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Strong opinions, weakly held

Is local food production overrated?

In food as in everything, there are few simple answers. Everybody wants some heuristics to help them determine what’s good and in the food world, people look for terms like “organic” or “artisinal” or “local” and generally assume them to be shorthand for, “The person who produced this really cared about how it tastes.”

Heath at Wooly Pigs shoots down that kind of laziness with vigor. First, a little background. Wooly Pigs is a small farm in Washington state that is the only producer of Mangalitsa pigs in the United States. Mangalitsa pigs originate in Hungary, and are much closer in lineage to wild boars than any other domesticated pig. In other words, he’s exactly the kind of farmer who benefits from people with fat wallets looking for easy heuristics to help them pick which food to eat.

I’ve been fascinated by his blog since I first read about it, as it provides a hands on look at the trials and tribulations of a businessman trying to start a new business in a particularly risky industry. Plus, I really like pork, and his goal is to produce the best pork in the world. What’s not to like?

Anyway, he attacks the current local food fetish from a number of angles, including animal welfare, quality of product, and environmental impact. His argument isn’t that small producers are always better or distant producers are always better, but rather that there are no easy way to guess which food producers are really producing quality products in an environmentally sustainable way. Definitely worth reading if you care about what you eat. And if you don’t care about what you eat, there’s something wrong with you.

Update: Heath posted an update of the post I’m discussing, clarifying his thinking on the topic.

7 Comments

  1. As much as I’d love to try some of Heath’s awesome product, his attitude turns me off from purchasing any of his pork. I’ve lived on farms in the past and I understand his frustrations about consumers who buy simply based on fads, and the striking number of people who do little to no research on the background of the food that they buy. I can agree with his frustrations on that account, but to me, the rest of his logic seems incredibly flawed. As a pork farmer, he needs to spend more time attacking the system and less time attacking potential customers. Especially when those customers comprise much of his “base.”

    My problem with his opinion, though, is that he’s making assumptions that he’s trying to promote as fact. I won’t touch on anything about the production of pork, but he seems to be discussing taste and sustainability as if they’re equally important. The point behind buying local food isn’t because customers want the tastiest product- it’s because customers are becoming aware of the impact that unsustainable farming practices are making on the environment and their communities. In the comment thread, Heath brings up that he thinks the carbon footprint of a local farmer is larger than that of an operation that ships strawberries over 3,000 miles. That’s insane. No matter how many “32-mile” trips that farmer might make from his plantation to the city to sell his product, it simply doesn’t compare to the amount of environmental destruction that is made by a major corporation. This is especially true in the American pork industry.

    As an aside, I’m surprised that Heath didn’t even bother to touch on the amount of federal subsidies that are provided to these major corporations, just to keep prices unnaturally low.

    When it comes to purchasing local food from your community farmers market, or making sure that the almonds you’re buying haven’t traveled across an ocean when you could buy ones produced closer at a comparable price, your impact as a consumer is enormous. In our society, we vote with our money and if we, as consumers, are making educated decisions about what we buy, we’re actually performing some of the most important checks and balances that are needed for a capitalist society to function. Taste has nothing to do with it, the movement away from ignorance and into awareness is fundamentally key.

    If anything, using the term “lazy” to describe an educated consumer is almost as offensive as people who just buy their bacon from wal-mart because it’s cheap and “nearby.” To think that buying locally-produced food is an overrated practice is to spit in the face of your neighbour. If someone claims that the taste of a local product is better than that of a superior, artisinal small farming operation that is 1,000 miles away, the purchaser might be wrong but the argument itself is unstable. Taste has nothing to do with it, local food is all about education, awareness, and sustainability.

  2. Interestingly, pretty much only grain producers along with sugar and cotton producers are federally subsidized. Farms producing green veggies, fruit, nuts, and stuff like that are on their own (even if they’re run by big corporations).

  3. A few weeks ago I downloaded the proposal for the 2007 (USA) farm bill, as part of some research for a project I’m working on. I was pretty shocked to see that most independent farmers and startup farmers could only apply for certain federal grants and loans. The rest of the money was allocated to the enormous corporations that are already doing well and running independent farmers out of business.

    (The milk industry is also heavily subsidized, but I think that one is obvious.)

  4. Also I wanted to say thanks for the article, I was redirected here from a friend’s google reader shared items. I’ll definitely be subscribing to your blog :]

  5. When considering one consumer-sized product, it seems obvious that it would be better to send it 30 miles rather than 1000. But you have to consider the combined environmental impact of all the products produced across the industry.

    When you move to more smaller farms, you need to manufacture many more combines and other farm equipment. You need to make more deliveries of feed and seed and other supplies to more remote locations, and then your yield decreases, so you commit more land to producing the same amount of food.

    Economies of scale tend towards reduced cost, reduced duplication of effort, and most importantly for this discussion, reduced waste.

  6. I share Ms. Vacher’s concerns with the distorting impact of subsidies. If I am right, that waste is reduced overall by large farms, then the market should realize that without prodding from the federal government. If Ms. Vacher’s right, that local goods can be produced with comparable or lower waste, then only an elimination of subsidies can help us realize this, and I’d be anxious to see such a system in action.

  7. I’ll be in Seattle next weekend, staying in the University District, so I’m going to see about trying some of Heath’s pigs.

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