One way this can be done is for small farmers to specialise in local food and drink, and to produce individual products based on local environments and traditions, which large producers cannot hope to match. Individuality and diversity should be the watchwords of the small producer.
Here in the US, I believe that this is quite possible. Take cheese. I look forward to the day when America, like France, becomes a nation that makes 365 types of cheese. Charles de Gaulle once said ‘it is impossible to govern a nation that makes 365 types of cheese.’ He understood that when food processing is distributed among hundreds or thousands of artisans, it is more difficult to concentrate power. Hundreds of independent cheesemakers supplying the shops and supermarkets would add up to a lot of political clout, as well as better and more varied food.
The much-maligned butter, meanwhile, is actually turning out to be the health food that some of us always said it was. One nutrient in butter, CLA (conjugated linoleic acid) has been established, at least in lab experiments, as a protector against breast cancer and other malignancies. Corporate scientists are currently working out ways of mass-producing CLA as a food additive, so that the benefits can to go big food corporations. I have a better idea – why not buy organic butter from the farm gate of a small producer?
For those of us who eat meat, meanwhile, a local revolution in its production could lead to better food, better farming and better economics. At present, overzealous health inspectors put huge barriers between meat producers and their local markets. A potential solution could be more use of movable abattoirs, bringing the butcher, with all the necessary sanitation and cold storage, right to the farmer, rather than to the corporate middleman. Such abattoirs could be run by local co-operatives, who could each use them in their own way, to make their own individual varieties of local meat.
What could be a genuinely revolutionary technique for small producers is the process known as lacto-fermentation – a simple method for preserving fruits and vegetables. The most familiar example of a lacto-fermented food is probably sauerkraut, and almost any fruit or vegetable can be preserved in this way. Farmers can make and sell such products at farmers markets and roadside stores, without the need to send all their products to the canning factory or see them rot for lack of buyers.
Lacto-fermentation can also be used to make a wide range of delicious drinks, which can reflect different localities, produce and traditions. Lacto-fermented drinks are found all over the world – though they are being rapidly pushed out by coca colonisation – and are generally very healthy, containing important minerals and enzymes. Old-fashioned ginger ale and root beer were lacto-fermented, as is the Russian drink kvass, and kombucha.
In addition to producing 365 different types of cheese, then, America should be producing hundreds of different types of lacto-fermented drinks. The day when every town or hamlet in America produces its own distinctive brew, made from the products of local woods and fields, will be the day we see the dawning of a new age of health, prosperity and economic vitality.
Imagine how much fun it would be to travel through America and find a different, unique drink in every town. Different drinks could be brewed for different occasions and festivals – there could be fairs and guide books to the brews. Local cafes could serve these local drinks, along with locally-produced cheese, bread, sausages – the list could be endless.
The picture I am painting is a picture of a nation with culture – real culture, not the plastic version served up by the corporations and the ad-men. It could happen. But only if we make it happen.
Adapted from a speech given to the Atlantic Region Biodynamic Conference, 1998
This article first appeared in the Ecologist June 2000