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
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
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.