(this column first appeared in the Lexington Herald-Leader, October, 2001)
Festival Season! Time for some rustic atmosphere, home-style baked goods and authentic hand-glued crafts! Just steer your SUV through the sprawl zone and out any state route, any weekend from now thru November.
Agri-tourism is heralded as salvation for small farms. A festival brings in more money in three days than an entire crop ten years back, when farmers were wondering if harvest time was worth celebrating. We should applaud anything that keeps farmers farming, and there’s some justice in seeing the people who are turning farmland into suburbia pay 5 bucks for a pumpkin they have to pick themselves.
And certainly anyone well and truly farming deserves to celebrate and have others join in celebrating what they do. That’s assuming that farming is, in fact, what they do.
One of the first festivals began when an East Coast farmer couldn’t get 10¢ a pound for a truckload of his pumpkins. Now, by renting booths to crafters and vendors of corn dogs, and charging 10,000 strangers $3 to traipse his land for a weekend, toting their own pumpkins, he’s made his farm solvent again. This early agritainment success story prompted a wave of imitations.
Now for the sequel. He’s making so much on the festival, he’s quit growing pumpkins. He contracts for them, at 3¢ per pound, with a grower in Georgia, but keeps one patch, for pick-your-own and “curb appeal.” Up by the road.
Agritainment goes beyond Fall. A growers’newsletter tells farmers to wear overalls, or denim dresses on Market days. You garden in cutoffs and T-shirt, but the public wants to see you as they imagine you live. Who knows? If your image is good enough, you could just dress up every day and sell tomatoes for $3 a pound. Pay some dumb So-and-So 18¢ a pound to grow them for you. The real money (we’re told) is in marketing.
Growers have all seen brochures offering “home-style” jams and jellies with your own custom-printed farm label. Used to be you had to grow the berries, but these outfits would process them and slap your label on them. It didn’t quite say you stirred them up yourself, in Granny’s kettle, in your sunny kitchen with the yellow checked curtains and the blue flowered tablecloth, in between growing the actual fruit and keeping the barn painted that pristine red. Not in so many words.
But now they even supply the berries. You just figure your markup, and put them on the shelves, all in the name of enhancing farm market income. Keeping small farms viable and all that. Yee-hah. Meanwhile, some dumb So-and-So, somewhere, is growing the berries. Wonder how much they’re paying him.
Historical note: After the Eastern States had killed off or reservated their Native American populations, Cigar Store Indians first appeared. Foreshadowing today’s mass-produced “Spirit of the Wolf” art, these colorful primitive carvings invoked nostalgia for tobacco’s frontier origins, without risk of contact with an actual Indian.
Today, country décor, farm lifestyle magazines and farm stores are booming. Many people want to “live in the country”: unfortunately, fewer want the labor and risk of farming. So someone has to carefully cultivate an atmosphere of mowed pastures and painted barns, then stand around in bib overalls, straw hats and work boots. We need Cigar-Store Farmers.
Is that really a problem? If farmers are making money, who cares how?
First, people who will pay $5 for a pumpkin they aren’t even going to eat, still insist on cheap beef, chicken, eggs and bread. The American family budget – 10% for food, 20% for entertainment – reflects a severely distorted economy and values.
Second, anybody can dress up in overalls. Anybody can buy, process and label a bunch of fruit. Anybody can truck in a bunch of haybales and nursery mums, and turn a few acres into Fall Paradise. But the chain has to begin with a farmer. All the rest are hucksters. To supply the food, one person in the sequence must have a relationship with the land. To say “the real money’s in marketing” is to devalue that unique relationship.
So hucksters get rich, marketing foolishness – funnel cakes and hot-glue tchotchkes. Meanwhile, Americans take our cheap, abundant food supply for granted, when food is the one thing we literally can’t live without. Not that we’re farming for anyone’s entertainment, but if there’s anyone who deserves a Festival season, it’s the dumb So-and-so’s, not the Cigar-Store Farmers.