abstract | This article takes up the concept of local food in the context of rural Central Wisconsin. It examines the encounter between two locals—that of the local food movement and that of the denizens of the area—as a means of unearthing the silences and assumptions implicit in the word as wielded by each community. Rather than having the naturalized meaning that many in food activism impute to it, the local is socially constructed and engages people with diverse worldviews. Since locality is also a primary means of expressing identity, it stands to reason that “local” concepts of locality sit uncomfortably with the food movement’s use of the term. To date, many of the successful locally-oriented agricultural schemes have catered to cities, where farmers can trade on urban premiums and nostalgia for country life. This project seeks to address a gap in the literature, which—by and large—has not addressed the reception of local food in rural places. In the countryside, the local food movement meets economic and cultural challenges to its meanings and ideals, a gauntlet that may be attributed, in part, to its urban genesis.
One drowsy morning as I lugged a crate of strawberries from the field to the packing shed, I perceived the repeated clicking of a camera. The local newspaper, I later learned, had come to the farm where I was working for a story about the effects of drought. I remember thinking it ironic that I might be featured in the newspaper as a photographed object, since I, too, was visiting the farm in order to capture people’s experiences of agriculture. No sooner had the reporter taken my photo than he asked for my name and place, as markers of my identity. Though I had not lived continuously in the area for almost ten years, I gave the town where I grew up as my “place.” I supposed that, with my wide-brimmed hat and muddy boots, I could pass as a “local” in that moment, even if I did not especially feel like one.
In this article, I examine the translation of the local food movement into a specific context, that of rural Central Wisconsin. In particular, I am interested in the encounter between two locals—that of the local food movement and that of the denizens of the area. That these inter-penetrating worlds challenge the lesser-explored aspects of each other is the subject of my first section, “The Layers of Local.” In my second section, “The Rural Revisited,” I explore whether communities in Central Wisconsin might perceive the local food movement as irrelevant due, in part, to its urban genesis. Setting aside the technicalities and pitfalls of the rural-urban continuum, I am most interested in the language and attitudes of people in Central Wisconsin. How do its traditions of agriculture affect its reception of the local food movement?
I am far from an objective participant-observer in Central Wisconsin, the place where I was raised and to which I continually return. Central Wisconsin has changed as I have over the years, and I am regularly surprised at what I find when I go home. Though the local food movement began to coalesce several years after I left the area for college, I spent eight months in 2012 working for Martin Family Farm, a fourth-generation operation in Rosholt, Wisconsin. It is worth noting that this stint as a farmhand transpired prior to my exposure to the social sciences: my days on the farm were considerably more sweaty than heady.
While my training in food studies has helped me to reflect on my experiences and capture them in academic language, my theoretical toolbox has also altered the way that I perceive local food. In 2013, I returned to Central Wisconsin for roughly one month in order to conduct “fieldwork,” both in its ethnographic and agricultural senses. Drawing upon the network that I had left the previous year, I engaged in informal discussions regarding food and agriculture with over thirty people. I resumed working as a farmhand at Martin Family Farm as well as at a second farm called Rocky View Acres, which I selected as a counterpoint. Though these two farms frame my research, I also conducted semistructured, recorded interviews with ten people who I considered to be representatives of various aspects of the local food scene. A cross section of individuals, they were involved with farming, local food advocacy, local food retail and restaurants, and agriculture education. Finally, in order to engage with the wider context of food in Central Wisconsin, I visited three farmers’ markets, worked at the regional energy fair, volunteered with a free meal service, and toured additional farmsteads.
As I assume is often the case, the direction I intended to steer my research did not resonate with the key individuals whom I interviewed. Ultimately, I found it most interesting to converse with people regarding their respective expertise and to tease out the emergent themes afterward. In addition to fulfilling theoretical objectives, it is my hope that this article conveys a story about place. I have always been fascinated with the way that language both illuminates and hijacks the experience of being-in-the-world. Of course, as I am an individual endowed with my own forms of social and cultural capital, the following account is as much about me as it is about the people of my community. Nevertheless, I have held them in my mind throughout the writing process and attempted to channel their ethic of work in order to represent them to the degree that I am able.
Situated squarely in the middle of the state, Central Wisconsin delimits an ill-defined clump of contiguous counties a few hours’ drive from the state’s largest city centers near its southern border. While Guthman emphasizes that the small-scale family-farming model is anachronistic and nostalgic in the case of California, Wisconsin does boast an agrarian tradition, as reiterated by the little red barn on the state license plate. The state takes special pride in its dairy industry, despite losing its status as the nation’s top milk producer to California in the 1990s. Touted as “America’s Dairyland,” there is the feeling in Wisconsin that its farmers are helping “to feed the world,” even if only symbolically.
