Notes from the ESRS conference (5)

Back in Wageningen, I am still digesting all the inspiration, material and knowledge that was floating around freely last week at the ESRS conference in Chania, Greece. For example, related to the earlier blog on the conference (2) the Working Group “New forms of citizen-consumer engagement in food networks: diversity, mechanisms and perspectives” had much to offer in addition to our own working group. Indeed, of all the types of consumer driven initiatives, such as food coops, CSA, consumer purchase groups, adoption schemes and landshares, the grow-it-your-own was largely absent. We concluded that a fusion of self-provisioning strategies and consumer driven engagement initiatives are necessary to understand the full spectrum of engagement with food growing.  Another conclusion of the Working Group was that the driving force behind an initiative does not need to correspond with the nature of the initiative. Examples from Czech Republic showed how citizens had set up a farmers market, which is usually seen as a producer initiative. Also here, new terms and definitions were considered such as “civic food networks” or “pro-sumers” to move away from the consumer – producer dichotomy, a distinction which obscures more than it reveals.

The enormous differentiation in initiatives was another key finding when one looks across the presentations in this Working Group. We concluded that it is difficult to discover ‘hidden realities’ and that we most likely underestimate the number of alternative food networks around. Initiatives have different names across countries or sometimes do not want to be known in statistics and databases as they deliberately try to operate outside ‘the system’. The last point includes a tension. We would like to show and make visible the size of the alternative food networks, also to show its significance. But it also reminded me of a paper which I use in a course on political sociology on “Governmentality and territoriality” by Jonathan Murdoch and Neil Ward (1997). Statistics are a useful instrument to govern at a distance and one of the technologies of government now widely used and abused, but which we take for granted now. The paper, however, showed how the collection of statistics of Britisch agriculture from the 19th century onwards failed “not least because of a relunctance on the part of many farmers and landowners to cooperate, based on their belief that the exercise was an interference in their private affairs” (1997: 314). All governments depend on modes of representation by which the domains to be governed become visible. Freedom, according to Foucault, is “the art of not being governed quite so much” (Oksala 2008). A careful approach to visibility sounds healthy to me.

Buying fresh local organic sustainable and just food….

Corn! The first harvest of sweet corn at the farmers market in Des Moines
Corn! The first harvest of sweet corn at the farmers market in Des Moines

While I am staying in Ames, I am enjoying the fresh fruits and vegetables of the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm in which the Flora’s have a share. All throughout the growing season, the weekly share can be picked up at the church, organized by the Farm to Folk Collaborative, which serves as an intermediary organization in order to connect the local producers and consumers. Different CSA farmers and other local producers offering ‘a la carte’, deliver each Tuesday after which the Farm to Folk people take care of assembly and payment handling.

Now I know my way around, I picked up their share at the church this week. It is a share of the Small Potatoes Farm, based in Minburn, southwest of Ames. I had onions, kohlrabi, carrots, squash, potatoes and kale. All the certified organic produce of the Small Potatoes Farm finds its way to the customer through CSA shares. The nature of the CSA model, based on a direct and trusting link between producer and consumer is the closest you can get to an unambiguous ‘honest’ product. It is both organic ánd local. But in the market place both ‘organic’ and ‘local’ can obscure different meanings and practices.

Organic can be produced in an industrial way within the limits of the label. Much of the organic produce in supermarkets is coming from industrial-size farms or companies with farms, which often have an organic line next to conventional production; organic is just another market. The local, at the other hand, has no regulation as to what sustainability standards should be applied. Local produce can come from small scale, but conventional farms, can include the use of pesticides and herbicides for example.

Des Moines Farmers Market

Des Moines Farmers Market

Since organic production has become an industry too, the ‘local’ is often elevated above the organic because the local – by its very nature – cannot be incorporated easily into the centrifuging forces of global commerce. Buying local is an act of opposing corporate food chain powers by going back to a less asymmetrical peer-to-peer relationship between buyer and seller.

A popular platform for these relationships is the farmers market. There are 18 farmers markets in Greater Des Moines (the city and the surrounding counties including Story County in which Ames is located). Saturday, together with Rick, Stacy and Tillie from the Small Potatoes Farm, their worker Brian and his friend, we visited the Des Moines farmers market, one of the biggest in the country. It is huge. Over 200 stands with a variety of products, from vegetables to ‘Dutch letters’ (??), a peculiar S-formed pastry letter, from clothes, to ‘Frisian Gouda’ cheese and from bread to garden equipment.

The beets are 'pesticide free'

The beets are 'chemical free'

Vegetables are promoted as ‘fresh’, ‘without pesticides’ or ‘local’. But that does not necessarily apply to all vegetables at one particular stand. I bought some tomatoes, thinking that I bought local produce. I found out later that it will take a few weeks more before tomatoes can be harvested in Iowa. I have no idea where my tomatoes came from. Being a conscious consumer is hard work.

Conference State College, Pennsylvania

At the joint AFHVS and ASFS conference at State College Pennsylvania, we started with a day of excursions. I joined the ‘local food and flavors’ tour where we visited Tim Browser’s Elk Creek Café and Aleworks and tasted his home-brewed beer and locally sourced food. The local food tasted very good and was as Tim explained, centered around Nouveau Dutchie Cuisine. With humous and black beans as part of the menu, I could not really make a Dutch connection there, but it certainly was delicious.


The next stop was the Tait Farm Foods in the Happy Valley where the owner Kim Tait explained the manifold activities of the farm. They work as a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm and have around 120 families as members. Members come to the farm on a weekly (summer) or bi-weekly (winter) schedule to pick up their seasonal share. STA71544

There are different types of shares, but a full year share for a family costs 1100 dollars. It is also possible to have a workshare, where members can work on the farm for a share of the produce to reduce costs. They have to commit 5 hours a week.

After this we visited a local vineyard the Mount Nittany Vindeyard and Winery in the Brush Valley and tasted some great wines as well as cheeses from a neighboring dairy farm.

What was striking to me especially in the visit of the CSA farm is the strong emphasis you can find here on ‘the community’. As the leaflet of the Tait Farm explains:

“In its most simplified form, the farm grows food for the community and the community supports the farm”.

Yesterday, at the first day of presentations, a session on ‘terroir’ explained differences between the US and Europe regarding their sense of territoriality. Whereas the notion of ‘terroir’ has a strong connection with proximity and social ties in the US, in Europe it has more relation with the specificity of food, the cultural heritage and the cultural history this food expresses. So whereas a ‘local’ sausage from a French region can be found in extralocal market places in Europe, the US understanding of local food as direct marketing, locally embedded in social ties, confines the produce much more to a specific place. Hence, you won’t find many geographical indications protecting specific products here (also because of other reasons).