Cannibalizing our Compatriots
Written onAugust 20 , 2013
Vermont has big farms and little farms, organic and conventional growers, pasture-based and feedlot operations, old farmers and young farmers, entrepreneurs and large agribusinesses. In these Green Mountains and across this country we have a complex food production system, with each agricultural business doing what it can to stay viable and profitable.
Still, I have a simple question: With all of the new locally grown, value added, and regionally produced foods we have in Vermont, are we bringing new customers to the marketplace at the same pace that we are creating these foods?
Yes, we have more farmers’ markets, more stores at which to buy local food, more direct sales and CSAs, and better access than ever. But I would ask producers: Are you selling more at your farmers’ market, now that your county has them five days a week? Do you see a steady stream of new customers? Is your business booming to the point where you’re always considering scaling up due to a dramatic increase in demand? And I would ask consumers: are you buying more or the same amount of local food you did last year?
At Black River Produce, the Springfield-based food distribution company where I work, I’m getting more calls from producers who are looking to sell us a variety of local foods. They’re looking for a distributor to help them move produce, cheese, meat, and value-added products. As we evaluate each call, we ask ourselves the same question: Can we move this product at this price and do we have the sales history that shows us the demand is there? For 35 years we have worked with local growers to help supply our customers with local food, but we need to be able to sell everything we buy. For every product we pick up, we need to know there is someone who is looking for it or open to it, is willing to pay the price, and can make a commitment to purchasing it on a regular basis.
So producers, are you bringing new customers to the marketplace for your products? Or the better question is, whose existing customers are you selling your products to?
When we sell to someone else’s customer it’s called market displacement. In essence, there is one giant pot of money that gets spent around the world on food, and as we spend each tiny sliver of our food dollar, every choice displaces others. Cage-free eggs are now displacing commodity eggs on the grocery shelf, organic spring mix now displaces iceberg, and local, value-added products displace shelf space that was previously occupied by mainstream products. Our tastes and buying patterns have an impact on the market around us.
So when a producer targets an established market with a competing product without bringing new customers to the market, “cannibalism” happens. Let’s say you grow tomatoes, and you decide to find a Vermont Fresh Network restaurant that buys local so you can sell them your tomatoes. They may already have a tomato supplier, but yours are better, maybe cheaper, maybe organic, sustainable, have a better shelf life…so the restaurant buys your tomatoes, and just like that you have displaced another local producer. You have not increased local food consumption, you have displaced local food purchasing and, in my opinion, you have taken the easy way out.
Or maybe your goal is to sell to the food co-op down the road. You shop there, it’s close, and it makes sense for your business. You show up with your tomatoes and those tomatoes go on the shelf with everyone else’s. If there isn’t a big uptick in tomato customers, then you are selling more while everyone else sells a bit less. And what happens to those other farmers who had a market? They need to find a home now for their tomatoes; they need a buyer. There is the problem. As a farmer, is your role just to produce food or do you have a responsibility to find new consumers to minimize the displacement of other local products? To keep from “cannibalizing” your compatriots in the farming community?
We always need to be conscious of other farmers, producers, and those who are distributing local products in the same marketplace because they have invested in this local food system with us.
The grand idea is that locally produced food should displace commodity food, that we get foods in season from our regional food communities, that the dollars we spend on local food creates growth and innovation within our borders, and that over time we become more dependent upon ourselves to feed the state. Instead, we are all competing for the same piece of the pie. We are taking the low-hanging fruit and looking for short-term gains without understanding the long-term consequences.
What are those consequences? By focusing our local food marketing so tightly on the “educated” consumer and not looking for new customers, we’ve alienated mainstream audiences from local food. Is local for everyone, or just for the elite? Do you have to drive a Prius with a localvore sticker to be a conscious consumer or can you also love Doritos and NASCAR?
If you’re a producer, ask yourself who it is that you’ve brought to the marketplace, and who you’ve turned toward local who wasn’t interested before. Who are you engaging with now, and who will be your advocate in the future? How will you inspire someone to become engaged, and how will you adapt to others who do not consider these questions?
We like people who have the same interests and values as ourselves. But the local food clique needs to branch out to attract more consumers. When I see the new Skinny Pancake in the Burlington airport, I see travelers who are engaging in a local foods purchase and offsetting a dollar that would have been spent on fast food or commodity, processed foods. They are reallocating their purchases toward a local food system. When I see Sodexo, the national food service company, make a commitment to state colleges and begin to purchase more local foods, I see producers and distributors looking to meet those needs at reasonable prices. And when I see someone change their purchasing behavior because of health issues or a life-changing event, I am encouraged that we have only begun to touch the tip of the iceberg when it comes to local food sales in Vermont.
If you’re an ordinary consumer or local food advocate, why not ask your neighborhood grocery chain why they don’t have local produce when it’s in season or local ground beef in an aisle of commodity. Heck, ask them every time you go out to buy toilet paper and Band-Aids. Can you start a CSA at a local business to engage a new consumer group or bring a brownie troop to a pick your own?
If you love a local food system, work at bringing new people to it. We all need to make a conscious decision to get new people interested. Ask yourself: Are you a cannibal, or will you become a cannibal? What is your plan for the future? What is your neighbor’s? What are you going to do to help find new consumers for our beloved local food? Will you wait for someone else to do it or will you take it by the horns? Let’s make sure that as we grow together, every producer has a buyer for the food they produce. Let’s continue to grow a food system the right way.
(This piece is written from a personal perspective and is not the official opinion of BRP.)