Salatin keynote gets the wheels turning
TRI research intern ponders the changing landscape of food production…and savors the possibilities.

By Genevieve Slocum

editor's NOTE:

This season our interns took turns tracking their observations and sharing what they were learning as they helped out the various departments here at The Rodale Institute.

This next generation of farmers offered insights into what motivates them to go against the tide when so many farm families struggle to keep up-and-coming generations interested in farming.

As the season turns colder, most of our interns have left us for greener pastures. Genevieve Slocum is staying on a little while longer and will continue sharing her experiences here in Intern Journals.

--NF Editors

Posted February 16, 2007: I recently heard Joel Salatin, an innovative pasture-based meat producer in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, speak at the annual Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA) conference in State College, Pennsylvania. He presented many provocative ideas, among them sharing that one of his marketing strategies is to conduct his buying club as if it’s a drug deal. He keeps it under the radar, away from formal advertising channels, and relies instead on his customers to pass the information to one another and work together to gain access to his product.

Obviously, everything he sells is already well-known for its quality and well-established in local markets. So rather than simply being “out there for sale” and offering to deliver his product, he lets the buying clubs find him through a network of other devoted customers and gain access through individual e-mail requests. That way, he lets people feel that they’ve made a discovery. They negotiate a drop point—a customized meeting place where they can pick up their order—which contributes to the tinge of a black-market transaction. The desired effect, he says, is a business relationship shrouded in mystery and romance.

What is noteworthy about this partially underground market is that the transaction is customized from the product to the details of the delivery and is based on mutuality and negotiation. The customer gets to pick from his entire inventory, and he keeps buyers up to date from month to month about what he has too much or not enough of. Although it is set up like a black market, the whole thing is fully transparent. Customers can come to Salatin’s farm and watch how the food is produced (his chicken slaughter site is a shed with a roof but no walls—questionable according to USDA regulations). And they learn to adapt to the rhythms of what is available at different points in the season—not passively expecting a standardized, uniform product, but developing a flexible arrangement with Salatin.

A word-of-mouth enterprise also encourages collaboration among customers. Buying clubs divvy up the transportation burden among a group of like-minded consumers. His customers even compete with one another for the highest sales volume to get the regional drop point set up closest to them.

Adding an illicit element to any experience compounds its thrill and allure. This is no doubt part of the engine of much of the local and sustainable food movement today, and the sense of community it creates is one of its biggest assets. Adherents are drawn together by common consumer beliefs and because the “alternative” products they seek often demand teamwork and pooled resources to find and obtain. The raw milk market, illegal in many states, is what Sandor Ellix Katz calls “one of the most widespread forms of civil disobedience in the US today” (The Revolution Will Not be Microwaved, Chelsea Green 2005).

Complicated networks of consumers and producers form around the sale of raw dairy products. These products are the centerpiece of small, family, value-added dairy production, since it takes a fairly large farm operation to be able to afford pasteurization equipment. Consumers are forced to make the trip to the farm to get the milk, which also encourages social relationships with the farmer and the other customers. Additionally, the farmer gets to keep the full profit on his product, without handing it off to processors or paying for additional equipment and inspections.

The community that forms around raw dairy is of course based on principle, but there is an added bonus of camaraderie built from undertaking an illicit activity in the company of others; it strengthens the customer base and their loyalty. Joel Salatin knows this and deliberately fosters the same furtive environment for a segment of his customer base.

Another feature of this model is that it reinforces an informal economy. It could be argued that “staying under the radar” will never succeed in attracting the mainstream, convenience-minded, bottom-line consumer, which is probably true. When we think of customers proactively seeking a product based on a big-picture conception of how it’s produced and in what ways it might strengthen a local, diversified economy of small-business owners, we might think: Isn’t this market failure? Isn’t a healthy free market supposed to be driven to efficiency by a bunch of consumers who make self-interested choices based only on price, and by competitive vendors who produce at the lowest cost, regardless of other factors? Instead, we have these handfuls of consumers who purchase with the economic health of their communities in mind, rather than just their own, and who might prefer to team up with a particular producer to get a custom-made product rather than shopping around for an existing product with a better price and convenience factor.

The emerging local food system seems to be based more on collaboration than competition. A CSA customer agrees at the outset of the growing season to accept some of the farmer’s burden of risk, rather than simply adopting the consumer attitude of entitlement and expectation. The typical CSA customer is not worried about getting every penny’s worth of value in his or her share from week to week, nor do they have a rigid expectation about what vegetables they should get on a given week (although they might step back and evaluate the productivity of the season as a whole).

In other words, these customers tend to accept the fact that they don’t have total control over the transaction; they side with the producer, and rather than taking the attitude of “the customer is always right,” they learn that “the customer is always pleasantly surprised.” They are exposed to a broad diversity of produce that they might not otherwise choose and can get suggestions for how to prepare these new offerings from the farmer and other customers. Food choices therefore return to the logic of seasonality—rather than the whims of the consumer—and can bring true nutritional diversity back into the diet.

Historically, when farms (and the families who ran them) were the main unit of production, they were embedded in community life. Productive activities on the farm—from growing to processing—were so diversified, small-scale, and seasonal that no routine, specialized-wage labor force could take over the tasks. Much of the economic activity was “under the radar,” non-market transactions—farmers bartered in products, exchanged labor and equipment, and engaged in many more collective activities than they do today.

Workers were generalists, performing many integrated roles, rather than specializing in one routine process for each locale. Production centers, both for food and manufacturing, were largely local or regional. Production of food and goods was therefore a skilled process. This scenario existed through much of the country well into the twentieth century.

We have a national food system today that is much more economically efficient but in which no region of the country is self-sufficient. Many locales that can barely support human life are thriving metropolises, like Los Angeles or Las Vegas. We can learn from recent history that this need not be an inevitable state of affairs. Consumers now are drawn, for one reason or another, to patronize food systems that celebrate the potential and identity of their locale. Perhaps they feel morally driven, for social and environmental reasons. After all, regions with more small businesses and thus more independent business owners have healthier economies because their communities are not comprised mostly of disempowered wage earners. Or maybe those consumers just get a subversive rush from going around “The Man” and refusing to become dependent upon the status quo.

As farms like Joel Salatin’s find innovative ways to distinguish themselves and attract customers, the niche they carve out in the process creates a more personal, local and conscious food economy.