After the economic shocks of the 1980s farm crisis (which are arguably ongoing), both Martin Family Farm and Rocky View Acres retrofitted their operations in order to gain organic certification and establish community-supported agriculture (CSA) schemes. John of Martin Family Farm is a fourth-generation farmer who grew up on an industrial-scale potato farm of about 300 acres in sandy Rosholt. After pursuing a postgraduate degree in plant pathology, he went back to farming, which he considers part of his identity: “I can’t think of the kind of person I would be if I didn’t grow up on a farm. I just can’t fathom that.” Aware that he could not continue his father’s operation viably without modification, John withheld his reservations and experimented with organic growing.
Today, John straddles the worlds of conventional and organic growing. He has inherited land and most of his farm infrastructure from the conventional growing operation that his father established. Because John was once skeptical of organic agriculture, he is acutely aware of the “misconceptions about what it is and what it isn’t.” In conversation, he suggested that “fancy organic farmers” are people with whom he does not identify. That John has been tasked with the conversion of a conventional farm to an organic one is also evident upon visiting Martin Family Farm. A massive warehouse sits on Highway 86 and serves as the principal site for washing, sorting, and storage. About five minutes’ drive away lie the farm fields, where John cultivates five acres of potatoes—his specialty crop—and five acres of other vegetables. John rotates his growing area, irrigated by a center pivot, on an annual basis. Though his fields are cultivated mechanically, the majority of the weeding and harvest are accomplished manually. John typically employs one manager and two field hands for nine months and hires a few additional people during potato harvest.
John has increased his CSA membership every year since 2010 to arrive at roughly eighty shareholders. He has found that his CSA scheme goes hand in hand with other forms of direct marketing, such as the Stevens Point Farmers’ Market, several restaurants, a few retail outlets, and wholesale clients. “The CSA is kind of a proving ground. I can grow something I’ve never grown before. If it turns out, I can put it in the box. If it doesn’t, who cares? And, if I’m good at it, then I can start offering it to my retail accounts.” John loves working in the field and sometimes feels like the administrative tasks necessary for direct marketing take away from his time “farming.” He puts it this way: “I guess what it really comes down to is that when we’re doing this kind of marketing, we’re being retailers as well as farmers. And so, we’re taking on all that retail work that a lot of farmers don’t do.” Nevertheless, he is pleased with the opportunity to engage with customers, which he referred to as “the beauty of direct marketing.”
The viability of Martin Family Farm has been tested by the cost of the organic fertilizers (approximately $1,000 per acre) that amend the farm’s sandy soil. Also challenging is the disjointed nature of Martin Family Farm as a setting. Without a “traditional” farmstead, John has trouble communicating a coherent brand. He lacks the facilities to host people on the farm for events, although he does organize an annual tour and potluck. Finally, supervision can be a stretch because John lives in a nearby city and works part-time for the United Spud Cooperative of Wisconsin.
Rocky View Acres, in contrast, is located in an area less populated than that of Martin Family Farm but closer to Wausau, a city of about 40,000 (the largest in Central Wisconsin). Tom is a third-generation farmer who was raised on the Athens farmstead that he currently co-owns and co-operates. Though he grew up feeling destined to inherit his father’s fifty-cow dairy, one day in high school, he returned home to learn that his father, faced with “getting big or getting out,” had opted to sell their herd. A devastated Tom went on to attend the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he met Lucy, who was a graduate student in rural sociology at the time. Tom writes about their teaming up in the farm’s first CSA newsletter: “When she [Lucy] told me she daydreamed about having a farm of her own, I told her I had one, and that romantic vision of a family farm became all the more romantic.”
In their eighth season of production, Tom and Lucy market their vegetables through the Wausau Farmers’ Market and a CSA of about two hundred shares. They also produce small grains and maple syrup in addition to raising chickens, “beefers,” and pigs to help with nutrient cycling. Not shy about seeking out government grants when applicable, Tom and Lucy have invested in three hoop houses to assist with season extension and a set of solar panels. They process their harvest in a multipurpose packing shed, complete with a walk-in cooler, commercial kitchen, and dining area. During the growing season, they employ two people full-time, whom they feed and house. Lucy also keeps an off-farm job at the local community college as a means of securing health insurance and as a personal preference.
Tom and Lucy’s life on the farm with their two young sons looks traditional in many ways, though their politics are not mainstream. Tom articulates his vision of farm viability as measured not in terms of profit for himself but in the distribution of the farm’s wealth. In part owing to their effusive personalities, Tom and Lucy have made their farm a hub of socialization: they play host to u-pick events, tours, pancake breakfasts, and an annual barn dance. Every Friday, they invite the community onto the farm for stone oven–baked pizzas prepared from scratch with farm ingredients. Tom described the increasingly popular on-farm restaurant as hiding the elitism of local food in familiarity: pizza and companionship.
