Farming Magazine - February, 2009

COLUMNS

Opinion: The Road Not Taken

Poetry Predicting Politics
By Martin Harris Jr.

Is there any industry as involved with government (and therefore, politics) as agriculture? Maybe weaponry or medicine or energy, but, I’d argue, the “military-industrial complex” identified by retiring President Eisenhower in 1961 is a relatively new phenomenon in American history. Washington involvement with health or fuel is even newer. In contrast, its first money and strings forays into the food business—what was once a totally free market economic sector—go back at least to 1862, the Morrill Act and the Lincoln Administration, and then to 1914, the Smith-Lever Act and the Wilson Administration. It was the Morrill Act that got Washington into agricultural education via the land-grant college system, and the Smith-Lever Act that established the cooperative extension system, charged with both “promoting sound and prosperous rural life” and “improving the welfare of the consumer.” Subsequent economic history has shown that goal one soon took second place to goal two, and that producers were earning more and consumers paying more just before the CES was set up than at any time since. That is another story, a well-documented series of political/economic policies and events that, the record shows, have benefitted consumers far more than producers. It’s understandable when you count the votes on each side. In contrast to that historical reality is a recent state-level governance proposal that never happened, and probably won’t, right away, because its advocate failed in her recent bid for the Vermont gubernatorial seat. You might call it “the road not taken,” with due provenance credit to Vermonter Robert Frost’s 1916 poem of that title.

Here’s the proposal, as written by then-candidate Gaye Symington in her Rutland Herald op-ed piece dated October 26, 2007, to coincide with her Eat Local (localvore) initiative aimed at urging her (dare I say “gentry-left”?) constituency to eschew, for example, “industrially-grown” California table crops in favor of a “creative approach”: hand-grown, local, organic, no-long-distance trucking Vermont alternatives. A vote for me, she implicitly promises, is a vote for this initiative:

“Political leadership can and must provide an overall vision for this new, diversified, Vermont agriculture, as well as economic resources to build its infrastructure.”

Overall vision, of course, translates as legislation and regulation, and economic resources, of course, translates as taxing and spending. Taken together, both draw the theoretical outlines for a new Agency of Food Management, one that would arrogate unto itself all the beyond-the-farmgate functions of collection, processing, packaging and distribution to retail outlets that are now in the competitive, free market (well, more or less) economic sector. All that’s missing—and maybe not, because the language is flexible enough to include it, if so desired—is the already well-established idea of a network of state package stores—the only difference being that, in the Symington model, the packages will contain edible, calorie-based solids rather than potable, ethanol-based liquids. Because Symington won’t occupy the gubernatorial offices, at least for the next two years, it will remain, for now, “the road not taken.” Except that Montpelier itself, not surprisingly, has allocated some grant money to fund a similar structure, a sort of quasi-governmental organization, to do the same sort of thing locally.

Our forebears were all localvores. Vermonters—all New Englanders, for that matter, and all Americans in all regions—did of course “eat local” a lot more in decades past than we do now. Before transcontinental rail, Vermont was a major wheat supplier to its own urbanites and to Atlantic seaboard cities. Before refrigeration, two of the four basic food groups were potatoes and salt pork, with chicory/coffee as beverage. Before overnight trucking, there were in-city dairies producing milk under better-not-described conditions, and beef under conditions described in Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle,” a not-too-fictional 1906 account of Chicago meatpacking. Before global sea and air transport, our parents and grandparents rarely saw or consumed pineapples or cocoa, Brazilian coffee or Russian caviar, Mexican table crops or Chilean grapes. For the relatively imperishable commodities they did consume—our grandmothers typically bought flour by the barrel, for example, and baked their own bread—they paid a lot more out of income than our parents or ourselves. All of these subsequent nonlocal, reduced-cost, quality and variety-enhanced food consumption patterns were adopted as quickly as they became economically feasible; conversely, eating local implies that some former benefits—reduced cost, increased variety and availability—would be given a lower priority than some new food attributes, which, under the Symington model, are now to be more highly regarded. Here are her words on the subject:

“Creativity in our food production, marketing and consumption, can help us realize a viable and uniquely Vermont agricultural economy whose authenticity adds value in an otherwise anonymous food system”.

Viable, of course, translates as the need for attractive returns for such customized local production, and adds value translates, of course, as the argument justifying the ensuing higher food prices. There is a sector of the Vermont electorate attuned to just such an argument, buttressed with adverbs like “uniquely” and adjectives like “authentic” not usually associated with ordinary American dinner table selections. We have no statistics for the size of this sector (measured in votes, of course) but, I’d opine in this opinion column, it’s at least as large as the organic/health/ authentic/local consumer sector in the nation at large, estimated by The Wall Street Journal at some 20 percent of all food purchasers, who are, of course, within the 98 percent of all voters who are consumers and not producers of food. The 20 percent are also, arguably and logically, members of the upper income and/or wealth quintiles, whose members are least concerned with controlling the percent of income spent on food, least resistant to, say, the average $2 per gallon premium charged for a gallon of BSE-free milk, and most amenable to, say, comparable premiums for locally grown organic green beans, free-range poultry, beef from miniature cattle breeds (yes, Virginia, there really are mini-Herefords out there in exurbia) or available in winter, local greenhouse table crops.

In Vermont, that 20 percent ( and maybe more) of all 300,000 or so total voters constitutes a very potent 60,000 or so electoral bloc, three times the size of the 20,000 or so public employee (including teachers) bloc, which already has demonstrated enormous prowess in intrastate politics. For a skillful politician, designing a platform plank to please that constituency would normally be a victory productive tactic; why it wasn’t in this election cycle isn’t clear, and may be as simple as the already observed behavior of those least-pressed to cut back—the upper-income-quintiles—doing exactly that sort of retrenchment in the current economic environment. “Cheap Is Cool” headlines a recent Journal piece on new downward trends in upper-middle-class shopping.

But then, in Vermont, if an Agency of Food Management isn’t in your immediate future as a public sector political decision, a fancier kitchen as a private sector household investment decision probably is. From Kitchen and Bath Design News comes an interesting economic nugget showing that consumers are now taking the money they’re not spending anymore at linen-tablecloth restaurants like Bennigan’s, or upscale and pricey organic grocery purveyors like Whole Foods, and plowing it (a little ag analogy, there) instead into nicer domestic hardware and casework for the suddenly more important home kitchen servicing the rapidly-enlarging food prepared and consumed at home economic sector. Read the various socio-economic stats for yourself in the September 08 issue. As Robert Frost knew, for every road not taken, there’s another which is taken:

“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by
And that has made all the difference.”

The author is an architect and former farmer.