Farm to Market

On November 25, 2010 · 2 Comments

I have food on my mind, probably because it’s Thanksgiving morning here in the United States. I image we’ll have very few U.S. readers today. Most of them will be feasting on turkey, watching the American version of "football," and getting mentally prepared to hit the shopping malls tomorrow on Black Friday. This article, by default, is dedicated to the growing audience in Canada, the UK and Australia. While the narrative falls primarily within my own little dominion in the USA, it also addresses wider themes so hopefully you will still find some value in it.

I can’t seem to go into an upscale grocery store, farmers market, or local restaurant without being inundated by reams of descriptive material touting the origination of each little item in excruciating detail. They want me to know that a hunk of artisanal cheese came from Old McDonald’s Farm in east-central Podunk, down the gravel path and over by the millstream. Right over there. See the happy free-range goat by the clump of sweet grass. No, the other. The goat to her left. I think her name is Bessie.

I’m waiting for them to start providing lat/long coordinates, and I’m sure that’s not far behind.

This is a real-world manifestation of the local food movement, which dovetails nicely with the slow food movement. They tout a number of worthwhile benefits ranging from stronger flavors to reduced carbon footprints. I don’t consider myself a foodie except when it comes to my beverage of choice so if I’m sensing a trend it’s definitely filtering into the mainstream.

I’m not meaning to downplay the positive aspects. Advocates don’t need any of my assistance. I’m much more interested in mapping the phenomenon for one very small instance.

View Arlington Farmers Market – in a larger map

These are the primary farm-to-market routes for my local farmers market as of November 2010. Don’t grow too concerned with the lack of detail and missing routes. The "My Maps" function on Google allows only a specific number of waypoints and lines, and I maxed it out. Nonetheless I believe it gives an interesting portrayal of the movement of fresh local agricultural products to at least one of many tens of thousands of farmers markets springing forth spontaneously in the developed world.

I love the way the supply chain tentacles from the metropolitan area to the hinterland like some bizarre agri-octopus. Vendors converge from all directions, from Southern Pennsylvania, Maryland’s Eastern Shore, and from the Coastal and Piedmont regions of Virginia. The farmer’s market eliminates the middleman: farmers get a better price; and consumers get fresher agricultural products.

Most of the vendors travel no more than about 100 miles. They can drive easily to market during early morning hours while traffic is light. Crops sat in fields the previous day, bread is but a few hours old, and herbs destined for replanting are acclimated to the climate. These are hallmarks of an ultra-local supply that mimics the way things used to be before the advent of global markets and mechanized agribusiness. It contrasts rather sharply with produce at a generic grocery store that traveled an average of somewhere between 1,500 and 2,500 miles and may have been pulled from the fields weeks earlier.

I don’t believe this farm-to-market movement supplants the benefits of globalization entirely. I enjoy bananas from Central America and grapes from Chile during long, cold North American winters as much as anyone. Weaving a local supply chain into the mix however provides a nice complement and reliable counterbalance. It can be a very small percentage or a very large one depending on one’s pallet and worldview. That’s a personal choice. The Twelve Mile Circle doesn’t take sides in these debates, it focuses on geography.

I’d love to see a mobile phone App that lets users walk by a grocery store, restaurant or farmers market and see a map like the one I drew quickly by hand spontaneously pop-up on a screen. Consumers who cared deeply about such things could use the App to form quick geographic/price trade-offs as they shopped. Prefer an apple picked yesterday that traveled only 75 miles, for environmental reasons? — one could make a conscious decision by comparing that to a cheaper, industrialized version designed to withstand a journey of 2,500 miles. I probably wouldn’t use the App but I think my wife would.

The germination of an App like this does exist in very limited instances. However I’m thinking of something much more comprehensive, perhaps tied to the GPS chip and changing as one walks past storefronts. The challenge would be keeping the information up-to-date since availability changes daily and seasonally by definition.

I gladly release this idea to the public domain should some smart person wish to make a little money off of it. All I’d ask for in return would be a little Link Love.

Now I need to start preparing for my binge-eating holiday.

On November 25, 2010 · 2 Comments

2 Responses to “Farm to Market”

  1. Excellent piece, and great idea. And here I thought you were going to be posting about the farm-to-market roads that are actually still named as such 🙂

    View Larger Map

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