Having been acquainted with the dense network of CSAs in Madison, Lucy explained that their farm’s rural location affords them lower land prices, a less competitive market, and support with childcare. Raised in New York City herself, Lucy is aware how far she is from the trendiness of conscious consumption that has taken off in urban centers: she described being treated as a “rock star” at a Brooklyn restaurant when the staff learned that she and Tom run a farm. Because of their collective training in the social sciences, Lucy and Tom seem particularly attuned to the ways in which power and privilege play out on country landscapes. They are uniquely situated in that they can appeal both to Tom’s well-established roots in the community and to Lucy’s familiarity with what she referred to as “the language of the elite.”
We feel a real kinship with the generation that’s coming up. We certainly agree on a lot of things.
– Susan, former co-manager of a Stevens Point natural foods cooperative
The local food movement seeks to re-embed both the production and the consumption of food in a context—that is, to employ a spatial means of addressing the economic, environmental, and social aspects of a food system. (For producers, local food tends to mean direct marketing schemes, such as CSAs, farmers’ markets, or other forms of unmediated retail.) Though implicitly a critique of the neglect of social issues on the farm and beyond the farm gate, local food also inherits some of the shortcomings of antecedent movements (specifically, the sustainable and the organic movements). In the United States, local food advocacy can look like a progressive critique of the globalized food system or, alternatively, a reactionary desire for a time when foodways were necessarily more limited in scope. Lucy at Rocky View Acres put it more succinctly when she described on-farm events as “a bumper sticker war.”
Though the most basic definition of local food tends to emphasize the carrying capacity of a place or foodshed, the concept can also be used to suggest a philosophy or metaphysical stance. For its advocates, it implies not only proximity and nature as measure but also moral economy and commensal community. These latter aspects of local food resonate with the thread of agrarian populism that, from Thomas Jefferson to Wendell Berry, has embraced the family farm as the locus of economic self-sufficiency, cultural transmission, and social belonging. In this vein, local food aligns itself with a vision of society in which small family farms become the agents of what Tom at Rocky View Acres described as “broad-based and independent decision-making.” When considered an antidote for the concentration of power in food and agriculture, local food reflects an implicit belief in the Walter Goldschmidt thesis (the concept that agricultural practices can positively or negatively affect the social and economic characteristics of a farming community).
Local food’s strength is that it seeks to address the economic, the environmental, and the social as intertwined in place, but the movement is often criticized for failing to unpack the distinctions between these various dimensions. Rural sociologist C. Clare Hinrichs writes that the term forces “shifting shapes into a stable, coherent concept,” a compression in thought that can convert “the local” into shorthand for “the good.” In other words, there is the danger that the local evolves into a hegemonic discourse if certain food practices are coded as normative. More complicated than “a process which reverses the trend of globalization,” the local is easily dominated by certain people, such as those who can appeal to established residency. This collusion between local food and nativist sentiment has been termed “defensive localism.”
While these critiques of local food’s shortcomings have been well documented in the literature, one feature that has received less attention is the context in which it has been popularized. Like earlier twentieth-century movements in food activism, such as the countercuisine of the late 1960s and the organic movement, local food owes its development to the support for “social experimentation” that cities are uniquely capable of fostering. The influence of urban resources has made local food an intervention driven by consumption, and, as such, the movement often assumes an urban ethos. As a result, local food has been tied up with a nostalgic revalorization of farming and the countryside, both of which have particular appeal for city dwellers. However, despite the influence of the urban, there are as many locals as there are places, or possibly even individuals, in the United States. For a variety of economic, social, and cultural reasons, these other locals are less often considered in public discourse, and it is this neglect that makes Central Wisconsin, as a rural place, a worthwhile case study.
In Central Wisconsin, the local food movement gains unity through an organization called Central Waters Foodshed, which coalesced around 2007 as an umbrella for the various forms of activism already in place, such as a local food fair, farm atlas, and several loosely organized Farm to School programs. Because Foodshed takes its cues from producers—including its Farmer Advisory Board—it is easily misunderstood as a farmer coalition. However, as the organization evolves, its activities are increasingly tied up with the demand side of the market: it is, de facto, a market linkage mechanism that seeks to support producers by way of building up consumer demand for local food.
Though its stated objectives also include environmental sustainability, Foodshed has consciously chosen the banner of local, rather than other framings, because it is thought to be the most inclusive. Lauren, the organization’s executive director, explained that the rhetoric of organic agriculture is alienating to many people in the area: “In this community, in Central Wisconsin, we lose people when we put those restrictions on because that’s where the elitism comes in.” During a reflection on his former views, John told me that he used to be skeptical of organic farming, and two other interviewees, who run organic operations, mentioned that they sensed similar attitudes in their neighbors. This negative symbolism regarding organic practices appears to be more prevalent in the countryside, where conventional agriculture has been practiced for at least a generation, than in places less intimately bound up with farming.
