I was responding to a comment on my recent review of Michael Pollan’s “Farmer in Chief” letter in the New York Times Magazine last week, and it struck me that there’s a very important element missing in all these discussions of creating local food economies: local food processing.
Because I can (that is, preserve food in jars using boiling water and pressure-processing methods), and because I teach a couple of people each season to can, I sometimes get frustrated with customers at farmers markets who decline to take the farmers up on their bulk discounts for produce that could easily be put up using simple methods of boiling water bath canning, drying, or freezing.
But among the general population, there is little knowledge of these methods, and those whom I’ve taught often remember that their mothers and/or grandmothers canned and preserved the harvest from their gardens and those of their neighbors, but stopped doing the labor once their incomes became secure enough to simply buy what they needed when they needed it.
Too, the feminist revolution of the sixties and seventies taught women that their place was not necessarily in the kitchen, and many of them left it for good. I’m not passing judgment on that kitchen desertion, only thinking it might have something to do with the loss of many of the traditional kitchen arts from subsequent generations.
It’s a lot of work to put up the harvest, and many don’t have the know-how or the time (or, not having the know-how, presume they don’t have the time) to fill their pantries with the local bounty of their own gardens or those of their local producers.
On the one hand, this lack of individual know-how can be lessened by teaching these arts in community education classes (and I brushed up on my own skills in a class at a kitchen shop in Madison, WI), but in order for a local food economy to really thrive, there must be some way to mass-preserve the local harvest and offer it for sale in that community.
Many small towns did have local canning companies and cooperatives in the era of Victory Gardens, but I would guess without looking that almost all of those are long gone. Now, in towns like Vermillion, there’s a growing local food economy, but it basically shuts down at the end of October. If you didn’t can, preserve, and otherwise put by what you could get from your own garden, the farmers market, and the other market gardens and farms, you’re back to relying on the industrial food economy until next May or June. That’s over half the year!
Local processing is a huge part of the local food economy, and it allows producers to expand their production, knowing that the literal fruits of their labor will not end up as next year’s compost. We all love compost, but compost doesn’t (at least directly) pay the bills.
If a local farmer grows a few tons of tomatoes and can only sell half at the various farmers markets he or she attends, the options are pretty limited for disposal of the rest of that crop. If they were counting on that money to make their house payment (one recalls the story of the heirloom “Mortgage Lifter“), they will likely be going out to look for a “steady job” that takes time away from the farm. There goes part of the local food economy.
While Pollan’s ideas on subsidizing farmers based on their crop diversity or on the time their fields remain green are positive ones, I think that government funding injected into rebuilding local food economies might in some cases be better spent on the processing side. Many small, local farmers are simply producing to meet demand, and are having to spend time off the farm to supplement their farm incomes because the seasonal demand isn’t enough to keep them on that farm full-time.
A local processor could provide farmers a method to sell their pre-preserved produce either directly (jarred salsas professionally processed and sold at their farm stand or market table) or indirectly–with processors buying the produce outright and marketing finished products to grocery stores, co-ops, and specialty stores.
Consumers who are interested in building a safe and diverse year-round local food economy should encourage their local government officials to support efforts to bring in local processors in order to provide a needed market to local producers.