Beyond the Commodity : Food

I read the article ‘What Isn’t for Sale’ in The Atlantic.  On some level it strikes a cord with me.  Read it ; read on.

I’ll step in as a celeb shot for the author and emphatically express that it might be positive for food to make the list.  Food is so real.  Food is our packet of sunlight, the part we get to taste.  Food is central to the human experience.  Why are we selling food?  Seriously, why?  And why do you buy it?  Why do you buy food?

I don’t know…is all food created equal?  Is the organic actually better than the conventional?  What about tilling, is that affecting anything?  Is the soil alive?  Does it matter if the soil is alive?  Is frozen pizza the same level as your favorite place?  How can we feed the cities?  What about rice and beans?  Are you absolutely mad?  Does stress affect the quality of the meat?  What would it be like to exist merely in a contained area, with friends, who are suffering in equal parts to you?  How did they do it 200 years ago?  I don’t know, probably slow.

Look, a candy bar isn’t a diet, and not all food is created equal.  The agriculturalists and cuisine-folk will share stories that are so unique as to be irreplaceable.  Food is not created equal because the ingredients that we choose from alchemate into a novelty, and to some extent, an identity.  Can you feel so much over a food item that you’d include it in what you are, what constitutes who you are?  Do you feel that way about a diet?

Let’s imagine for a second, that the etymology of diet was ‘way of life’.  At some point, diet was what you would consider a way of life.  Today, a diet can and will end, for someone out there.  No doubt this person could have undergone something truly life changing, or lived this day slightly more devious than another.  But the question is what does a change in diet mean for you?  Has diet ever changed your life?

I suppose I might garner a reputation for snobbery at some point in my life.  Though I suppose I might try to avoid that before it happens.  It’s not snobbery, it’s more of an intense interest really.  I eat the chains of distribution while I feast on this neighborhood restaurant.  They are slow to digest and I really had hoped to get enough sleep tonight.

I eat it and I tip well when I can, because to serve those who are faceless can kill a soul.  A fat tip will raise the heart.  The servers are very much stressed.  The cooks, forget them…that was an exercise in management, how you answer will effect the fecundity of your business.  That and if you choose to look at the restaurant as a business or not.

I like good food, seed to swallow and beyond.  Some of the best food I’ve had came with some soil hanging off it.  I felt good about the taste, the atmosphere, and the story.  It’s almost mythic, seeing a lifecyle from beginning to end.  It’s certainly mythic to juice a head sized kohlrabi and drink it slow.  It tastes so sweet, so good, and then there is the broccoli olfactory load.  Perhaps if we can reconcile the power of the broccoli with  the sweet within the kohlrabi, a new tonic will emerge.  Or maybe I’ll suck it up and love it eventually just how it is.

I don’t think I have much of a diet in the traditional sense.  I go to school and work some odd jobs, do design, write and think.  I really just eat what is available.  My mother always used to make these meals with meat, starch, and vegetable.  I can’t say that the Ham Casserole was equal to any other food, or sharing it was equal at every single meal!  She still adheres to the similar pattern, and I feel like I have something like a diet when I’m home.

When I find myself at Sun One, I have another story with those ingredients.  I spent weeks focused on those ingredients.  I spent weeks cooking those ingredients.  I spent weeks trying to sell those ingredients.  And…I didn’t really mind it!  Selling vegetables is fun at farmer’s markets and local markets.  I see that stuff on the shelves in a couple of minutes.  People buy and eat those ingredients.  I don’t know them, but I’m sure they have a nice story about their ingredients.

When a farm doesn’t have to rely on income derived from food production, it eases the burden.  We would most likely decline to comment on our profit margins, but we certainly aren’t going to lose our shirts over it either.  I enjoy the lack of stress, even though I am just an intern and long-term economic viability of the farm doesn’t affect me much.  But for those who do depend on the long-term economic viability of their farm, less stress may be welcomed.