Central Wisconsin is an area that has suffered from the decline of paper manufacturing, and, as such, is ripe for messages that promise to strengthen the local economy. As unlikely as it might seem, I saw gas stations sporting “Local Business” banners; it appears that, even among retail chains, “Buy Local” messages abound. Rather than delimiting a specific geographic region, Foodshed describes itself as “a network of people, businesses, organizations, and productive lands that create a local food economy [emphasis added].” As such, it mirrors the outcome of a content analysis by Hinrichs and Allen, who found that economic objectives accounted for three-quarters of the total objectives articulated in the mission statements of eighteen local food campaigns throughout the country. Here Hinrichs’ characterization of local food as “the stepchild of sustainable agriculture” seems particularly apt, given that both have avoided explicit mention of endemic social injustices but instead doubled down on economic and environmental messages.
Central Wisconsin’s recent histories create the possibility that local food might be received as “little more than a primitive, backward, nonproductive, unscientific technology suitable only for the nostalgic and disaffected back-to-the-landers of the 1970s.” Aware that their efforts might be construed as elitist or exclusionary, several of my interviewees described tailoring their messages to their audiences. While promoting the CSA concept to Wood County workplaces, Jessica found that economic rationale and cost-savings could be counted on as the strongest and safest arguments. Lauren, on the other hand, explained that she stays flexible in order to appeal to the widest demographic possible: “I mold conversations based on who the person is.”
Despite attempts at inclusivity, I heard a number of people call the local food movement in Central Wisconsin a “clique.” Though likely true that the people involved in local food enjoy more financial and educational privilege than the wider population, it also appears that the term “local” fails to include the diverse communities of Central Wisconsin. Foodshed is based in Stevens Point, a university town that, despite being similar in size, commands more economic and cultural resources than the neighboring town of Wisconsin Rapids, which is a “paper mill town.” Sean and Amanda, both of whom base their businesses in Wisconsin Rapids, alluded to the differences between the two cities, a theme that was also addressed by Jessica and Josh, both of whom grew up in the vicinity.
Sean of Neighborhood Natural Foods sits on Foodshed’s board of directors but identified himself as the “only member from Wisconsin Rapids.” He hypothesized that the lack of participation has to do with the distance (“Sometimes thirty minutes away is just too far”). This sentiment was echoed by Amanda of Good Expectations, who told me that she hands out copious amounts of local food promotional materials to no avail. Amanda expressed disappointment that her business has not really been able to tap into the momentum at Foodshed. She found it “very difficult to bridge that gap” and thought that, rather than being solely about the distance, the lack of support for local food in Wisconsin Rapids is more cultural. She said: “I think that there is this idea that ‘Oh, that’s a very hippie attitude.’”
As we were harvesting kale, Tom made a point of mentioning Weber to me—that is, although they are difficult to pin down, he knows that there are cultural factors affecting the adoption of alternative agriculture and local marketing in rural Central Wisconsin. To further complicate matters, these factors also appear specific to each county, town, and neighborhood. For example, Josh, an agriculture education teacher, took a stab at articulating the cultural differences between Stevens Point and Wisconsin Rapids by disaggregating their respective histories of agriculture:
In Rapids, historically, when times got tough on the farm, there was no need to expand. You just got a job at the mill. That was great because you were making enough money, and you were farming at a scale that was convenient. And that’s why our rural economy in Rapids is not like other places that you would go to.
According to Josh, these microhistories affect the attitudes and expectations of residents today. Because of the dominance of paper mills, Wisconsin Rapids became a town “in which there was a family of educated people that took care of everyone.” Since factory jobs enabled farmers to maintain their small acreages, Josh reasoned that people in Wisconsin Rapids maintain a more sentimental relationship to agriculture than people in other area towns, where the buy-in tends to be intellectual.
The fact that there are many locals within “the local” was also echoed by John at Martin Family Farm and Tom at Rocky View Acres. Though his farm is located in Rosholt, John has only one shareholder from the town itself. This lack of participation may be attributed to the fact that many rural people tend to grow their own gardens, but there is a fair amount of irony to the fact that this local is not part of his local market. What’s more, John hypothesized that the presence of his organic farm in the community probably goes unnoticed since agricultural fields tend to look more or less alike from the road. He said: “People in Rosholt don’t even know I’m farming organic vegetables.” The situation is similar for Lucy and Tom: their CSA primarily serves the Wausau area, but Tom dreams of a growing operation that would support and be supported by Athens, which is the town closest—most local—to their farm.
