As economies grow, business transactions become more depersonalized. What are we missing without face-to-face business?
It is not hard to pick out Farmer Joe in the throngs of students in Pittsburgh's university district. He stands outside his plain, white van, clad in his navy blue pants, work shirt, suspenders, and straw hat. There is no mistaking what he does for a living. My family and a few other loyal customers are meeting him in this somewhat odd location to pick up meat. It is processing time on his farm, and we are picking up our orders. As I tote box after box of lamb to our van, he sings the praises of his grass-fed, pastured animals. It is quite the scene for the college students passing by.
We've known Farmer Joe for nearly two years now. Every two weeks throughout the year, he comes to Pittsburgh from his farm tucked in the hills south of the city bearing all manner of good things—eggs, chickens, beef, duck, and (sometimes) vegetables, plus milk, cheese, jams, and jellies from his Amish and Mennonite friends. Every two weeks, we meet him, and we hear stories of his animals, his farm, the weather. Joe is, first and foremost, a grass farmer who happens to let animals forage on what he grows. He, like his more famous friend Joel Salatin (another grass farmer who is the poster boy for the current movement back to such practices), believes in diverse farms, where animals may do what God intended them to do—roaming a pasture, eating grass and bugs, expressing their "animal-ness." And, like Salatin, Farmer Joe believes the best way to do business is face-to-face. He only sells to consumers, and he only sells directly. He does not advertise, aside from posting his bi-weekly deliveries to a local mailing list. He is happy to share the details of his operation, his farm, his animals. His work, and the manner of his work, is important to him.
In 21st century North America, this is not the usual model for business. We purchase things from large retailers, supermarkets, and online merchants. We consumers are completely separated from the processes that bring about the goods we purchase. While this model certainly has its benefits (namely greater selection and lower prices), it also has its drawbacks. We lose relationships with merchants and producers. We are also blinded to the manners and methods that produce what we purchase. But what do we gain by doing business face-to-face?
When we buy our food from the man who raises it, we learn, firsthand, the effort that goes into producing something. Every two weeks, my family gets a (brief) look into the life of a small farmer—weaning calves, raising turkeys, caring for chickens in the heat of the summer. While my wife and I certainly appreciate these stories (and the understanding of the work that goes into our food), I think it is particularly important for our kids to hear them. At a very young age, they are learning there is more to food than simply pulling items off the shelves in a supermarket. Farming is often viewed as a lower profession in our society, but by interacting with Farmer Joe, I hope that my kids will understand that it is good work, important work. Joe understands animals, plants, and the seasons better than we ever could.
Face-to-face transactions also promote greater accountability. This point is critical to Salatin's own philosophy and business model—if his consumers purchase goods directly from him, and his farm is an open operation, there is little he can "hide" from them. When we are separated from the producers of our purchases, we must rely on a third party to monitor those producers. Perhaps in some cases, we can (and should) rely on external oversight, but why hand over everything? Shouldn't being a consumer carry with it some degree of responsibility and due diligence, particularly in what we eat? Books and movies like The Omnivore's Dilemma and Food, Inc. provide some evidence that handing over food production to large corporations produces adverse conditions for both the land and the animals that are raised.
This essay is not, however, a jeremiad against supermarkets and far-away factory farms. Perhaps this is a lament for something that we've lost. As economies grow, business transactions become more depersonalized. Our goods pass through many hands, and in some cases there is no person-to-person contact in the entire transaction. While consumers generally receive some monetary benefit from the system, they lose other benefits. My family has decided that food is important, so the added cost of dealing directly with the producer (in terms of overall cost and convenience) is merely a trade-off—the benefits of knowing Farmer Joe and exchanging our money for his products directly is worth that cost. Markets have their place. But by committing at least part of our food expenses to face-to-face business, we are re-capturing an economy that is more human.