Food isn’t something one will break the bank purchasing.  Some farms don’t find themselves rolling in the dollars shortly after every harvest.  The product is cheap, and the volume is short.  To be successful you need to be savvy.  To be successful you must know your market, know your soil, know yourself.  This could mean specific growing strategies and products.  This could mean micro greens at $50,000/acre , this could mean squash at much below $50,000/acre.

I don’t knock the successful, or the strategies.  It’s a clear example of doing the best with what they’ve got.  Yet, I think there is more to all of this than just succeeding in market gardening/farming.  Putting food into the market is not going to elicit a diet, though it certainly spawns some children of its own.

I have nothing against the diet proposals by various gurus.  Yet, again I fear we’re benefiting from another example of doing the best with what they’ve got.  The market isn’t just in food, it’s in health too.  The diets are commodified like everything else, in ignorance to place and season.  Avocados are great, but I will accept that as I am a resident of New England, they are not practical to become too attached to.

The diet eludes us.  Can you find it for me?  Because I cannot.  Truthfully I haven’t looked that hard, but should I have to look hard for the diet?  What is the diet?  It’s The Diet.

It’s a whole year, with local, seasonal ingredients, satisfying nutritional requirements, all within your region.  The Diet is a holy grail cultural technology that can prove to be a foundation for solving food related issues in the world.  How can I eat January-December?  What kinds of recipes are there?  Is it a way of life?

Grains, Meats, Vegetables, Fruits, Nuts, Seeds, Ferments, Baked, Canned.  What can we do here?

And it needs to be here, it cannot be anywhere else, it has to be proximal.  The further the food goes, the more it is subject to commodification.  The Diet can build a local food culture, and instill a sense of place and time within the annual cycles.  In a world where it is can be hard to find common cultural grounds with those that live around you, local food will always stand as the great connector.

Face it, your life is civilized and modern.  The history is so complex but food was present every step of the way.  This cultural puzzle still hasn’t been solved.  We still don’t know how to obtain The Diet for our region.  All I know is The Diet won’t be born from market conditions, but from sources beyond.  The market created problems for food and diet, problems that may be unsolvable from the same forces that created it.

Develop The Diet, the way of life, and we will be closer to decoupling food with commodity.

CSA? I think you mean FSA.

It was a humid and somewhat rainy night in Great Barrington, MA. We were celebrating Rob’s birthday at Baba Louie’s pizza with some farmer friends. It was my first time meeting these young idealistic farmers from CT, but it was easy to relate immediately to their mindset and strife.

The truth of the matter was that these two interns were experiencing the troubles of farming, not the work, but the financial woes. Debt is so ubiquitous in the U.S., but it is especially insidious in the farming world. The farmers are well aware of their lifestyle slowly obliterating, but it is the consumer (read: non-producer) who takes no notice of this phenomena until CSA sign-ups for next year never come around…because the farm suddenly ceases to exist.

It is not that our fair shareholders are to blame, after all the dominant CSA model has come to be reified by both sides of the coin, the producer and the consumer. Shareholders pay the money, come to the pick up, shoot the shit, and then leave gracefully as they came. Farmer’s use the early sign-ups for up front costs (or to regrettably cover last years losses), buy the seeds, work the land, weed, water, pay for repairs, pay for labor, pay less for unskilled labor, manage fertility schedules, manage CSA pick-up, do wholesale, do farmer’s markets, and perhaps meander ever slowly into debt.  But it’s cool, bankruptcy is the new early retirement in America.

The question that this elicits for myself is…where is this community? CSA is meant to be Community Supported Agriculture, in the dominant model today there is agriculture (duh), there is support (money), and there is…well actually that is it. There are farms with 30 shares (ours), 170 shares, 300 shares, and some we at Sun One know of that do 1200 shares. But these shares are not Local, some are being delivered to NYC, Fairfield County, and wealthy suburbs north of NYC.

Now, this is not a critique on the exploited providing quality for the elite. This is a critique on what I believe CSA has become not only to the consumers of the food in the baskets, but the producers. The issue is that while the quality of life is maintained for the consumer, it gets worse for the majority of the producers out there.

FSA is the dominant CSA model.