Part and parcel of the definition of local food is the idea that an area’s landmass feeds the people who live on it. What such a framing fails to address is the mobility of people in and out of an area, including both temporarily and for the longer term. In my experience, a fair share of the people involved with local food and alternative agriculture in Central Wisconsin are relatively new to the area. These people—as well as those who return after experiences away—settle because of their partners, a perceived support network, or the lifestyle afforded by the area. As such, it is important that local food activism accounts for the reality of present-day mobilities alongside place-building. In a restaurant interview, I was told that clientele often hail from larger metropolises as a consequence of the venue’s proximity to the interstate and a “very big corporate hotel.” Though obviously free to cater to whomever they please, it remains unclear whether institutions that self-identify as local food—and benefit from the trendiness of the conceit—have any mandate to privilege “local people.” Who exactly are local people in the first place?
Switching to a method like permaculture would, of course, require a shift in the Central Wisconsin farming paradigm.
– Mary, former employee of Martin Family Farm
One July morning, I came across Tom and Lucy’s oldest son parading around in a cowboy outfit, complete with boots and a bandana. Evidently, the boy had dressed in order to spend the day with his grandpa at Farm Technology Days, an annual agricultural showdown highlighting big equipment and improved seed stock. Before he left, Lucy smiled as she coached her son regarding what to say if someone tried to impress him with CAFO propaganda: “Those are factory farms, and those are bad.” Nevertheless, the boy returned that afternoon towing a new coloring book called “Amazing Corn.”
The way in which the various forms of farming are contained within the life histories of individuals in Central Wisconsin creates a unique (agri)cultural landscape. In Central Wisconsin, it seems normal for a young boy whose parents are engaged in what could be construed as either an elitist or a traditional form of cultivation to accompany his grandfather to an agribusiness fair, where participants could be described as either real or co-opted farmers. Peri-urban operations catering to cities have the benefit of selling the “consumption of rurality” while collecting urban premiums. However, as is the case with other rural communities, direct marketing schemes in Central Wisconsin face an amalgam of economic and cultural constraints. Despite the universalizing tendency of local food discourse, there is no starting from scratch: the staying power of the local food movement in Central Wisconsin hinges on its ability to resonate with people and to accommodate its contested cultures of agriculture.
Though it is clear that idealized typologies of social organization, such as gemeinschaft and gesellschaft (which refer to communitarian and associational arrangements, respectively), do not easily map onto the country and the city, it is less clear how to pinpoint rurality and urbanity. The US government considers population density its tool for defining the rural and the urban (thereby generating a rural-urban continuum), but this solution cannot account for the cultures of places, which involve local histories and habits as well as more popular opinions. The country and the city are powerful gestalts that go beyond the counting of persons. In The Country and the City, Raymond Williams explains:
On the country has gathered the idea of a natural way of life: of peace, innocence, and simple virtue. On the city has gathered the idea of an achieved centre: of learning, communication, light. Powerful hostile associations have also developed: on the city as a place of noise, worldliness and ambition; on the country as a place of backwardness, of ignorance, limitation. A contrast between country and city, as fundamental ways of life, reaches back into classical times.
Williams is clear, that despite demographic change, the country and the city remain relevant in that they are modes of thinking and feeling by which people make sense of their experiences.
In addition to the associations often attributed to the rural and the urban are popular motifs regarding the relationship between the two, such as the idea that the city is a threat to the integrity of the country. For example, Goldschmidt’s As You Sow, a seminal sociological account of agricultural change, takes up the industrialization of rural Californian communities during the 1940s. Because Goldschmidt understands rural communities as endogenous and self-sufficient, he argues that rural towns become “urbanized” when agriculture is industrialized. For Goldschmidt, an urbanized rural life is the product of an externally oriented economy that generates a social scene which “erodes the sense of community, the ideals of mutuality, and the social value of civility.” The irony in Goldschmidt’s observation that rural towns became filled with “outsiders rather than local farmers and store keepers” is that the “locals” he identifies had also arrived somewhat recently and that, due to the high capital investment necessary to irrigate the region’s arid soils, the industrialization of its agriculture was inevitable from the outset. In other words, there were no natives to displace, and as Guthman argues in Agrarian Dreams, there was no agrarian tradition to overturn. That these rural places contained within them the seeds of urbanity suggests a more complex interrelatedness between country and city.
Goldschmidt’s narrative trades on an account that Michael Bell, a rural sociologist, would distinguish as “first rural.” For Bell, first rural has modernist underpinnings: it is materialist, spatial, and always “implies the urban.” As such, it is constantly subject to urban encroachment, and its politics are those of defense. However, Bell also articulates a second rural that is epistemologically subject to, yet ontologically intertwined with, first rural. This ideal moment of the rural is untethered to the urban and evokes the long-standing associations—both positive and negative—of rurality, such as those identified by Williams. Resonant with postmodernism, second rural provokes a politics of discourse in which setting is constituted through various actors. For Bell, the rural derives its power through the interplay between its material and ideal moments. As demonstrated by the 2013 Dodge Super Bowl commercial “God Made a Farmer,” potentially anyone—whether corporate or citizen, urban or rural—can tap into this power. Perhaps more to the point, W.H. Friedland, the sociologist famous for provocative pieces such as “The End of Rural Society and the Future of Rural Sociology,” calls the rural charged with “semiotic magic.”
