‘Agri’ came before ‘culture’
Before agriculture, humans were nomads by necessity. They could not store food for long periods, so they were in constant search for food. Through the use of crude tools to turn the soil and the accidental or intentional interbreeding of grasses, they began to produce enough grain to store. As their farming processes improved, fewer family members had to be devoted to food production and more people could come together for mutual protection and communication. From those interactions, cultures developed.
According to Charles Mann, author of 1491, “In these suddenly more populous societies, ideas could be more readily exchanged, and rates of technological and social innovation soared. Religion and art—the hallmarks of civilization—flourished.”
Maryland towns were located based on their potential to aggregate (and sometimes process) farm and other land base resources. Those which were the most successful grew the largest. And in those towns, culture usually flourished.
After the Industrial Revolution, towns lost much of their resource-based commerce
The Industrial Revolution affected the economies of rural towns in several ways. First, workers were drawn to cities with manufacturing jobs, and away from rural areas. Then large food processing facilities out-competed smaller processing facilities so that local food and resource-based jobs were no longer local. Finally, large agricultural operations out-competed smaller ones so that the smaller towns were left surrounded by commodity farms with products that they could not directly utilize. No doubt, industrialized food have reduced our food budget as a percentage of our incomes, but at what cost?
Globalization has only made the situation crazier, with chickens being raised in the U.S., shipped to China for processing and returned to the U.S. for sale. Does anyone else feel that this is crazy?
When we separate ourselves from our food sources, we become disconnected with nature and uninformed about the social and environmental methods used to produce our food. We also lose a key opportunity to connect with others in our community over an product that we all obviously need.
With the local food movement, some towns are finding new life.
Harwick Vermont has seen hard times, as highlighted in Ben Hewitt’s book The Town that Food Saved. Established to mine granite from a neighboring mountain, the town began to dry up with the market demand for granite. In the last decade or so, there has been a resolve to establish the town as a mecca for local food. A food co-op is a main retail operation in the little town. The town has created a food incubator, the Vermont Food Venture Center, for start-up businesses using local food. They have a community vegetable garden known as Atkins Field. And, of course, it is surrounded by entrepreneurial farmers who provide and amazing variety of goods from a rocky Northern state. All of this has happened in a town the size of Chesapeake Beach.
It did not happen in a vacuum. Many of the good things happening in Hardwick are the result of The Center for an Agricultural Economy, comprised of community leaders.
North Beach, Maryland took the initiative to establish a farmers’ market several years ago, in the belief that it would bring more life to the town. They closed a street, advertised widely, and brought in entertainment to support the market kickoff. The efforts were very effective and now stores and restaurants stay open longer, acknowledging the crowds coming to the markets.
Agriculture came before culture. Communities need economic activity to prosper. We should not allow corporate activities and globalization to take away our economic potential. In figuring out where to start, we only need to look down at our plates. Now where did that food come from?