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A Pollination Moment
from Pollinator Paradise Farmer's Market E-mail reminders

8/16/2003
Why Buy Local?  Part 1

Each spring and fall I spend several weeks helping fruit growers in Northern New Mexico with pollination by the blue orchard bee.  The town of Taos, New Mexico, is home base for this endeavor.  Taos is a small community with a resident population of 4,700, which swells to at least double that with tourists for much of the year.  They come to ski during the winter, and year-round to absorb the multicultural atmosphere that suffuses the town from its ties with Taos Pueblo, its roots as an old Spanish settlement, and its vibrant art colony.

For the past 6 months or so, Taos has been in the midst of a controversy over whether to allow Walmart to replace their old store with a new Superstore.  The argument against a "big box" store is that they will undercut prices and ultimately bankrupt local businesses.  The opposition also fears that a huge store will ruin the picturesque historical multicultural atmosphere.

The biggest supporters are the folks who work for WalMart.  I find that interesting.  One of the first stories that I did for the Western Canyon Chronicle, Parma's new local paper, was about a family in Parma whose house burned down last December.  The mother works for WalMart in Ontario, OR.   She was totally supportive of them, especially since they pitched in and supported her and her family in their time of need.  

This woman had worked for a while at the Parma Research and Extension Center where I used to work, so I knew her.  She was probably paid more to work as a WalMart Associate than she was paid as "irregular help" for the University of Idaho, and she certainly had much more support from WalMart than she would have received if she had been working for the University when her house burned.  Talking to her made me see the WalMart situation a bit differently.  The jobs that they provide in a poor community are pretty good.

In Taos, it looked like the majority of the community was opposed to a WalMart Superstore, and for a while they seemed to be winning the debate.  Now I hear that WalMart threatens to open their superstore right outside the city limits, having failed to convince city council to permit them to build in town.  I'm not surprised.  Often big business is like a huge locomotive, too heavy and too much momentum to slow it down, let alone stop it.

John and I have stopped occasionally at the WalMart Superstore in Nampa after Farmers' Market, and we are struck by the contrast!  We walk through the produce section of the food store to check out the prices and we want to shake every person who is looking at the plastic wrapped, waxed, under ripe produce, and tell them they should come downtown to the Farmers' Market for REAL veggies, for heaven's sake.   If even a small fraction of the shoppers at WalMart who haven't been were to shop at the Farmers' Market we might all sell out every week.  And that money would stay in the local community, rather than some going to corporate headquarters in Bentonville AR.

Last spring I heard Janie Burns, President and founder of the Idaho Organic Growers' Association, speak about buying local food.  She is aware of a number of surveys that show that lots of people are interested in buying locally (thanks in part to 9/11, sadly).  She has an interesting metaphor for what is happening in agriculture.  She imagines farms as balls in a big black box.  Historically farms were small family affairs represented in her metaphor as a box filled with small balls.  As farms grew, fewer but bigger balls filled the space.  More recently corporations having been buying medium sized farms. The balls in the black box get larger and larger, and fewer of them are present.  But that leaves more room in the interstitial spaces for small farmers.  She sees the intermediate sized farm as being squeezed the most.

I think the same could be said more generally of our economy.  As more and more WalMart Superstores are built, the possibilities for finding market niches for local vendors increases.  The Nampa Farmers' Market is doing very well this year, with profits overall up by at least 1/3 over last year, and more vendors than ever.  Probably 1/3 or more of the vendors at Nampa Farmers' Market are crafts people, and they have really nice and unusual products to sell.  And I am getting closer to selling out many weeks.  It's very gratifying to watch the market grow.

By the way, John grew up in Bentonville, AR, where his father was the Presbyterian Minister.  The Waltons were part of the congregation, and Sam was John's Sunday School Teacher.  Walton's 5 and 10 Cent Store was a small, local business at the time.  John laments that he never purchased WalMart stock when it first came out (he was in high school). 

Even the "Big Boxes" of the world have a personal face when you look into it. But the Farmers' Market offers a sense of community within a larger, often impersonal world.  We are enjoying our current position wedged into the interstial spaces of the economy with our Farmers' Market booth.

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August 15, 2003
Copyright 2003, Karen Strickler. All rights reserved.