In an ideal foodie world (and I use that term without derision, for I consider myself one), we would have the shortest possible food supply chain in all circumstances; that is, we would all be getting our food fresh, direct from the farmer/grower, and prepared ourselves in such a way to maintain optimum taste and nutritional content.
Our diets would be composed of the bounty of home gardens and orchards, supplemented by the wares of local growers vending at farmers markets. We would get through our cold Midwestern winters by growing storage vegetables, and canning, drying or freezing everything else we needed.
We would have no use for a traditional grocery store, and would have no desire to pay for all the man hours, fossil fuel and infrastructure required to ship our food its average 1,400 miles from the field to our table; or to manufacture farm products into unrecognizable, shelf-stable morsels wrapped in cellophane packaging.
In short, we would have no middle men between the person who produces the food product and the person who consumes it; a supply chain with only two links, or even fewer when grower and eater are one and the same person. But do we really want to eliminate the middle man?
Lets get real. It is not an ideal foodie world, and eating local is a labor of love that can take a lot of time and effort. Many people do not have the land, and most people do not have the desire, to grow their own food. Farmers markets still only sell a tiny fraction of the total volume of food American consumers buy. And with either of these schemes, we would be climatically limited in what we could grow.
Here in northern Illinois, we have relatively short seasonal windows when fresh fruits and vegetables are ripe and ready for immediate use. We would generally have to preserve what we need for the other 11 months, but many people dont like canned food, and there are very few folks left who even know how to do it. We would have to go completely without bananas, mangoes, pineapples and even coffee. Perish the thought!
It seems to me grocery stores are not going anywhere because, in this global marketplace, we can obtain an affordable, consistent supply of a huge diversity of fresh foodstuffs all year long. Much of it is conventionally grown and shipped internationally, but people are simply unwilling to give up that luxury.
I dont even know what kind of nutritional ramifications the widespread unavailability of much fresh produce would have on our already obese society. Large-scale food manufacturing is not likely to disappear, either. Although things like bread, ice cream and strawberry jam can all be made at home quite readily, people consider this type of home-scale food manufacture drudgery, just as they do food preservation. Plus, for a variety of reasons, many folks only go food shopping once a month. If it werent for convenient, shelf-stable foods, their cupboards would soon be quite bare.
All this tells me that food supply chain middle men are also here for the long haul (pardon the pun) to supply the grocers and manufacturers we have come to rely on.
In many foodie and sustainable agriculture circles, middle men often get a very bad name as being greedy corporate types who want nothing more than to take the largest possible portion of every consumer dollar, thus stealing away what little the farmer gets to put into his or her pocket. Well, middle men are not thieves. They can provide valuable services that must otherwise be replaced by the grower or by the consumer.
Everyone needs to make a profit to stay viable, and you may argue whether their pricing structures are fair, but, when it comes down to it, Ill bet most farmers do not want to get rid of middle men in the food supply chain. Farmers are not practiced in distribution, whereas middle men know how to manage the transport infrastructure in a way that gets products to market as quickly and efficiently as possible.
As a matter of fact, I know quite a few people involved in Illinois sustainable agriculture who are trying to encourage more middle men to get involved in the organic and specialty food market in response to the current lack of regional collection, handling and distribution sites. Even local food can require shipping, depending on your perception of local.
Middle men can definitely be an important resource to farmers. One Chicago-based produce distributor is working with farmers in the region to teach them about post-harvest handling and coordinating production to achieve the necessary quantity, quality and consistency to sell into volume markets, such as restaurants and grocery store chains. After all, if a distributor is going to pay for the labor, fuel and depreciation required to drive to downstate Illinois and purchase produce, that truck is going to have to come back with more than two boxes of zucchini, a bushel of tomatoes at various stages of maturity or a handful of culinary herbs, to make that trip worthwhile.
So, if small farmers and middle men cooperate, they can actually expand markets for farm products and add an element of stability to farm income that is otherwise very hard to obtain. It becomes a profitable and educational arrangement for both parties.
The bottom line is that we foodies can keep trying to eat and proselytize our way toward an idealized vision of local, sustainable food, but we need to realize that true system change is driven by widespread demand and market economics.
The existing food supply chain is not going to rearrange itself quickly or easily, but the more efforts we put toward inciting change from within and encouraging the different links to cooperate and learn from one another, the more likely we are to get this plodding behemoth to start making baby steps toward a more regional system of efficient distribution and sustainably-produced foods.
Andy Larson works with the Initiative for the Development of Entrepreneurs in Agriculture in University of Illinois Extension. He can be reached at (815) 397-7714 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
From the July 26-Aug. 1, 2006, issue