On January 23rd at the 92nd Street Y, Dan Barber interviewed Joel Salatin, the self-described “Christian, libertarian, environmentalist, capitalist” who also runs a “family owned, multi-generational, pasture-based, beyond organic, local-market farm” in Virginia. I attended along with my Queens Harvest Food Co-op Events co-chair and cohort to learn a little something about sustainable farming. Armed with a (borrowed) notepad and pen, I took down notes about what Salatin considered to be the problems of and solutions to modern methods of farming and eating.
Those topics are not what this blog entry will be about, because the next day, I cracked open that week’s New Yorker to a piece on the myth of brainstorming by Jonah Lehrer. Using MIT’s Building 20 as an example of how it works, the article highlights in the importance of mixing brains from different fields and forcing interactions to foster innovation. In Building 20, linguists, biologists, rocket scientists, military men, musicians, etc etc, all interact and share ideas. Those interactions led to such developments as Chomskyan linguistics and the Bose speaker. The line about Building 20 that stuck out to me was this: “The space also forced solitary scientists to mix and mingle.” Solitary scientists. Immediately, I recalled a quip Salatin made the night before, a quip I wrote down because I thought it was cheeky, not because I thought it would have any larger implications: Farmers farm because they don’t like people.
Do farmers and sci/tech types share an aversion to social interaction? Stereotypical and damning as these preconceptions can be, I imagine a geek sitting stone faced at his computer late at night in his underwear, and a farmer four time zones away sitting stone faced on his tractor in jeans, both getting lost in the white noise around them—the low electric hum of a power strip and internal fan, and the jarring rumble of an industrial engine, respectively. If there is any truth to these images, it means that farmers with a mission, farmers like like Salatin, need a Building 20.
Dan Barber said that night at 92Y that the typical farmers market shopper is a “frou-frou” urbanite with only one arm to carry groceries (which will consist of ribboned breads and cute condiments), because the other arm is holding a small dog. Of course my immediate internal response was, “That’s not me,” and then, “Or anyone else I know.” Stand one day at a farmer’s market and you’ll see the incredible diversity of shoppers. Many may be stopping in for their first and last time, but many more are granola-types with reusable bags in one hand, and stalks of fennel in the other. And all will have some connection, fleeting or furious, to the local food movement.
“Most farmers, their downside is marketing,” said Salatin, and there is a “crisis of participation” from the community. So that’s where us shoppers/thinkers/writers/marketers/entrepreneurs/cooks/eaters come in. If the solitary farmer doesn’t know how to market to his community, doesn’t know how to get the “frou-frou” dog lady to buy more than tomato chutney and a pumpkin cookie, then perhaps, for starters, the farmers market is the place to tell him. At least, the place to discuss goals and setbacks, to toss back and forth what both sides like and don’t like about the food culture and marketplace, and to discover new ways to promote the “return to normalcy” that the sustainable/local food culture so embodies. From the diversity of shoppers and their diversity of ideas, talents, and passions, surely something innovative and game-changing can emerge from a simple interaction with a solitary farmer. So the next time you’re at the farmers market, dear reader, I encourage you to engage with venders, and perhaps both parties will take away something innovative.