Is our localism too artisanal?

IMG044I recently reviewed Jean-Martin Fortier’s book The Market Gardener (summary: Excellent. Buy it) and was reminded of a philosophical and yet very practical farming question I asked him over beer.

“Since the economy is contracting, and for many reasons we believe the trend will be a general worsening of quality of life, what is your succession plan—what will you do when people can no longer pay for gourmet baby lettuce mix or pints of berries for $6.50?”

Jean-Martin did not have an answer to this question. I also talked a lot about Eliot Coleman in that review, and I don’t recall him answering this question either.

Both men are very intelligent and well-educated. Both men have looked at many factors: industrial agriculture is extractive, and so by definition is unsustainable; climate change; the depletion of fossil fuels and other non-renewable resources. They have, correctly I think, argued that human-powered, small-scale farming is a good response.

Both men have also plotted a course for profitability—they are farming for all the right reasons, but they aren’t going to give the food away. And, they want to show other would-be farmer’s that we can reverse the trend of retirements, foreclosures, auctions and consolidation that has been ongoing for decades.

Fortier also struck me as—ahem—a bit of a doomer. Which is to say I think he has drawn the logical conclusions from the evidence at hand.

And so I was surprised when he didn’t have an answer for my question.

 

I think it is great that so many people are living a more local life. I love the joy of a local economy—I write this with my belly full of local and homemade food, wearing a hoodie made in Vancouver by my friends at Cima Coppi, and wearing Dayton Boots, which were manufactured maybe ten blocks from the hoodie. I find meaning and joy in these relationships. Just pulling on my boots gives me a tiny pleasure every single time—thousands of times over many years.

But most of us localists are still parasites on globalization—we need the fantasy of ever-inflating real estate to fuel renovation and construction, to fill government coffers with tax revenue to be spent on teachers and nurses who shop in retail stores and take trips. We need all these rich urbanites to buy our hand-crafted goods and lovingly harvested veggies.

It sure doesn’t take much to stick a pin in the bubble, as we saw in the US housing market in 2008—which spilled over into Canadian retail and caused a lot of damage. Recently Tim Hudak campaigned on slashing 100,000 jobs. How many of those well-paid government workers shop at the farmer’s market or buy veggies through a CSA?

So I worry. Localism has a large component of seven dollar loaves of bread, ten dollar pints of ice cream, four dollar tomatoes—and stratospheric prices as soon as you start talking about clothing or shoes. How resilient is this localism? How much change can these businesses withstand?

I don’t think these things are very resilient at all. During the Great Depression, there was a surplus of goods and services because people didn’t have enough cash. With the amount of  personal debt we are piling up, people don’t have a lot of slack in their discretionary spending—consumer spending is brittle, susceptible to small perturbations in interest rates, resource prices or the new normal extreme weather events. Regardless of the “value” of goods, if  people do not have disposable income, goods will sit on the shelves.

I don’t have any answers to this—other than I think shoe repair has a great future.

I do see a pattern, though I can’t give it a name. Those of us in the emerging alternative economy—organic gardening, Eastern Medecine, yoga, gourmet kimchi, Reiki, herbalism, coaching, soap-making, organic make-up—you get the picture; we seem to think we should do what we love, and be able to buy a house and a car like everybody else.

We think doing what we love should pay us just as handsomely as doing what we hate.

That is backwards.  You should be paid well for doing what you hate—because otherwise you wouldn’t do it. The most mind-numbing and least demanding jobs should pay the most. There is an enormous Boredom and Repetition Premium owed to factory workers.

So I don’t know. Localism has activated a lot of love-based work. But I think, when money is tight, people will be pretty quick to switch to two-dollar loaves of bread from the supermarket. Filling day-to-day needs at day-to-day prices seems like a largely untouched market—and when I say needs, I really mean needs, not fancies, or desires, or penchants, or whims. Needs.

Obviously this is a problem. If you want to be a small, local, non-artisanal baker making normal loaves of bread for the supermarket, you are competing with the megacorps that put the local bakers out of business in the first place. How do we balance between differentiating ourselves against the megacorps and becoming instantly irrelevant in a financial contraction?

Looking at the challenges of artisanal bakeries vs. local bakeries vs. megacorp bakeries does not even begin to deal with the challenges brought by low-wage, low-rights manufacturers. It is cheaper to send fish caught in Canada to China to be deboned and sent back to Canada. 68% of garlic consumed in Canada is grown in China—despite the fact that some Chinese farmers won’t eat their own vegetables thanks to the industrial pollution.

It is incredibly difficult to compete on commodities with globalized labour—but that still doesn’t make us any more resilient, so at the very least we should have a plan. When do you abandon the artisanal? Can you shift to lower-paying but higher-importance goods, or are you just going to stay with the sinking ship?

As I said, I don’t have any answers to this, but a couple of thoughts come to mind:

Dmitry Orlov writes about how, in the collapse of the Soviet Union, many people had very large gardens on the edge of town that were very important to feed the family. The focus was not on producing for sale, it was on subsistence and augmentation.

Similarly, in 1933 Ralph Borsodi, wrote Flight From the City, the story of how, in 1920, his family moved to a small farm close to New York City. He explicitly cautioned against trying to make money from your land, and instead taught that we should produce for ourselves in order to avoid spending money. They even wove their own fabric and sewed their own clothes. This is Jane Jacobs’ Import Replacement on a family scale.

Now, all of this self-provender does not pay the rent; you still need to work for dollar bills. But it does short-circuit what Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen called,

…“the circumdrome of the shaving machine”, which is to shave oneself faster so as to have more time to work on a machine that shaves faster so as to have more time to work on a machine that shaves still faster, and so on ad infinitum.

So, I think if relocalization is truly going to be a force for sustainability, we need to be able to provide for daily sustenance instead of opening pop-up shaving machine boutiques. Sure, a new doggie-biscuit bakery keeps dollars revolving in our local economy, but when the economy hits a rough patch, it will be gone—out of business. But the megacorp selling two-dollar loaves of bread will still be vacuuming dollars out of our community, day in and day out, year after year.

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