Artisanal cheeses, raw milk, colorful beets. Local farms supply beautiful produce, meats, and cheeses to warm and welcoming gourmet shops like the Belfast Co-op and cafes like Dicocoa’s in Bethel. I place a high value on supporting local farms, and I appreciate high-quality fresh foods. But, it’s rarely cheap.
After watching the Maine Farmland Trust’s series of three short movies, “ Growing Local,” I was struck by the beauty of producing such high-quality, local food. Everything in the movies, even the expected muddiness around the animals, was aesthetically pleasing.
The message was clear: these hardworking farmers do amazing work despite the struggle to compete against the industrial farms. Their products are excellent, they’re busting their butts, and the market should support them.
But the cards are stacked against them. According to the Maine Farmland Trust, the ownership of 400,000 acres of farmland will be in transition in the next decade. Many of us feel it’s urgent and essential that the land is farmed by local people using sustainable practices. But right now, taking on the life of a farmer isn’t necessarily appealing because the obstacles to financial success are too great. Competing against the mega-farms isn’t feasible.
Following the movies presented by the Maine Farmland Trust and the Alfred Conservation Commission, I mentioned to the panel of York County farmers that everything about the movies seemed marketed to “beautiful people.” I’m sure it was clear to everyone I meant wealthy people. How can we dare to suggest that poor people buy local foods — the foods we all see as best for the environment, the economy, and our health — when they are so expensive? I asked. And, how can we make local food more affordable for poor people?
Two answers struck me. Jordan Pine from Two Toad Farm in Lebanon suggested we should buy more local food. Anyone who can afford to buy what I call “fancy” foods should do it if they want to help other people afford the best food, too.
As a consumer of local foods even during my bleakest financial times, I’ve had ongoing concerns that showing the sellers I was willing to pay high prices would mean they’d be able to justify keeping prices high.
But hearing that paying higher prices now could lead to more affordable prices in the future started making sense. If our purchases of “fancy” foods help farmers to start making a living from just farming — just 44 percent of Maine farm operators list farming as their primary occupation — they could eventually afford to lower prices as they compete with the agricultural industrial complex.
The second answer that struck me was about education. It wasn’t a patronizing suggestion like “poor people just need to be taught the food is better for them so they’ll make better choices.”
Amy Sprague of Wolf Pine Farm in Alfred suggested having conversations about what is actually normal or natural for food production. What might seem like a luxury — sustainable farming — should be brought to people from across the socioeconomic spectrum. Lessons like those shared in Joel Salatin’s great book, “ Folks, this ain’t normal,” explain how farming was done long ago and how the long-term viability of family farms and local economies depends on doing what’s normal and natural for the animals and plants we grow for food.
But what about the single mother with $7 in her bank account, physical and mental health challenges, two young children, bills to pay and no immediately expected income? Adding guilt about food choices, or even inviting her to consider the larger economic and environmental issues related to those choices, is not the right thing to do. She doesn’t need the additional demand on her time.
We should let her be. Let her buy the $3.87-per-pound ground beef sold at the Wal-Mart in Biddeford. The rest of us who can, at least some of the time, should spend the extra $2.12 a pound at Rosemont Market and Bakery in Portland for locally grown, grass-fed and finished meat from cows grown, butchered, and processed here in Maine. Our purchases really can make a difference for local farmers, our economy, and, nearest to my heart, the people who don’t have the time or energy to think about where their food comes from. We can help make it possible for everyone to enjoy the best food available just by buying the good stuff for ourselves today.
Heather Denkmire is a writer and artist who lives in Portland with her two young daughters. After a few challenging years, she is growing her small business, where her team helps nonprofit organizations win grants. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her columns appear monthly.