Williams’ claims regarding the rural and the urban go beyond an atemporal set of traits: he argues that popular conceptions of the country and the city become particularly reduced during times of structural transition. In many respects, Nancy A. Naples puts this theory to the ethnographic test when she asks people in rural Iowa to reflect upon their lives since the farm crisis. Interestingly, she finds that residents appropriate idealized associations of the countryside and use them as frames of reference when thinking through their responses. That popular conceptions of rurality act as “partial interpreters” of lived experienced is also corroborated by Bell in his own ethnography of the English countryside. Since his informants report and behave according to the gemeinschaft qualities that rural sociologists have discounted, Bell argues that these ideals still have relevancy: “Throughout the Anglo-American world, the rural-urban continuum remains an important source of legitimation, motivation, understanding, and identity.” Bell even goes so far as to argue that Ferdinand Tönnies, the scholar who originally drew the distinction between gemeinschaft and gesellschaft, considered the two “interwoven in all kinds of associations.”
Williams also makes a puzzling observation regarding the rural in his discussion of the European pastoral tradition: he argues that, beginning with Virgil’s Georgics, representations of the countryside have implied its demise. Resonant with this motif is the way in which rural residents articulate declinist visions of the countryside. Without prompting, Jessica, Lauren, Sean, and John reported on the feeling that something had been “lost”; this idea was implicit in all but one of my interviews:
“The food culture has been lost.”
“We’ve lost the intuition about eating and activity.”
“One of the things I always think about is how difficult it is to get people to work on the farm who know something about farming because that kind of life is just not there anymore.”
“Organic is not an easy alternative, but it’s because we’ve kind of rejected it …We’ve lost all those years of knowledge that we could have gained by farming organically.”
Central to the gemeinschaft gestalt (or rural idyll) is the rooted nature of its community of individuals. Despite regular mobility in and around the area, which would blur the boundaries of the local, many people in Central Wisconsin appear to employ localism as a touchstone of their identity. Localism points to the length of one’s own and the length of one’s family’s residency in the area; as a consequence, some surnames have more currency than others. During my fieldwork, I noticed that, even in acknowledging demographic change, people cling to localism, as in the following: “The natives are passing away, and there are a lot of people who have moved into town who don’t have roots here [emphasis added].”
In keeping with the ethos of the place, local food advocates, whether born in Central Wisconsin or elsewhere, communicate through selectively framing their messages and presenting themselves in a way that appeals to localism. This is to say that they have in mind the endemic perceptions of the unfamiliar when explaining their cause to the unconverted. Responsible for promoting the CSA concept to area workplaces, Jessica tried to present herself as a local individual with “an old name from around here.” However, after her return from university and study abroad, she found herself “once-removed” and felt that her attempts to establish local credibility were not enough to overcome the divide she sensed.
Along with Hinrichs and Kathy S. Kremer, Naples suggests that the “presumed consensus,” which is a reflection of gemeinschaft ideology, makes the expression of difference difficult in rural communities: she found that people who articulate abnormal positions tend to refer to themselves as “outsiders.” Josh’s comments regarding the way that people perceive him, as a teacher and organic farmer, mimics this tendency: “My grandpa was the teacher here, and so, they look at us as being foreign already. We’re always the odd ones out.” Interestingly, throughout my fieldwork, I noticed that local food advocates in Central Wisconsin often attribute what they know are not mainstream opinions to their time away from Central Wisconsin. What’s more, they often situate this difference in experiences of urbanity:
“And now I had all of these different ideas from the city so to speak.”
“I came from the food movement as it is urban.”
“I had seen the farm crisis but I had also seen, as a student in Madison, a lot of the new hope in agriculture.”
Up until this point, I have characterized the local food movement and local people as two separate communities, but these categories are overdrawn, since many people in Central Wisconsin contain both. Josh, for example, described his social life as “really compartmentalized”: “I have my definite Foodshed friends, and then I have my friends from high school, who are all these redneck people that live in Rudolph and Vesper. They don’t always go between.” Tom told me that, when moving in new circles, he nuances his language unless he gets an indication from an interlocutor that he might push further. Not easily pigeonholed, people like Josh and Tom know how to leverage the associations of the countryside in order to communicate and even provoke. For them, there is no “cultural chasm” between the “new food movement” and the realities of rural life. They know how to appeal to the area’s tradition of agriculture and to soft-peddle their politics.
Perhaps the successful adoption of local food rests with these individuals who, like organic intellectuals, are able to serve as bridges not only through their words but also through their life stories. Although the local food movement is easily dismissed as a non-local imposition, if its leaders boast local credibility, it becomes localized. Witnessing the state of the rural economy and aware of the national turn toward local production, Josh concluded that the latter should be embraced—not as an extension of urban trends— but for the countryside’s benefit.
