself. The vendor having issues is an established, larger-scale operation with high overhead. The two new vendors are small, low-overhead, staffed by the farmers themselves. I still think the basic principle of striving for greater variety among multiple vendors, which we all agreed upon during the off-season at least where it came to produce, is the right one. Our admittedly clumsy customer survey had also indicated that people want greater variety. But our having offered this doesn’t seem to have caused the customers to buy much more in the aggregate. Instead, they’re spreading out the buy among the vendors to some extent.
 
It’s possible that for the time being our market has, given the local demographics, the competition, and the state of the economy, reached a customer traffic plateau for the foreseeable future. If that’s true, then maybe smaller operations like those are a better fit than bigger-overhead ones.
 
That’s just a question toward developing a strategy for the future.

July 30, 2011

Farmers’ Market Update

Filed under: Food and Farms, Relocalization — Tags: , — Russell Bangs @ 1:07 am

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I’ve been meaning to post accounts of the season at the farmers’ market where I work. The first few weeks I neglected to do so, but I’ll get started now.
 
Just to quickly get up to date – the season’s going pretty well so far, considering the nasty weather (very hot for several weeks). This past Wednesday was finally a nice day.
 
We had one new vendor quit after three weeks because, according to them, this was the first time they didn’t immediately generate a huge customer base, but instead faced a gradual climb. That was unfortunate, but we sucked it up. It doesn’t seem to have affected business.
 
On the whole the vendors are happy. Our two new produce vendors are big hits. Everybody loves their produce and layouts. They both farm just one acre, and are for all intents and purposes organic, though neither is certified. (On another thread we discussed the inadequacy of official certifications.)
 
We may have a slight problem with our bigger, established produce vendor. One of our committee members said she thinks their layout looks bad and that one of their employees is obnoxious and is turning customers off. She wants to have a committee visit to them to discuss the problems. Last year there was also an issue with the inconsistency of their quality. So we’ll see what’s next with that.
 
On that thread mentioned above I alluded to how our market has been sometimes lackadaisical in enforcing our bylaws. Since then I’ve been thinking more about it. A farmers’ market which proclaims localization principles and then enforces them creates its own informal but important imprimatur, a kind of certification. It’s all about reputation based on a proven record of action.
 
This is going to be tremendously important for the relocalization movement going forward. Farmers’ markets, time banks, sustainability groups, must all help create the new structures of morality, loyalty, and cooperative obligation to replace all the old ones which, if they ever existed, have been drained of all life by corporatism and are now mere wraiths whose touch is poison.
 
So I’m already thinking about how our committee can be more resolute for the 2012 season, better organized and determined to build a rock-solid reputation for localization integrity. (I too have voted to relax the rules, although never on anything directly impinging on principle, just on process stuff. But I recognize that it’s the lax attitude in itself which is part of the problem. So I also need to do better.) In many ways we need a more coherent and consciously followed strategy, not just for this but for the economic success of the market, as well as what could be called its political success. (By that I mean community relations – we’re beloved by a faction of the town, disliked by another. The goal is to expand the one and diminish or at least neutralize some of the other.)
 
Then there’s the critical issue of how to convey a sense of community to the vendors themselves. Of course the vendors’ first priority has to be making a living at farming or food processing. But there’s still plenty of room for a more holistic consciousness, that the farmers’ market is far more than a place of business, that it’s a center of rebuilding our communities and our humanity. This is explicit in our statement of principle, and it’s how we on the committee feel about it.
 
I don’t know how much the vendors share this feeling. Clearly the one who bailed was concerned only with the money. Most of the others probably have a mixture of motives, with varying degrees of community-mindedness.
 
It would be great if we could all realize that the more we work together on a community basis, the better off we’ll all be, including materially, in the long run. A mercenary attitude won’t work for anyone who’s not rich. It’s just digging your own grave.
 
Well, I have no specific ideas on how to do any of this yet, or for that matter what specific changes I want to see at the farmers’ market, other than a more close adherence to the bylaws, which all stem from the community-building and relocalization principles which inspired us to start the market in the first place.