Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Is a farm policy museum too wonky to work?

One of the frustrations for small-scale farmers and food-sellers is the existence of massive amounts of state regulation that has developed over decades of increasing government involvement in the food system, often in response to abuses and problems within large-scale industrialized agriculture.  The big growers and processors follow practices that create a higher risk of contamination--the 2006 E. coli outbreak in California spinach showed this in a high-profile way--prompting oversight and stricter rules that smaller farms have to abide by but usually can't afford.

A case last month in Blue Hill, Maine, reduced this situation to its lowest denominator:  a man who farms largely to feed his own family and sells what he doesn't need to his neighbors, all of whom know him and have to come to his farm to pick up what they buy from him.  It's a mode of farming that was extremely widespread in this part of the world in the 18th and early 19th centuries (and sometimes far later, in places).  As the farmer, Dan Brown, points out in a Bangor Daily News article, "This has been done this way for hundreds of years."  It's the ultimate in direct marketing:  the warrant for the food's safety comes from personal relationship and knowledge that the farmer himself is consuming what he (and his single cow, in this case) produces.

Now, of course (you saw this coming), there's been a complaint about the unregulated nature of Brown's milk production and sales, and the state is pushing him to get a distributor's license and come under the official umbrella.  Brown is digging in his heels and his situation is shaping up to be a potential test case in the pushback against big rules being applied to small farmers.  The controversy over the selling of raw milk is at the forefront of this struggle, but the issue is larger than any single product.  It goes to the heart of the differing economic and social visions and realities represented by small-scale production and direct marketing, on the one hand, and large-scale commodity farming, on the other.

It also, it seems to me, has a lot to do with history--in this case, the history of how and why the state got so embroiled in the business of food.  It's a real paradox of our food system that much of what's wrong with it--for example, the heavy hand of government regulation and the move toward mechanized production--is actually a result of well-intentioned people trying to keep farmers on the land and help them make a living in an economic system whose logic of efficiency and economies of scale is in many ways fundamentally at odds with what it takes to keep farms and farming viable. Knowing more about that history may not fix anything in the short term, but it could be a useful lesson in how easy it is to end up with unintended consequences when you're trying to sort out the uneasy (or maybe even unholy) marriage of agriculture and capitalism.

What would a museum devoted to that history look like?  And does one actually exist?  A fairly cursory Internet search turned up the USDA's Agricultural Research Station National Visitor Center in Beltsville, Maryland, which closed last fall (possibly because only a few thousand visitors a year found their way there) and which seemed, in any case, to be in the standard mode of show-casing innovations and inventions rather than talking about agricultural policy in a larger sense. The National Agricultural Library, also in Beltsville, has a fabulous collection of materials, some of which are available online, but they're not in the exhibition business in the way that museums are.  I didn't find anything that came close to what I'm envisioning here:  a museum, or at least an exhibit, that illuminates the complicated history of state regulation and intervention in the farm sector, for better and worse.

Policy history is kind of a tough sell, especially in competition with baby lambs and heirloom apples--but I'm thinking it would have a great deal of utility as we try to sort out how we got into a lot of the problems we're currently trying to get out of.  What do you think?  Too wonky to work? 

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