A) Personal relationships are the glue that holds sustainable agriculture together.
Whether they are the farmer-farmer networks that encourage knowledge sharing or the
farmer-eater relationships built around food and community or the eater-eater
relationships that encourage others to buy food locally, the key word is the
"relationship". These relationships are fundamental to changing people's ideas
about "cheap" food and the dominant food system. These relationships CANNOT be
built only on price or value, as John Ikerd said yesterday, or they become vulnerable
to the whimsy of the market and whatever is "in" at the present time. Instead they
are built on notions of trust, on feelings about farmers being an important part of
the community and/or neighborhood, on friendship, on moral grounds, and so on. Sam
Stroupe, a Missouri farmer who direct markets different foods, calls them
"five-minute friendships". He does routes through the city, but also rural areas and
manages to talk to the majority of his customers while he is serving up bread, rolls,
pizza crust or cheese. He knows what is going on in his customers' lives and they
know what's going on in his family. They become repeat customers and then friends.
This is a marketing strategy, but it's also something more.
B) How does one build these personal relationships? Do farmers have time, the knack
or whatever to maintain these relationships? Do consumers? Probably not. Despite
our stressed out society, there are a growing number of people who will go out of
their way to buy food from people whom they know and trust. I acknowledge that
farmers are caught in a bind -- getting and maintaining enough customers (really
friends if you follow Sam's model) takes a lot of time away from growing the food
these people want. But what is the alternative? Personal relationships are one of
the few "marketing" techniques that corporations have a hard time penetrating. As
Dan Nagengast from the Kansas Rural Center told me, "You gotta have it [the marketing
relationship]. And it's the one place where, at least in a certain market, you can
compete with Pillsbury or somebody like that. Because you have something they
don't. I mean they can have millions of dollars of advertising or whatever, but you
can drive up in your pick-up. And be there. Be there every week and people get to
know you." Presumably if people know you and feel more connected to you, they are
more loyal and will support you in your farming operation. This is the best
protection against a centralized, concentrated agriculture system that doesn't give
farmers many rewards.
C) So where do we find eaters who want to pursue these relationships with farmers?
I found in my research with the Kansas City Food Circle that it's easier if people
already hold a worldview that allows them to criticize the present dominant food
system on the basis of social, economic, ecological or justice grounds. These are
the people who are looking for alternatives, particularly if you show them what the
present system does to farmers, rural communities, the enviroment and so on. From my
own personal experience, the best place to find people like this is in churches.
Many churches are looking for forum presentations where you can discuss problems with
the present food system and what it actally means for you as a farmer, or as a
consumer. I have given many presentations in Unitarian/Universalist Churches, for
instance, and will always have people ask for directories of local farmers or how to
get in contact with people to buy their food. I am presently working with a Catholic
parish in a small town in rural Missouri to help some lower-income folks get into
vegetable production for local consumption. In fact, the National Catholic Rural
Life Conference based in Des Moines has a great booklet of articles available that
situate local production and consumption of food within Catholic theology. Green
groups are also a great place to look for people with whom to build relationships.
D) Since farmers have a hard time doing the systematic reaching out in terms of
presentations to churches and other groups, forming a group like a Food Circle might
be an option. Food Circles try to directly connect farmers and eaters through a web
of relationships that span grocers, resturant owners, nutritionists, and others
besides farmers and eaters. Some of your loyal customers might be the best people to
encourage to go out and talk to church groups and community groups. Surprisingly,
many will be willing to do it. A physician in St. Louis recently contacted me for a
list of CSAs in the area because she was putting together a display in her church,
encouraging people to participate in them. She has also organized a forum to discuss
food system issues in their adult education class in August. This was HER OWN
initiative -- my point is there are people out there willing to do it. Farmer's
Market Associations and other farm groups might also do outreach to church and
community groups which spreads out the responsibility a bit from individual
farmers. Of course, after these initial contacts, it still is up to the eater and
farmer to negoitate the relationship.
E) If anybody wants information about the Kansas City Food Circle, you can all their
hotline number at 816-374-5899; or you can contact me for information about the
Columbia Area Food Circle and Callaway County Food Circle.
In my own optimistic view, I think we are starting to reach some critical mass in
terms of consumers who committed to local, sustainable food for a variety of
reasons. It might be more apparent in the Northeast, or the coasts, than in my
hometown in rural Nebraska, but glimpses are appearing everywhere.
Department of Rural Sociology
Univeristy of Missouri
Columbia, MO 65211
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