I’m going to throw out some scattered points – the connections may not seem obvious, but I’ll bring it all together at the end. The big picture that emerges is incredibly exciting to me. My most important, critical competition is Walmart, and anyone who is growing good food on a small scale is an invaluable help for me. Especially if they are close to me, and even more so if they are in my own neighborhood.
Here we go…
If I set up shop in a farmers market, and there are a dozen other farms with their booths, and I go home at the end of the day with unsold produce, then yes, I was in competition with the other farmers. But would label tomatoes as a weed if you planted five of them per square foot?
Some fruits and vegetables are incredibly more nutritionally dense than others. A good comparison would be comparing young, sweet kale leaves to romain lettuce. One serving is not like another. And more than just different kinds of foods, nutrition can vary immensely based on the specific variety of a vegetable, and the way it is grown can have a huge impact on its value for improving your health (also important is the soil it is grown in). There is a gulf between lettuce and kale, and another gulf (although not as big) between well grown kale and industrially grown cruddy kale.
Almost anyone can walk into a Walmart and afford to buy some fruits and vegetables. The quality and freshness is not the best, but it is just about as affordable and accessible as food can get in this country (the United States). It is very important for everyone to have access to food they can afford. Walmart and friends serve a role right now that nobody else does.
People are creatures of habit, and stick to what is known and comfortable. And yet people can change when given time, and when given examples. But people only change when something else changes first. Because most of the time, people do things for reasons that are connected to reality somehow – and if reality remains unchanged, why would we possibly think that people’s choices would change?
People have limited time, and most food is not cooked from scratch, but poured out of bags and boxes, or zapped in a microwave. The skill of efficiently cooking simple but tasty foods from scratch takes time to learn, along with trial and error. A lot of people don’t have the time to go out and learn this all on their own.
I want to repeat the above point – that people can change, and our society can change, but only if reality itself changes first. This is a critical point.
The USDA recommends eating at least 5 servings of fruit and vegetables everyday, and modern science suggests that we ought to be eating at least 10 servings a day. Eating more plant food is incredibly useful for avoiding degenerative diseases and premature death – and eating more plants helps you feel younger and healthier. And that is industrially raised cardboard-like plants, not even the truly good food that we can raise.
How many vegetables are available in the states, per person? Fewer than three servings a day. We are producing LESS THAN A THIRD of the most important food we can eat. No wonder we decay so badly as we age.
The economy is teetering right now, and there are more troubles in the wings. And more than just our current crises, for the last 40 or 50 years the people in the United States have been pulling in the same effective wages, while facing rising costs for education, healthcare, and etc. Money is tight for ordinary people, and that is not going to change. Unless it changes by money getting even tighter.
Putting it together
The people in my community are malnourished. This is because of a culinary culture that is centered on a mockery of real food, it is because they do not have enough money to buy the fruits and vegetables except for industrial cardboard junk, and because there isn’t even enough of that cardboard junk to go around.
Most people here are used to getting food that with no bug holes, in a brightly lit and air conditioned warehouse with shiny floors. They are used to eating lettuce, tomatoes, and potatoes. And it makes sense – they weren’t raised to know how to enjoy other kinds of vegetables, the packaging really is beautiful and convenient, the prices are cheap, and since they are already there shopping for other things it makes sense to also pick up some produce.
Who is my competition? It is the brilliantly lit, rock bottom priced warehouse that sells boxed macaroni and cheese. The warehouse that indoctrinates people to the idea that convenience is prized above all else, and that peddles the myth that preparing real food from scratch is a luxury for the rich. My competition is the habits and voices inside people’s heads that tell them it is okay to live with all that. My competition is the fact that the modern world, perfectly symbolized by Walmart, has sapped my people of their time, money, energy, and focus.
Who are my allies? Who are the people who are doing the most to change our culture so I can make a living by selling irregularly shaped, handgrown vegetables from a roadside stand? The farmers who are in my region, who are fighting the same fight.
What small fraction of people get enough vegetables to eat? What vanishing fraction shops at farmers markets or joins a CSA? There is so much that needs to be done. We need billions of pounds of well grown fruit and vegetables in the country. We need millions more small farmers. Just in my neighborhood we could use dozens of small farms. How many do we have? At the moment? Zero.
This year our farm will be the first in our neighborhood. Next year, or the year after? I hope we can get more farms started, because the need in my little community vastly outstrips what I could ever provide. And the more farms there are in my community, the more mindshare we will have, and the more we can help each other pull a groundswell of commerce away from the warehouses and back into our neighborhoods.
We small farmers have to work together to develop and share ways to educate people. Ways to get people to eat kale, ways to teach people to learn how to prepare kholrabi, and ways to help people embrace seasonal eating, and so much more.
Competing with Walmart on price
This may be the hardest challenge, because there is no shirking it – we need to fight as hard as we can to learn how to make a living while attacking Walmart on price. If our stuff costs more, the truth is that it will never see broad adoption. No matter how good it is, if people can’t afford it they won’t buy it.
I’ll have much more to say on this in future posts, but I don’t have the answers yet, just ideas and fantasies. It might be impossible. But I find potential impossibilities exhilarating.
What if we grew more perennial vegetables that produced more heavily with less work? What if we worked with soil biology, and permanent groundcovers, and rarely or never had to weed?
What if we found ways to do without expensive coolers, walk behind tractors, soil amendments, weed cloth, and all the other expenses? What if we made an app that tracked people’s purchases at the farm stand, and emailed them recipes and reminders to help them eat more vegetables (and buy in greater quantity)?
What if we found ways to connect so tightly with our local communities that we didn’t have to spend a quarter of our time marketing? What if teaching cooking classes was part of the services we offered, fundamentally integrated with the farm? Or coordinate a community “meal bank”, like a time bank but with a currency of homecooked food instead of hours?
I don’t know how many of those ideas are at all practical. But I know for a fact that what we need to do cannot be accomplished without reality changing. People will not change unless something else changes first. They won’t eat more vegetables and support small farms unless we change ourselves first.
The biggest force keeping people where they are? Walmart, and everything it represents. The biggest force working for change? Small farmers.
Walmart and friends, you are officially on notice – I’ve got my sights on your produce section, and I’m not alone, and we are not going to go away.