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Aug 10, 2012
Thursday I stopped at the Farmer’s Market in downtown Aberdeen. A pleasant breeze was blowing and the stalls were buzzing with customers. I highly recommend it. Corn, green beans, and lettuce were plentiful and cheap. There were jars of delicious looking preserves and smoked chickens to be had. I picked up a couple of zucchini, an eggplant and a bag of green beans. I don’t really like zucchini and I am morally opposed to eggplant, but I like green beans! My vegetarian daughter is visiting from the Cities and I am going to roast greens and purples over charcoal.
The farmer’s market is an institution in little need of defense. Buying food that is fresh because it is locally produced, in its season, is one good way to make a memorable meal. The atmosphere at such markets is always festive and colorful, which is why they are frequently mentioned in tour guides for such faraway places as Madrid or Saint Paul. It is also a pleasure to actually meet the folks that put the seeds in the ground and pull the leafy greens out of it. What could make the experience better?
Well, you could persuade yourself that you are not just shopping wisely but also shopping virtuously. That is what the “buy local” movement is all about. It’s big in Portland, Oregon, so it must be hip. The idea goes like this: buying food locally is better for the environment and is socially responsible. Food grown locally doesn’t have to be shipped across vast distances and so doesn’t have the large carbon footprint that comes with planes, trains and big rig trucks. It is more likely to be produced by a small, independent farm rather than a gigantic agribusiness and so involves less destruction of the soil and water. Finally, it’s a simple moral choice to support local farmers rather than the national and international conglomerates that dominate the food industry.
All of that sounds good, and it may make you feel very righteous when you shop at a farmer’s market, but none of it is true. Transportation costs, including energy, are a very small portion of true costs of produce, even when the produce is shipped across hemispheres. Almost all of the energy burned and the greenhouse gases produced in food production comes at the point where the food is grown. Mother Earth doesn’t care whether this happens in a big or small farm, in Brown County or Argentina. If anything, small farms are less environmentally friendly than large ones, for the same reason that a family of four living in an apartment complex has a smaller carbon footprint than a similar family living in a small house in rural America.
I am pleased to support local farmers for the same reason that I am pleased that Gabby Douglas won the all-around gymnastics gold medal at the Olympics. Go home team! This is nothing to be ashamed of, but there is nothing morally laudable about it either. If I buy grapes grown in Chile, I am helping to raise the standard of living down there. Those folks have families to feed just like I have.
The problem with bogus claims about buying locally is that they provide absolution when a bit more soul searching and menu scrutinizing may be in order. If you really want your table to be environmentally correct, try cutting down a bit on beef. Your average cow has a carbon footprint that would shame Godzilla. It doesn’t matter whether the cow farts in Brown County or Peru. The world has a lot of grass but only one atmosphere.
Buying locally at a farmer’s market is a great way to make a good meal and meet some very fine and interesting folks. It isn’t doing anything to save the environment and it doesn’t make you a better person.