Enter FSA. Or what I like to call Financially Supported Agriculture. If there is to be any support happening for agriculture, it is overwhelmingly through money. This is an issue. This is a very dire issue if the goal is to be community supported. Tell me what kind of community is being created 50 miles away from the locus of production? It isn’t. Even when there are members that come from surrounding towns and even our own town of Bethlehem, CT…I cannot say I know anything about them or vice versa.

After putting out surveys this season I was pleased with the results, many of our members were happy with their baskets and vegetable selections.  Spoiler, cabbage isn’t a favorite.  Though there was one member who felt that the baskets were just not covering the expectations and needs of his family, and that the local supermarket would be a better option.  It was a valid opinion piece.   But, of course, I felt melancholy about the whole notion.  On one hand I felt a little closer to this member, I actually learned something about him…he had a family and wanted to provide for them.  On the other hand I couldn’t shake off the idea he had no clue about what he had signed up for.  I suppose this time ignorance was not bliss.

Transactions as the Fundament of CSA

The dominant CSA model (or FSA) has come to regard transactional relationships as fundamental.  I give you the money, you give me the food.  Plenty of authors have dedicated time to this phenomena so I will leave it to you, the reader, to self educate on self-interested rational actors, neoliberal economics, late capitalism, commons, gifting, debt, and money.  Read broad and varied though, for with different perspectives emerges a more well rounded opinion.

The point is that community is not developed via this fundament.  Community is perpetuated through continuing relationships.  Interestingly enough, continuing relationships are not created through transactions.  FSA is transactional, and the relationships continue inasmuch the transactions do too.  So our most unsatisfied customer will terminate our relationship by refusing a CSA sign up for 2015 and quite possibly strengthen his existing relationship with the store via increased patronage or begin a new relationship via alternative CSA.  I doubt I’ll care.

The real CSA

Ideally, if community is a goal, then models that do not rely predominately on transaction must be experimented with.  An example of this is incentive-based labor CSA.  Let’s say hypothetically it costs $500 for a full season share, and this cost covers operations and perhaps a sliver goes towards the owner as income (Hah!).  In a community oriented model, the cost of the CSA has to be high but reducible through participation of the member.  Let’s say we hike the cost to $800 per share and $5/hr reduction on the cost.  But wait…hold the phone, $5/hr is all for farm work?   Yes…I am suggesting a low reduction in the share price.  If you have interned at a farm (or if you’re a millenial doing…any internship) chances are you’re getting that or worse.  The point is empathy, and one would never experience that when transactions are paramount.  Working 60 hours to reduce your CSA bill $300 is a pain, but working 60 hours to increase your savings account $300 is poverty.

This is just one option and I would never suggest a farm relies solely on this model.  FSA is necessary because CSA needs a culture of support and we need to wait on that to come into vogue.

A Radical Model

One other model may include higher transparency on both sides of the transactional relationships.  Farmer’s should ask for more if members stand in good financial graces.  In other words, progressive payment plans.  Already in existence are sliding scale CSA payments (say $500-$800 pay what you can), but there is no real guarantee that those who can afford $800 will pay $800.  What I am suggesting is that members and farmers be up front about their financial standing and work out a consensus-based dollar amount for the CSA share.

Consensus is important because it would be absurd to attach a % of income onto a CSA share.  $50,000 net income and $100,000 net income families of four shouldn’t pay $500 and $1,000(1%) respectively for equal sized baskets, but I imagine a frugal and community oriented family may be willing to donate more.  However, with the prevalence of the FSA model, it is unlikely that we ever even deliberate on what could be appropriate for real support of farmers, communal or financial.

Final Thoughts

Don’t be fooled, there are little real communities being cultivated through the dominant CSA model of FSA.  It is no different than any other transaction done in life.  Whether it is at the farm, a department store, bar, hotel, local market, or strip club, each person can walk away when the transaction is done.  The community that does emerge comes from talking, spending time with one another, empathy, and gifts.  So while I find it somewhat tragic that a ‘CSA’ member will be leaving us after this year, it is also somewhat tragic that I maintain a Fuck Shit All attitude through it all.