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My Turn/Stanton: Aimed at giants, Question 3 damages Diemand Farm and other businesses

  • STANTON



Tuesday, October 04, 2016

Another small food market closes its doors in Deerfield. A slaughterhouse in Athol faces a recall of contaminated meat. A Wendell poultry farm may find itself getting out of the wholesale egg business if a fall ballot question passes that would prohibit the caging of laying hens.

The Recorder has done an outstanding job of covering the good news coming out of our vibrant local-food sector. But these recent stories also point to some of the complications of trying to rebuild a food system that can feed everyone safely while supporting local ownerships. It’s worth paying close attention to these complications, as we think about what the next steps in re-scaling our food supply might be.

These are problems faced by food businesses trying to exist at what I think of as a “big-small” scale.

In between the very small (food producers who make most of their income selling directly to customers at farmstands and farmers markets or through CSA, Community Supported Agriculture, shares or single-location pubs and restaurants that source largely locally) and the very big (corporations that produce, process and sell food on the gigantic scale of global brands and national supermarket chains), there are particular challenges becoming clearer as the local food economy grows.

Those challenges stem from not having deep pockets and trying to operate in the same circuits as those who do. In some cases, the problem is simply one of going up against stores that can sell cheaply because of their corporate owners’ enormous economies of scale.

This is a familiar problem for small food retailers, including food co-ops that were once the sole outlet for “alternative” foods. When every grocery superstore carries organic kale, how can a much smaller store hope to compete on price or convenience?

In other cases, mid-sized producers, processors and sellers find themselves caught within regulations aimed at the abuses of the very largest operations. Those regulations may stretch the more limited resources of the big-small or may be an inappropriate fit, with the smaller’s business’s practices that are very different from the well-documented downsides of giant “factory farms.”

That’s the case with Question 3 on this fall’s state ballot. Spearheaded by national animal rights groups, the “Massachusetts Minimum Size Requirements for Farm Animal Containment” question isn’t actually aimed at Massachusetts farmers. The longer game seems to be to get consumer-driven legislation passed in a liberal state as one step toward a more comprehensive ban on gestation crates for pigs, veal calf confinement and the caging of laying hens.

It’s a smart strategy. And it’s hard to argue against the images of miserable animals in crates or the stories about what a chicken’s short life is like in a giant shed with up to a million other caged birds. But tackling large-scale problems with this kind of large-scale solution runs the risk of hurting smaller businesses while actually ultimately benefiting those who are now the worst offenders.

If the ballot question passes and the new legislation goes into effect, the giants will be able to adjust. They’re already doing it, although it’s questionable how much more “natural” or enjoyable a chicken’s life is — caged or not — at the scale of these operations.

That scale, though, will allow Walmart and McDonald’s to offer cage-free eggs with a fairly small price bump, giving them a new selling point without really hurting them economically.

That’s not the case for Diemand Farm, the only farm in Massachusetts that actually practices any of the methods being targeted by the ballot question. No matter what you think about caging laying hens — and there are different views on whether it can be practiced in a way that’s humane — the Diemands’ big-small farm in Wendell would have to price their eggs far out of the market in order to offset the costs of the refitting that the new law would require.

Net result: larger producers with deeper pockets end up with even more market share and another piece of the big-small circuitry gets broken. It’s a cycle that food producers in Massachusetts and New England have been struggling with for a very long time, and it needs to be challenged and reversed if we’re going to have a local food system that really works.

The devil is always in the details, of course, and there’s more to each of the stories I’ve mentioned here, as well as examples of mid-sized producers and processors flourishing in regional markets.

But as someone who’s been watching and thinking about the growing pains of rescaled food systems for several years now, I’m struck by the recurring pattern of mid-sized, locally-controlled food businesses getting squeezed and stretched by both competition and regulation that’s determined at far greater scales.

We can support big-small businesses by shopping there, but we’re going to have to do more than just vote with our dollars — for example, we need to push for legislation that goes beyond one-size-fits-all solutions — if we really want to see lasting change.

Cathy Stanton lives in Wendell and teaches anthropology at Tufts University. She is engaged in projects that use food and farming history to think more deeply about food systems. You can read more of her work at farmvalues.net.