We’re producing more than we ever did with fewer people, but our towns are still dying… So what can we do? We need to add value to our product. We need to take advantage of this local movement and make it permanent.
In other words, the history of the local food movement does not determine its present-day appropriations. Even as a conceit developed in urban contexts, local food’s translation into the countryside can serve as a challenge to reduced (re)productions of rural life. In a similar vein, although the romanticization of the rural has historically been the concern of urban writers and readers, Tom chooses to see his own labors romantically. This vision informs his practice of agriculture and adds rhetorical gravitas to his message of social change.
In an age that has dissolved space and reconfigured time, the rural derives power, in part, from its associations with stasis, permanence, and tradition. While these traits are unlikely to fade in the popular consciousness, they also do not define the countryside. Industry in the countryside has long been enabled by extensive mobility. Though their influence may be contained through the process of othering, “new” people and ideas provoke the countryside and, in the case of local food, its practice of agriculture.
People think that farmers are these backwards hillbillies, but the new generation of farmers are among the smartest and brightest people that we have.
– Josh, agriculture education teacher
During lunch in the farmhouse kitchen one afternoon, I witnessed Lucy teasing Tom about his weekly farmers’ market routine. She explained that—being tall, blond, and male—he fares better if she does not accompany him to the weekly event. A variety of theories emerged, but it was concluded that Tom’s presence taps into the iconic appeal of the farmer in the popular consciousness: the segments of the demographic who frequent the market rather enjoy buying vegetables from a “strapping young man.” In addition to providing a window into the spirit of the farm, this anecdote underscores Tom and Lucy’s acute self-awareness, which derives, in part, from their command of certain forms of noneconomic capital. Tom and Lucy’s collective education and ability to speak “the language of the elite” puts them at a distinct advantage as farmers.
Alternative agriculture schemes, such as CSAs, require that producers think through marketing and consumption. As a result, people from nonagricultural backgrounds have been able to access farming in unprecedented ways. “This is not to say that those without a college education are incapable of running a CSA or working off the farm, but it may indicate that college-educated and well-travelled farmers are more willing to experiment with the marketing associated with reflexive consumerism.” Somewhat surprisingly, one producer posited that, when it comes to alternative agriculture, it might be easier to learn how to farm than it is to gain an understanding of consumption.
Academic literature regarding alternative agriculture has emphasized the intentionality of “sophisticated urban transplants” who, like Lucy, have gone back to the land. However, the stress placed on their “conscious choice” has eclipsed the fact that people who grow up on farms also make the decision to stay. Farms today are rarely inherited without modification. For both John and Tom, continuing to farm viably has meant steep learning curves. John told me that the skills he learned growing up have had limited utility on his farm today. Given that agriculture has been conventional and industrial for at least a generation, one is hard-pressed to find individuals who have grown up on the kind of farm (sustainable and diversified) that would equip them to run an alternative agricultural scheme (in terms of both growing and marketing skills). With the clarity of hindsight, John admitted:
I don’t have a very broad skill-set when it comes to farming because I grew up on such a narrow specialized farm. Truthfully, I only learned how to really drive tractors and run machinery because that’s what we used on the farm and then to use pesticides and synthetic fertilizers.
For people like John and Tom, a traditional farming background might be just as useful for the implied social support, spatial familiarity, and authenticity of their “brand” as it is for growing skills per se.
A considerable amount of literature on CSA evaluates whether its community ideals are compatible with its market objectives. It is generally argued that the lack of mutuality between producer and consumer (which occurs when community-building activities fall upon the shoulders of overstretched farmers) tests the realization of true community. However, when asked about the community component of CSA, John explained that, though he agrees that his shareholders do not actually share in the risk of farming, as the rhetoric suggests, he values the up-front operating capital: “I take seriously their commitment to pay me up front.” John considers this sum an investment that makes it possible for him to farm and described it, along with fair prices, as one of the ways he requires support. Here it seems useful to consider that the meaning of community is contextually determined and that the word may not have the same significance in rural areas as in the literature.
The reconnection between producer and consumer, which is at the heart of the local food movement, presupposes that alienation exists in the first place. Without social distance, this primary mission of local food does not really make sense or, rather, does not make sense in the way the movement means. As Lauren suggested: “I always wonder if it’s [resistance to the adoption of local food] partially that we’re in rural communities that have always had someone in agriculture near them, so the local food movement is not as enticing…” While a fascination with farming seems to have taken hold in urban centers across the United States, agriculture might be too familiar for people in Central Wisconsin to intellectualize and sentimentalize—in short, to valorize—it in the same way.
