Jackie Wheeler agrees that Locavorism seems harder in the (desert) West, as she writes in High Country News. Phoenix must be a far tougher growing area than where I am in the Inland Northwest, and I’ve had my fair share of difficulties. For instance, from my desk I can look out a window onto our deck and see a container of dead tomato plants which, for the cost of the starters and the yield, was a losing proposition.
I thought often about the difficulty in obtaining fresh, local food in remote locations while we were traveling across the country this summer, which is one of the reasons I’m studying the relative availability of such resources this fall.
Of course, proximity alone does not equal access. The time, money, and skills needed to obtain, use, and process fresh, local food are increasingly rare in our society. This is no accident either, but the direct result of generations of commercial agriculture, corporate food production, and government policy working in concert to cheaply feed a growing population while making a tidy profit. And while there has been a backlash against this state of affairs in recent years, turning the nose of such a beast is not easy.
One such obstacle to progress in promoting access to good food is the perception of exclusivity that hangs around the movement like mist from that little leak in the garden hose. There is more than a grain of truth here. Wheeler cites a $2 farmers’ market onion; I myself have read disparaging comments about “those people” regarding Our Co-Op’s attempts to engage the lower-income members of the community as customers. Then there are those who, while surely only trying to help, wind up reinforcing the elitist stereotype. Take Barbara Kingsolver, for example. Wheeler refers to Kingsolver’s book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle as both inspiration and stumbling block, and I can see her point. As eye-opening as it is to read such a fine writer expound on the virtues of growing one’s own, the nagging sense that the author is just a little better than you is hard to escape. Wheeler picks up on this too:
“Kingsolver herself…is a case in point; she is a successful author and her spouse is an academic. Both have sufficient incomes and flexible enough schedules to allow for serious gardening and extensive shopping, food preparation and preservation (all of which was, conveniently, ‘research’ for both during the writing of Animal Vegetable Mineral).”
That’s a good point. I could take it even further, and so I will. Maybe it was her voice, as we listened to the audio version of the book, but Kingsolver comes across as both smug and slightly condescending. She also comes from generations of farmers; it’s “in the blood,” so to speak. It’s hard to put a price tag on that amount of agricultural capital. What put it over the edge for me, though, was-well, two things. First, all of her friends flying in for her birthday didn’t strike me as being very earth-friendly. Second, and the real cherry on the sundae, was her revelation while observing the rustic peasant farmer while she was flying to Italy! To savor the joys of Tuscany! For the love of God already! That was when I checked out of her little universe for good.
I found more of that “who, me?” attitude in a recent New York Times piece by a “reluctant” urban homesteader. Now, it wasn’t the accompanying photo of the author in wool leggings, fluffy scarf, and myriad bracelets that set me off; nor was it the predictable Brooklyn locale of this inspiring tale. Why did it bother me? Maybe because she doesn’t own up to her stock of capital. One commenter put it well,
“…asking if she would address the ways being advantaged enabled her to swing this, though: A Berkeley/Brooklyn free-lance writer who knows about Swiss chard and omega-3s might in a longer article address how class, education and access to decent land ownership/allotment allowed her to pull this off.”
Indeed. Maybe it was this: while modesty is a virtue, false modesty is not. The author’s nonchalant, “anyone can do it” tone, especially after all the trouble I’ve had this year with dying bean starters, barren lasagna-garden beds, spoiled produce shares, and a dormant apple tree is neither appreciated nor helpful. No, raising one’s own food is not easy. It is instead rather difficult, which is part of the reason so many people leave it to the trained professionals. Those fortunate ones who manage to pull it off do no one any favors by pretending otherwise.