Earlier, I explained that while I believe Organic certification has benefits for certain consumers and producers, it also has some inherent flaws and weaknesses. I believe there is a better solution for many of us. Like many of the practices we’re finding to help us make healthy and ethical choices in the ways we produce, market, acquire, and consume food, this solution is an old one with a bit of assistance from newer technologies.
The old part of the solution is the handshake. In lieu of third-party state-managed certification processes, farmers and customers need to know each other and talk face-to-face. The farmer needs to know what the customer values and desires, in product, quality, and methods. The customer needs to be able to trust that the farmer will produce according to those values and desires. Both need to come to an understanding of what this will cost.
The best way to achieve this is through face-to-face contact. Even in this age of smart phones, tablets, social media, and near-instant communication, we haven’t found a true substitute for shaking another person’s hand and looking her or him in the eyes. Meeting in person allows the best opportunity for the customer to express his or her values and desires not only for the type of food, but also for how that food is produced. It also allows the producer to present the realities of whether or not he or she is able to meet those values and desires, and the costs of doing so. If the perfect match of these values, desires, abilities, and costs does not exist, these meetings also present an opportunity for finding the best match through compromise.
There certainly are obstacles to such meetings, especially in today’s world. Increased mobility, urban concentration, farm consolidation, and the sheer business of life all drive us away from physical, personal meetings.
Consider how car buying has changed in just my generation. When I was a kid and my folks bought a new car, Dad did most of the research, mostly by talking to friends and going to the library (for those who’ve never seen one – it’s a big building with books in it and these helpful people called librarians who put Google to shame when you ask “What would be a great book for a 7 year-old kid who likes dinosaurs, Star Wars, and hunting?” – they still exist, by the way, and I highly recommend you visit and support them). A lot of that research was supplemented and guided by his previous experience with different manufacturers.
After he did that research, Mom and Dad (and sometimes us kids) would go down to the local dealerships and take a look at the floor models of the cars they were considering. Over a couple visits, they’d talk to the salesmen about models, options, and prices, and probably take a test drive before making their final decision and buying or ordering a new car. The transaction always ended with a handshake.
Spring forward a few decades. The last new car we bought (and probably the last new car I will ever buy) was while we were stationed overseas. We did almost all of the research on the Internet, ordered the car through a series of emails (and only one phone call) with a dealership in Germany, completed the paperwork electronically with a scanner. The car was built, put on a boat, and then trucked across the country to Texas to a dealership there, and we never saw so much as a photograph.
When we returned to the States, my family stayed with relatives while I continued to Texas. I landed, got in a taxi, and made a cell phone call to the dealership (the first time I had spoken to them) to tell them I was on my way. When I arrived, the car was in front of the dealership, washed and ready. It took literally 5 minutes to complete the delivery and temporary registration paperwork before I was driving to base.
To some extent, this is amazing, and in another it amazes me how little human interaction was required to complete such a major financial transaction.
Food is an even more important choice, and it has changed similarly. Just a couple generations ago, my Grandparents got their milk from the farmer who produced them (to whom my Grandpa had sold the Ford tractor, and for whom my father had worked the past summer). The following generation, raw milk was produced by local farmers we didn’t know and processed to a dairy we didn’t ever visit, but we did know the “Milk-O” (Aussie for Milkman) who sold and delivered bottled milk and yogurt twice a week.
Nowadays, most people’s milk is produced by immense corporate farms, transported hundreds of miles overland in tractor trailers to huge dairy processing plants, hermetically sealed, and then transported hundreds of miles more to warehouses and then grocery stores before the consumer picks it up from the dairy aisle, rings up the purchase at an automated register, and swipes a credit card, often not even needing a signature to complete the transaction. In many places, he or she can do that entire transaction online and have the purchase delivered to the door by yet another party.
Don’t get me wrong – this kind of process is essential to a large percentage of our highly-urbanized population.
Yet, for many of us I think we can take the best part of our old ways – knowing who produces our food and how they do it – and combine them with the benefits of technology to overcome obstacles presented by our mobile, urban, and busy society.
As we move forward in our production and marketing plan, we are looking at how we can do that. One way obviously is through the use of the Internet and social media to market our products. This blog and our website are examples – with a few clicks, you can quickly research what we produce, how we produce it, and the values behind it. Through comments and emails, we can discuss better ways to meet values and desires of potential customers. Resources such as the NH Farmers Market Association, New Hamphire Made, Slow Money, and others can help us network with consumers and other producers. As we progress, we may take advantage of other possibilities – maybe virtual farm tours, or perhaps even live “farm-cams.”
These are all great tools, but we will always face-to-face meetings and handshakes at the center of our business.