Why Smaller is Better

There were two occurrences yesterday that reminded me again why I prefer to deal with small businesses rather than large ones.  Both stories will need a little introduction, so you may want to refill your coffee before you get started.

The first story begins with my difficulty in finding a vendor at my local market who could sell me hormone-free chickens at reasonable prices.  While I have a very good butcher there who supplies me with much of my meat, and while I have a quality farmer there who specializes in lamb, I have never been satisfied with the chicken that is available at the market.  Not only is it expensive, even for hormone-free meat, but the quality of the product is not always what I would like it to be.

Just before Christmas, however, a friend told me about Blue Haven Farm, a vendor who was selling various kinds of fowl, including heritage varieties, at a stand that I thought specialized in organic vegetables.  It took me until this past Saturday to find the time to talk with the vendor, but she was very helpful, comparing the qualities of the different fowl that she raises, showing pictures of the heritage pork that she also sells, even inviting me to come to her farm to see her operation.

Yesterday, because I had the car, which I rarely do, I took her up on her invitation, and drove my two sons to her farm, located a few miles north of Guelph.  It was cold but sunny, and our host was wonderfully hospitable.  She did not so much give us a tour as let us accompany her as she did her chores.  My sons have spent some time with cattle and with horses, but this was their first experience with swine, and my eldest was particularly impressed by the boar, which was taller than he was by several inches and came complete with a mouthful of tusks.  The swine are a heritage variety that has a gorgeous red coat, and the little ones looked particularly handsome as they ran through the snow.

We also saw different varieties of chickens and turkeys and ducks, helping a little as they were fed and watered.  The boys watched the goat being milked, though my eldest declined the offer to help in this operation.  As we walked, I talked with the owner, discovering that her family also has connections to Manitoulin Island and that she has met my father’s parents there on several occasions.  The cold prevented us from staying too long, but I hope to go back in warmer weather when there is a very young litter of piglets for the boys to see.

None of this, of course, would be possible on a larger farm.  The big factory pork operations would never allow visitors into the barns because of the risk of disease.  Many of the few remaining family operations have farm tours, which can be a revenue source for some, but these tours cannot usually provide the kind of personal attention that we received at Blue Haven.  There we were allowed to participate a little in the activities of the place, encouraged to milk goats, collect eggs, feed animals.  All of this is possible only because Blue Haven is a very small operation, even by the standards of a hobby farm.  It is essentially a house on a rural property just large enough to support a small collection of pens and outbuildings, but it offers something that is impossible for larger operations: an opportunity for others to partake in it, even if only in a very small way.  I have been on formal tours of some very impressive farm operations, including one horse stable that was truly opulent, but there was never an opportunity to be at home at these functions.  These facilities were never able to offer what the much smaller Blue Haven can only ever offer, an invitation into the life of the farm as it is lived precisely there and nowhere else.

The second story begins with the coffee roaster that my mother-in-law gave me for Christmas.  I am, if I have not already mentioned this before, deeply passionate about coffee.  I am also particular about coffee, so I am fortunate to have a local roaster just a few blocks away from me who provides me with a very good selection.  They do not, however, sell green beans, not any longer.  In fact, it seems that green beans cannot be purchased at all in Guelph, not from any of the regular coffee stores, though I have heard rumours about some underground sources.  So, I had my new roaster, but I had nothing to roast in it.

Just as I was resigning myself to the necessity of having to order something from elsewhere, I happened to see a new brand of coffee beans in the little grocery market down the street.  It was called Eco-Cafe, and it claimed to be locally roasted, though it did not specify its location.  A view of their website soon indicated that they were located in Kitchener, just a few miles from Guelph, and a phonecall then discovered that they did indeed sell green coffee beans.

