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Toward a Less Efficient and More Robust Food System

Editor's Note: This is a version of an address delivered before the High Country Local Food Summit on March 26, in Boone, N.C., organized by Appalachian State University's Sustainable Development Department. The High Country is a three-county region in the mountains of western North Carolina.

I've been asked to talk about how to create a robust, diversified food system here in the High Country.

Now the High Country is a largely rural area, constructed around a relatively small town called Boone. But I'm going to start by doing something odd. I'm going to quote someone who's probably the most famous urban theorist of our time: Jane Jacobs, who died in 2006. Don't worry, I will circle back to what an urban theorist's work has to do with our situation here in rural north Carolina.

In her great book, The Economy of Cities, Jacobs praised what she called the "valuable inefficiencies and impracticalities of cities." To illustrate her point, she invited readers to consider two examples from Victorian England: Manchester and Birmingham-or as she put it, "Efficient Manchester," and "Inefficient Birmingham."

A 19th century marvel and widely hailed as the "city of the future," Manchester represented a break from the past. What Manchester did that was so new and different was simple-it specialized. The city threw its lot with one industry-textiles. Jacobs refers to the "stunning efficiency of its textile mills." By the 1840s, the textile industry dominated the city entirely, Jacob tells us. The industry was brutally competitive; less efficient producers got swallowed up by larger, more streamlined players.

Contemporaries were impressed. For boosters, Manchester's textile industry represented the triumph of the industrial revolution, the vindication of the power division of labor and specialization. As for detractors, a German writer named Karl Marx witnessed Manchester's boom period and loathed the inequality he saw-a few wealthy mill owners and the thousands of impoverished mill workers. He also deplored the dehumanization of labor-the need to force humans to behave repetitive-motion machines. But like the boosters, Marx saw Manchester as a portent of the cities of the future-places that consolidate economic activity into a single industry, and then produce a single kind of product with terrible efficiency.

Now, a little ways to the south of Manchester lies a city called Birmingham. By the mid-19th century, Birmingham looked mired in the past. No one gaped at its "terrible efficiency." Birmingham had a few relatively large industries, Jacob writes, but nothing to compare with Manchester's textile behemoth. What really made Birmingham's economy tick were its small operations. Jacobs tells us that "most of Birmingham's manufacturing was carried out in small organizations employing no more than a dozen workman; many had fewer."

There was a competitive spirit in Birmingham, but also plenty of cooperation. "A lot of these little organizations," writes Jacob, "did bits and pieces of work for other little organizations." In other words, they worked together; they formed networks, loose informal cooperatives.

And unlike in Manchester, there wasn't a lot of big fish swallowing little fish. Birmingham's little organizations "were not rationally or efficiently consolidated," Jacobs writes. "There was a lot of waste of motion, duplication that could certainly have certainly been eliminated by consolidation." In fact, organizations were more likely to spawn new organizations then to swallow old ones. "Able workman were forever breaking off from their employers   and setting up shop for themselves, compounding the fragmentation of work," Jacobs adds.

She says few people took time to comment on Birmingham's economy-and those who did were puzzled that it worked at all. Observers scratched their heads about why the people of Birmingham weren't striving to imitate the emerging textile barons to the north.

Jacobs didn't mention, but I will, a key difference between the two cities: Manchester geared its economy outward; it sought to maximize trade, to import what it didn't produce, and export what it did produce, which was textiles. It strove to be the textile supplier to the British Empire and beyond. Meanwhile, humble Birmingham was mainly taking care of its own needs, turning to outside trade only at the margins.

Of course, as you've probably guessed, things turned out quite a bit differently than most 19th century observers predicted. Efficient Manchester turned out to be a bust. In short, people in other places-namely, in Britain's colony on the Indian subcontinent-learned how to churn out textiles more cheaply. The city's textile industry peaked quickly, and then entered a long and slow phase of decline. Manchester was built not for the future, but rather for obsolescence.

Meanwhile, inefficient Birmingham thrived. "Its fragmented and inefficient little industries kept adding new work, and splitting off new organizations, some of which are very large but still outweighed in total employment and production by the many small ones," Jacobs writes. She adds that by the middle of the 20th century, "only two cities in England remain[ed] vigorous and prosperous. One is London. The other is Birmingham."

Now, there are many lessons and analogies we can draw from this tale of two cities. One obvious analogy from our own time is Detroit. That one-time city of the future threw its lot with the automobile. Today, Detroit is hollowed out and economically depressed. Ironically, its greatest physical asset is not its rusted and shuttered car factories, but rather the prime prairie soil it stands on top of.

