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Monday, October 17, 2011

One or Two People Can Make a Difference - Michael Pollan and Barbara Kingsolver

Last weekend I spent a fabulous hour at the local farmer's market (Crystal Springs, Brunswick, Maine). The market was packed - it was a sunny Saturday morning, the farmers beautifully displayed their fruits, vegetables, meats, and eggs, and hoards of shoppers crowded the stalls trying to get their pick of the bounty before everything sold out. I love seeing this kind of activity over locally raised foods - by purchasing directly from farmers, more $ are going directly into their pockets. This means that our money stays local rather than being sent to wealthy corporations several states away.

I realized that a good portion of the sudden rise in popularity of farmer's markets is due to two American authors: Barbara Kingsolver (Animal, Vegetable, Miracle) and Michael Pollan (The Omnivore's Dilemma).

Granted, in many of the more rural areas of the country, farmer's markets and farmstands seem to have always been a part of the landscape. Growing up in rural northern Illinois, what we didn't grow ourselves we often bought from the Schulz Family Farm down the road. Besides raising pigs, cows, and chickens, they had a large market garden that produced the most delectable cantaloupe and sweet corn I've ever tasted.

But I left Illinois in my early 20s and moved west. In many of the western states in the mid to late 90s, farmer's markets were almost unheard of. You bought your food at a grocery store where the lettuce was trucked in from California and the corn from Kansas. In some areas I could buy local peaches or apples certain times of the year, but the season for local food was limited and little to none was organic.

Fast forward to today. Local food is the "in" thing in many areas of the country. New England is home to many fine restaurants who buy as much locally as possible. Portland, Maine, is a foodie's dream-come-true in that regard. Supporting the New England economy is just what we do, and the farmer's markets and farmstands do a pretty good business. While maybe not the most glamorous of professions, most small farmers find it very rewarding to make a living off the land by supplying townsfolk like me with good-tasting, nutritious food.

But the movement is also taking hold in other areas - Portland Oregon and the Hood River are becoming quite the local foodies' hotspots. The farmer's market in Boulder, CO, is one of the largest I've ever seen. Festivals of locally grown food are starting to happen across the country, and more restaurants are realizing that buying locally means fresher, and often more tasty, ingredients. The farmer's market in Olympia, WA is open all year is housed in a dedicated building at the center of the waterfront.

According to the USDA, the number of farmer's markets grew 18% in the two years between 2004 and 2006. To date, there are over 7,000 farmer's markets across the country, up from 4,300 in 2006.

Kingsolver's and Pollan's books, both published in 2007, undoubtedly helped to spur this more recent growth in market numbers. But I believe it's more than just two books. I think these authors helped give many of us a good reason to buy locally whenever possible - they were able to answer questions that many of us have wondered about for so long. Does it make a difference where my lettuce comes from? Why does that store-bought tomato taste like cardboard...and does anyone sell a decent tomato these days? And why should we care about small family farms anyway? Kingsolver and Pollan also prompted many of us to think a little more about our food choices - not only what we eat, but where does it come from? How many miles was that lettuce on a truck before it became part of my salad?

The more we think about our choices, the more we will make conscious rather than unconscious decisions about how to spend our money. And the more consciously we spend our money, the more we as consumers will have our voices heard. Remember, every time you shop you vote with your wallet.