Eat Local & Prosper
By Dan Macon
Dan Macon and his family operate Flying Mule Farm, a full-time farming and forestry business. Macon serves as the chair of the Placer Ag Futures project and is on the board of the Foothill Farmers’ Market Association.
In an October 20, 2008, article entitled “Get Global and Prosper,” British Prime Minister Gordon Brown laid out his case for global action to resolve our current global financial crisis. While I certainly don’t have Mr. Brown’s grasp of global economic and political realities, I also don’t share his optimism that global action will improve my family’s quality of life appreciably in the coming months or years. Instead, I believe that staying as local as possible with my economic decisions will have the greatest positive impact – both for my family and for my community.
I believe that staying as local as possible with my economic decisions will have the greatest positive impact – both for my family and for my community.
What does it mean to stay local? As a farmer in Placer County, it means that I want to personally know as many of my customers as possible. I want to know who is eating the food that I produce in Auburn and Lincoln. I want to know who is using the lumber I mill in Colfax. These decisions obviously influence the scale at which my family operates our farm. Rather than raising crops (lambs, in our case) to feed the world, we operate at a size necessary to feed as many of our neighbors as possible. These decisions also influence the ways in which we market our products. Rather than sell our lambs into the international commodity system, we offer meat to customers at local farmers’ markets, specialty shops and restaurants. We offer lumber to neighbors with small-scale building projects.
As a consumer in Placer County, staying local means I try to find direct connections with local businesses that produce and sell the things our family needs. Whenever possible, we do business with locally-owned companies. Clothing might be more expensive at a locally-owned shop than at Wal-Mart, but perhaps we have learned to do without quite so many items in our wardrobes. When we must do business at with a larger chain store, we ask if they have items that were produced or manufactured locally.
Staying local means that more of my family’s money circulates in the local community rather than flowing to companies in other communities, other states or other countries. Staying local means that we’re eating food that’s in season – cheap table grapes from South America in January help neither our local economy nor our planet. The price we pay for these grapes at the supermarket does not reflect the true cost of their production.
Staying local with our food and fiber production (and consumption) also benefits the land. As author and farmer Wendell Berry suggests, the stewardship of farmland, forestland and rangeland requires the proper scale of operation. While large farms and ranches may have the advantage of lower per unit production costs (or greater economies of scale), I believe that there is a physical limit to the amount of land that one family can care for. The non-commodity values of good farming (conservation of the soil, preservation of wildlife, protection of watersheds) are most affordably attained when they are provided by small farms and ranches – enterprises that are owned and operated at a family scale.
If we as consumers and citizens are serious about returning to a local economy, we need to work together to create a level playing field for local small businesses and small farms.
Obviously, there are numerous impediments to producing for local markets and to buying from local businesses. Some of these barriers are the result of local, state and federal regulations that favor large scale production over local production. For example, current federal meat inspection laws prohibit me from using a local butcher shop to process my meat (because the local shops are not federally inspected). Local environmental health rules are less stringently enforced for a chain supermarket than they are for vendors at our local farmers’ markets. If we as consumers and citizens are serious about returning to a local economy, we need to work together to create a level playing field for local small businesses and small farms. We need to make it possible for farmers to know their customers, and for consumers to know their farmers.
The current economic crisis has been and will continue to be painful for all of us. While I don’t discount the need for action on a global scale to deal with the crisis, I hope we don’t lose sight of the importance of building up our local economies. Staying local will allow us to prosper locally.