So, while I had the car yesterday, I drove to Eco-Cafe.  I bought several pounds of different varieties, enough to test my roaster, but they had sold out of the variety that I really wanted.  A larger store would have been content to tell me to come back when the next shipment had arrived.  A really helpful store might even have offered to phone and let me know of its arrival.  Eco-Cafe, however, gave me the number to their warehouse so that I could let them know what I wanted, and then offered to have my beans delivered to my local grocery store so that I would not have to make another trip to Kitchener.  This kind of service is only possible from a store of that size.  It is exactly the kind of thing that makes smaller infinitely better than larger.

Advertisers and large retailers have done their best to convince consumers that we are best served by ever bigger and more comprehensive stores, that the economies of scale these stores create will result in a wider selection of better quality merchandise at lower prices.  Most of this, of course, is so untrue as to be ridiculous.  One farmer alone at my local market, one very small scale farmer, produces more varieties of fowl than are available in every major supermarket in the city combined.  One coffee roaster alone produces more varieties of coffee than all of the city’s supermarkets combined.  The quality of these products also far exceeds their supermarket equivalents.  The fowl are hormone-free and truly free-range raised.  The coffee is freshly roasted, organic, and fairly traded.  There is simply no comparison in the products.

It may be true that locally produced merchandise is often more expensive, but is it really worth the few dollars that we save at the supermarkets if it means that we have a reduced selection of lower quality merchandise delivered to us with poorer and less personal service, all so that the profits can leave our communities for large corporations elsewhere?  I would rather pay higher prices and consume less if it means that what I consume will be better, healthier, fresher, more environmentally responsible, more community supportive, more relationally committed.  I would rather pay more to the local roaster is who is willing to drive exactly what I want to the store down the street.  I would rather pay more to the local farmer who is willing to let me and my children spend the afternoon participating in the work of her farm.  These things, the smaller things, the better things, are worth any cost to me.

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5 comments
  1. I agree with you on so many levels, I’ll save some of them for our time tonight over coffee. However, two things I must share now.

    Your first story makes me think of the recent commercials Maple Leaf has done, presumably to show that they are safe now after the scare earlier last year where people died eating their tainted meat products:

    http://ca.youtube.com/watch?v=FPyJLm6xFAA

    This is so far removed from food that it could just as easily be a nuclear lab. To me, the need for such measures undercuts any feeling of safety this is meant to give me.

    Then, there is “How it’s made: Bacon” This is not how it needs to be done:

    http://ca.youtube.com/watch?v=e0DbcUUO-hI

    Wither real food?

  2. Lauren said:

    Luke & I were discussing this briefly via email but he thought some others might enjoy the recommendation as well, so I’ll post it here.

    I’m not very far into it (I’ve been sort of picking at it over the last few months) but I’m really enjoying “Animal Vegetable Miracle” by Barbara Kingsolver. It follows along the same lines as similar books devoted to the pursuit of real food, but specifically details her family’s decision to uproot themselves from Arizona (which has very few native crops of its own) and move somewhere that they could grow their own food for a year.

    The book is more or less divided by season and tells the story of how they adjust to living only on seasonally-available food they could grow (or buy locally to supplement their own harvest). It has some wonderfully vivid vegetable imagery (including a whole chapter devoted to asparagus) and includes a variety of recipes they discovered or developed as the year progressed.

    Your mention of heritage pork triggered my memory because I think Kingsolver deals a lot with heritage vegetables, seed cultivation, and the dwindling number of available plants that can be successfully farmed in the United States (although I must admit it is entirely possible I am confusing that piece of it with “In Defense of Food”, which I read around the same time I started this one).

  3. Dave,

    The problem is not, as you know, one of where to find real food. The problem is how to encourage a culture that will avail itself of real food, that will practice real food, and I wonder whether our current economic situation may help in this respect.

    Lauren,

    Thanks for posting that recommendation. I will read that book when I get a chance, though I have no idea when that may be.

  4. dawn said:

    next time, invite us! we love a farm. the best thing about our farm share was visiting the farm, seeing the chickens living on a school bus, picking the sunflowers. this was at whole circle.

  5. Dawn,

    We plan to go back in the spring, when there are some very little piglets. We will give you a call.

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