Thinking Local

Via Laura, I see an artisanal farmer has read some old books on animal husbandry, and renounced some of the more romantic historical views of the locavores:

I discovered that the history we were telling ourselves in the local farm and food systems movement was a myth. It was, in fact, a complete fabrication with no historical basis at all. We had simply wiped G. W. Swift clean from history. We had written away Sinclair's jungle (and his socialism!). In our tale, Chicago, New York, Philadelphia were fed by local, or maybe even regional, farms. In our tale, Grandma, bought local meat from her neighborhood butcher.

My old books say different. My old books say that we wrote away the perfection of Swift's refrigerated rail car by 1880, making it possible to slaughter hundreds of thousands of cows, millions of pigs, and millions of lambs in Chicago and ship them to the major population centers of the east. In other words, we wrote out of existence the great stockyards of Chicago where millions upon millions upon millions of animals from the Western range lands were slaughtered after being fattened on mountains and mountains of corn, which has also been wiped clean from our history.

My old books talk about selling not directly to local butchers, local grocers, or to Grandma. They talk about selling at central livestock markets, almost universally, there being here and there an occasional reference to what we would consider local sales. The prices farmers received ebbed and flowed with the supply dropped off for sale at these central markets because before World War II, before 1900 even, farmers were already selling commodities. We can go back even further than that. One of the major exports of the early American colonies to Britain was barrel upon barrel of brined pork.

I actually had no idea that such obviously ahistorical views were common in the local food movement--indeed, I suspect that he exaggerates. It's true that you can get terrific local produce in my grandparents' farm town, and always have been able to--but they were hauling milk and produce to the railhead for shipment to cities in the 1920s. That's where they made their real money, not off of their neighbors. And I can't imagine how the local food movement could have been unaware of Upton Sinclair's classic muckraking work on the vast meatpacking industry that existed at the turn of the 20th century. I mean, I can easily see how this could have escaped the notice of individual locavores, but surely the movement as a whole can't have believed that industrial farming started in 1940?