I make my living at farmers' markets and know my core clientele well. It generally doesn't sport "Gun Control is Hitting Your Target" t-shirts, so it struck me when one showed up at our stand. In answer to my jests, the wearer asked a telling question: "What could be more conservative than eating what my grandparents ate, eating it in season, and knowing my farmer neighbors?"
I had to admit he was on to something.
The local foods movement, springing from a generally affluent, generally left-leaning and thoroughly disenchanted consumer base, has been so identified with liberal motifs that the movement is usually derided by the right as the freak love-child of hippies and yuppies. To be sure, some of the poetic allegiance to all things organic and a frantic fear of all things Monsanto worries those who pride themselves on reasoned discourse. Yet for those of us who see folly in centralized power, the local foods movement has something to tell us. In doing so it is reinventing how many of us eat -- and how an increasing number of us produce -- food.
Those on the right generally distrust centralization of political power and its litany of transgressions against the individual. Those on the left, meanwhile, distrust centralization of market power, which also has an offensive record of abuses against the individual. Centralization in agribusiness, that hazy realm from which our food spontaneously appears, poses its own peculiar set of dangers to the individual because it really represents the accumulation of both political and market power. Now that fewer than two percent of the population is directly engaged in food production (down from twenty-five percent at the beginning of FDR's failed drive to "save the farmer"), the fact that agriculture has been massively consolidated is inescapable. While this is not entirely a bad thing (obesity now trumps hunger in our collective top-ten list of concerns), it does present a troubling aspect. When the vast majority of meat processing (87%) is done by just four companies, the system is top-heavy and fragile. Coupled with the crony-capitalism of powerful lobbies, centralized agriculture makes youthful entry into "the field" difficult and financially reckless. The local foods movement offers an alternative to the agricultural-industrial complex, presenting producers with healthier profit potentials and reviving a more diffuse and independent agrarian production base.
In an address to the Wisconsin State Agricultural Society in 1859, Abraham Lincoln stated that, "no other human occupation opens so wide a field for the profitable and agreeable combination of labor with cultivated thought, as agriculture." The advent of highly mechanized industrial production systems has largely erased the intellectual and emotional bond that Lincoln (and Jefferson before him) relied upon to maintain virtuous citizen-farmers.
Today, a newfound appreciation for old patterns has sprung up. Many erstwhile leftists have discovered that the "Tea Party" themes of liberty and individual responsibility resonate strongly if rooted in a land ethic and in local produce. Right-leaners, for their part, find a novel way to consume food, one which looks very much like their forebears (which is, after all, the essence of "conservatism"). For both, centralization in markets and among corporations is just as pressing a concern as centralization of the State. For both, feeding their dollars into local agriculture is a palatable way to participate in a free-market. Ironically enough, while many liberals express skepticism about laissez-faire economies, they are the first to indignantly resist intrusion by bureaucrats into local farmers' markets, raw-milk cooperatives, and community supported agriculture programs. And while many conservatives balk at "boutique" markets, they find that a connection to real producers gives them a glow not found at Costco or Walmart.
It has always struck me as exemplifying the beauty of a free market that I sweat and toil to serve a clientele that in general I'm ideologically adverse. I serve customers who, if their accoutrement is to be taken seriously (Obama bags, Che t-shirts, "profit is poison" bumper stickers and the like) are decidedly anti-capitalist. And yet during the course of our clearly capitalistic transactions, we both find pleasure in the process and discover a newfound respect for each other.
The revival of local food and local markets is an interesting phenomenon. While it still marches under the banner of the left, it blurs the political distinctions enough that the right ought to feel comfortable joining in. They say that politics makes for poor digestion; who knew that what we digest makes for good politics?
Paul Schwennesen is a southern Arizona rancher. He can be reached at AgrarianLiberty.com.