Today’s NYTimes story, When Local Makes it Big, is a great story that shows just how removed Americans are from their food. I mean really: if anyone out there truly believes that because Frito-Lay shows them a farmer on television (sadly most people have never seen a farmer!) that Lay’s cares about farmers, or about local, or even about potatoes, then they are stupid. Or at the very least, very naive. Lay’s cares about sales, and to that end, Lay’s cares about buzzwords, and that is what “local,” has become.
A primer: to the extent that local is important, here are some reasons why:
1) because food that is sold and/or consumed near where it is grown is food that does not have to travel, and according to Michael Pollan’s epic Farmer in Chief, our traveling food is the second biggest use of fossil fuel in this country.
2) food grown locally is presumably–unless you live in the Central Valley or Salinas some other agribiz hub–grown on an independent, family-owned farm. And since America was a nation founded on agriculture, it would be nice if they did not go extinct.
3) food that did not travel, that was grown on family farms, is likely to taste better than food grown on an agribiz farms because they grow heirloom (old and old-fashioned) varieties. That is, varieties that existed before companies came along and started modifying seeds so that the food grown from them would last longer, be cheaper to grow, and travel better. And also because the farmers priorities have to do with how the food tastes, not how it holds up on a train, plane, or in an automobile. So… back to those potatoes. Back to Lay’s.
I did a story several years ago for Saveur where I went to Aroostook County, the northernmost county, Maine. Its a potato farming community smack in the middle of nowhere. There was one farmer there, Jim Gerritsen, who was a back-to-the-lander growing boutique potatoes with cool names you’ve never heard like Corola and Rose Finn at his Wood Prairie Farm. For a look at Gerritsen and a Maine potato culture, click here.
Over four days, Jim was the only farmer I met who talked potatoes–or whose family grew potatoes you could eat. the others grew what are called “chipping potatoes,” which went by less charming names like–and I’m making this up but you’ll get the idea–FL-123 (the FL standing for “frito lay”, the rest is a number because the potato was developed in a lab, and labs like to number things). I’m as big a fan of Frito’s corn chips as anyone. They rank right up there with Oreo’s in terms of pleasures I should feel guilty about but don’t. Still, I do not eat them because they are local (that is idiotic) and won’t, no matter how many supposed farmers they put on television. These misleading ads–and Frito-Lay is just one example–are more important than people realize. Because their very existence implies that the companies behind them know the importance of family farms and farmers and “local.” And yet they are using that in a way that is fundamentally deceptive. It’s called lying. All the more reason to shop at your local farmers market, where you will deal with actual people, like Jim Gerritsen, who know their potatoes by names, not numbers. And who really and truly (and I know this might sound corny) care.