Hinrichs gets it right when she explains that, just as sustainability hinges on the command of capital, “the implications of the degree of decommodification may vary depending on the resources of different producers and consumers.” Lucy and Tom have set out on an intentional investment in social change through agriculture and have poured their lives into representing this paradigm shift. As Lucy pointed out, Tom speaks in “sound bites” and, midharvest, made declarations to me such as: “The CSA is how I exert my agency in the farm crisis.” Theirs is the farm that seems closest to the ideals expounded in academic literature on local food; however, this close fit might be attributed to the fact that they are, in many respects, extroverted social scientists who happen to be running a farm. Martin Family Farm, on the other hand, which converted a conventional operation to a sustainable one, is precisely the kind of social change that should excite local food advocates because it suggests endogenous initiation. However, without a little red barn, it loses some of its archetypal appeal. What’s more, lacking the same forms of articulation as the people who typically represent the local food movement, John is a different sort of farm mouthpiece.
Though they clearly do offer alternatives to the mainstream manner of distributing and sourcing food, not all farms running CSAs intend to make radical critiques of the industrialized food system. Producers and consumers will engage with social issues on their own terms, which are bounded by their own experiences. Nevertheless, that engagement in every locale reflects its own particular needs is necessary for the development of local epistemologies. It is important that CSAs are differentiated. Not all farms or farmers are alike, but more importantly, they should not have to be, for the greater the diversity of farms and farmer personalities, the greater the number of people that will come to be involved in local food. Activist and academic discourse need resist assumptions about local food’s adoption because every locale is different. Unfortunately, “[t]hese differences may be obscured by the universalization of the local as a site of resistance.”
This article has set out to address the reception of local food, a movement marked by urban contexts, in rural Central Wisconsin. The rural and the urban are spaces that “exert palpable pressures and set effective limits on experience and on action,” but they are also ways in which individuals locate themselves in the world—ways in which they articulate identity and find belonging. In his article “Culture on the Ground,” Tim Ingold posits that knowledge is coterminous with our movement in the world. Though the local food movement has emphasized place-making, it has not accounted for the mobility of people and ideas between places.
Because people in Central Wisconsin employ localism as a metric of acceptance, ideas that have their genesis elsewhere find kinder reception if tempered by the familiar. As a result, local food advocates reorient themselves, as well as their messages, around the ethos of the place. Family farming, in particular, is the guise to which people are accustomed in Central Wisconsin. Like Lucy and Tom’s pizza—their nonchalant envoy for social change—family farming can help to promote equal access to food and rural revival, for it is the most locally appealing Trojan horse.
In How Societies Remember, Paul Connerton writes that it is “an implicit rule that participants in any social order must presuppose a shared memory.” But what happens if they do not? Despite its surface similarity with farming of the past, local food may be more like an “invented tradition.” The ideological component of local food—and its reimagination of farming and the countryside— is more pronounced than in agriculture of the past, which was constrained by necessity. This distinction makes local food’s appeal to history as “a legitimator of action and cement of group cohesion” appear nonsensical to some for whom the memory of farming, whether personal or collective, is bittersweet. While Paxson considers some American artisans “[u]nfettered by tradition,” this case is overstated in many parts of the country, such as Central Wisconsin. Agri(cultural) traditions in Central Wisconsin may not look like the centuries- long commitment to place, as in Europe, but they are also not to be discounted.
in order of their mention
The owner and operator of Martin Family Farm, John is a fourth-generation farmer based in Rosholt, Wisconsin.
Tom and Lucy run Rocky View Acres, a third-generation family farm located in Athens, Wisconsin.
Though she has now retired, Susan enjoyed a long career as co-manager of a Stevens Point natural foods cooperative.
Lauren has been Executive Director of Central Waters Foodshed, based in Stevens Point, since its inception in 2007.
Josh is an agriculture teacher at London High School in Wisconsin Rapids. In addition to farming, he has helped to found the Auburn Food Cooperative in collaboration with other growers.
Raised in Central Wisconsin, Jessica served one term as an AmeriCorps member in a co-appointed position between Foodshed and the Wood County Health Department.
In addition to working at Neighborhood Natural Foods in Wisconsin Rapids, which his family owns, Sean serves on Foodshed’s Board of Directors.
After many years in catering, Amanda and her partner expanded their business to include a restaurant by the name of Good Expectations, which is located in Wisconsin Rapids.
Mary, who is presently pursuing graduate work in forest ecology, is a former employee of Martin Family Farm.
I would like to thank my family, friends, and the community of people that has helped me to cultivate this project. A special thank you to Mike Fairley and Mukta Das for their critical feedback as I set out to fashion my thesis into an article. Last but not least, I am grateful to Kenny for his support and companionship across two continents.
Catie Peters recently earned an MA in anthropology of food from the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. She also holds a BA in the program of liberal studies and Spanish from the University of Notre Dame, where she graduated cum laude. Her research interests are evolving but involve the production of agricultural knowledge, the pastoral tradition, hermeneutics, and critical theory. She has worked on agricultural projects, both domestically and abroad.