American Stock Characters: The Farmer

Fisher Price Farm.jpg

Recently one of the local farmers market organizations sent out some publicity that caught my eye. It was a pitch for farmers markets, encouraging people to attend in order to “learn where your food comes from.” I found this interesting, because the very idea that touring a farmers market would teach us something about the origin of the food we eat is connected to the prominence of the “small family farm” in our cultural memory that I wrote about this last week.

As much as we'd like to believe the ideal, our food does not come straight off the iconic “Fisher-Price Farm.” Its red barn and silo represent the cultural symbol of a farm--a stock character alongside “The Cowboy” and “The Pioneer” (and perhaps “The Founding Fathers”), but the reality of these memories has always been more complex than our American narrative allows. The Fisher-Price Farm was originally released in 1968, just three years before Agriculture Secretary Earl Butz's exhortation to “get big or get out” brought us into the modern age of industrial farming. Would Jefferson be proud that the small-scale land holder is what comes to mind as the mainstay of American agriculture? Or would Jefferson be proud that American farms today are in many ways more similar to his operation at Monticello than to the small-scale farmer setting up at the local market?

If you are a regular grocery store shopper, as most of us are, you may notice the largest of the farmers-market farms showing up in the “Local” display at Giant, or an artisan product finding its way onto the top shelf at Whole Foods. But the farms at a farmers market are simply not the farms that supply our grocery store shelves. The general-audience food that Americans eat is produced on a national, industrial scale not a local farmers-market scale. And industrial agriculture has little in common with the sort of farm you might learn about at a farmers market or by reading these CSA emails.

When you join a farm-based CSA, (like you have), you have a close connection to where the food in your bags comes from, not a simple window into mainstream food production. Connecting with a local food system for your vegetables is inherently different, separate from our national food system. And so, to edit that farmers market pitch, I'd say, "Join a CSA so you CAN know where your food comes from." That possibility of unbroken connection to the source is perhaps the biggest difference here.