Posted February 16, 2007: I recently heard Joel
Salatin, an innovative pasture-based meat producer in Virginia’s
Shenandoah Valley, speak at the annual 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 slaughterhouse 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 collaboration 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
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.