While Detroit's car industry lurches to oblivion, its community gardens thrive. Citizens are claiming abandoned land and using it to grow food and a time when cash is short. Pondering the city's budding urban farms, the writer Rebecca Solnit recently went so far as to declare Detroit a kind of city of the future. She writes: "Detroit may be the shining example we can look to-the post-industrial green city that was once the steel-gray capital of Fordist manufacturing." [Harper's]

What I really want to talk about, though, is our own economy here in the High Country. Since moving here five years ago, I've seen our economy specialize in three separate but related industries-construction, tourism, and real estate. We've allowed box-like condos to line our ridge tops so tourists can gaze at Grandfather Mountain.  We've cleared productive forest stands from mountaintops to plunk down second-home McMansions with "360 degree views."

As old tobacco farms shut down because of low prices, gated "communities" sprouted up in their place-swallowing farmland while often preserving the word "farm" in their names. Today, according to Watauga County economic development sources, about half of properties in the county are absentee homes; a third of new building permits relate to seasonal housing.

No doubt, this flurry of activity has brought thousands of jobs to our area. Construction has been a massive employer, as have the restaurants, hotels, and country clubs that cater to the second-homers and vacationers. Many of my friends-including excellent artists, musicians, and farmers who contribute mightily to our community-supplement their incomes by working in construction and tourism-related trades.

But just like Efficient Manchester, the High Country is learning that booms that rely on external forces can quickly lead to busts. It turns out that engine for growth in our area was fueled by a gusher of speculative cash, essentially funny money-a gusher that has now run dry.

The U.S. government is now preparing to use your tax dollars to coax hundreds of billions of real estate-related "toxic assets" off of bank balance sheets; that effort may or may not stabilize teetering megabanks like Citigroup and Bank of America, and it may or may not bail out the investors who took home billions in profit from those deals in the first place. But what the government's program most certainly won't do is restore the flow of easy money that has been clearing ridgelines and mountaintops for second homes-and employing a huge swath of our population.

Happily, I've also witnessed another economic trend since I moved here-the gradual, steady build out of alternative food networks. I'm thinking about institutions like the Watauga County Farmers market, which started decades ago but has experienced rapid growth in recent years; New River Organic Growers, a cooperative of small farmers that band together to market their produce to restaurants that care about quality and want to buy local.

And then there's Maverick Farms, which I helped start, which started the High Country's first CSA in 2005. This year, with a grant from the NC Rural Center, Maverick is rolling out High Country CSA, a multi-farm effort designed to open the CSA model to more consumers and more farmers. We're partnering with New River Organic Growers for the effort; small-scale farmers learn the hard way that cooperation, both among farmers and with the broader community, are key to survival.

These efforts, while growing fast, remain micro-scale. The great bulk of the High Country's food supply comes from the outside, dominated by a few supermarket chains and Wal-Mart. There's not a slaughterhouse in our area that can legally process meat from local farms for sale, but we do have a McDonald's, a Burger King, and a Wendy's-all highly efficient operations. These large companies dominate our food supply. They create some low-skill, low-wage jobs, but they carry most of the food dollars we spend off the mountain, to distant shareholders.

But what if much more of our food dollars stayed within the community-and got cycled through organizations like New River Organic Growers and the Watauga and Ashe County Farmers markets? Here's a rule of thumb: Communities spend about $1,000 per person on food. About 83,000 people live in our three-county area full time. That means we're spending something like $83 million every year on food. And that doesn't even count the money that tourists and second homers spend eating. The great bulk of that money drains out of the community and into the pockets of the people who own Wal-Mart and McDonald's and Lowes Foods.

Now imagine we had a locally owned slaughterhouse that could process the pastured cows that so many people grow here-and now send off to feedlots in Kansas to fatten on corn. If you can access a nearby slaughterhouse, you make a lot more money selling grass-fed beef to your neighbors than selling cows to the meat industry; wouldn't that draw more folks in?

And imagine a locally owned dairy processing plant, that could give a decent price to our few remaining dairy farmers. Given the popularity of real milk from grass-fed cows, wouldn't that be a booming market-and draw more new dairy farmers in? And imagine a community-owned food co-op that could sell all of this stuff at a central place, and maybe a farmer-owned restaurant that could give community members the freshest food possible, while giving farmers a cut of the value that gets added to their produce?

Suddenly, we'd start looking less like Efficient Manchester, relying on outside forces for our economic well-being, and more like Inefficient Birmingham, with a set of thriving, interlocking, highly creative crafts based around food. And we'd eat a lot better, too.

And think how much more robust our economy would be. At a certain point, people stop thinking they need a second home. But they don't typically decide to stop eating. Because of the natural beauty of our area, we'll always draw tourists. A vibrant, accessible, delicious local food economy could be a new calling card-and a way to get tourist dollars flowing broadly through the economy, and not siphoned off to a few resorts and lodges.

The question becomes, how do we get there? I know from hard experience that profit margins on farming tend to be relatively low. There's no way one farmer, or even a group of farmers, can make the investments we need to bolster our food economy. This is a community-scale opportunity that requires community-scale efforts. That means farmers, consumers, elected officials, and landowners working together to harness our assets and overcome our obstacles as a food community. And that is a process that can gain force today.

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