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March/April 2008 – Middlemen Are Not the Answer to Local Food Exhaustion

It was 15 minutes into a presentation on a proposed local food producers co-op that a comment an accountant once made to me came to mind. “My clients who make a lot of money aren’t the doctors and lawyers but the businessmen who buy and sell things,” he said. In other words, middlemen haul in the real bucks. They buy goods that someone else has created, process or repackage them (or often do nothing at all), mark them up, and move them off. The accountant said the most successful middlemen never see or touch the product they sell.

The context of these comments is a move afoot here on Vancouver Island, and elsewhere in Canada, to address an emerging problem in local food production. Chefs and other buyers interested in locally produced food say they are working too hard to access it. It isn’t uncommon for a buyer to make upwards of 30 calls a week to assemble a menu. One call yields strawberries, another free-range chicken, and still another a fresh salad mix. And so on.

All this is taking too much time and effort. Things have to change, I’m told, or committed buyers of local food will yield to the temptations of the multi-national restaurant supply companies, where one email accesses a world of food, pre-packaged in serving sizes, delivered to the restaurant’s back door.

Call it local food exhaustion.

One solution is for producers to pool their goods with a central broker, who in turn repackages, grades, cleans, and makes it available to buyers. At a mark-up, of course. Sometimes the broker is a business. In the case of the meeting I attended, the proposed broker will be a co-op. Membership is $500 per farm/company, $50 for individuals. After operating costs are paid, any profi ts will be distributed among members. Nice arrangement, yes? With apologies to the great history of the co-operative movement in Canada, I say, No.

The moment any organization is formed, it’s all-consuming goal becomes the furtherance and growth of the organization itself. The goals that the organization were created to achieve may not be forgotten but inevitably they become secondary, at best. This instinct for corporate self-preservation applies as much to over-capitalized Google as it does to a rinky-dink, no-letterhead, eco-lesbian local food co-op marketing biodynamically grown root vegetables on a Gulf Island.

The second reason I don’t support the idea of a broker for local food is that it isn’t necessary in a local market. Is a middleman necessary to market Quebec-produced maple syrup in the US and Europe? No doubt. But does the chef who lives an hour away from the farmer really need to go through a middleman to access the farm goods? Are we so enamored of business. . . systems that we have to forgo a phone call/email and a handshake?

I don’t believe that we are. Furthermore, I think the farmer/consumer relationship is at the heart of local food movement. To fiddle with it is to fi ddle with the soul of this thing we are building.

As for the problem of accessing local food, my response to the chefs is to be patient. As the value of local food makes small farming more viable, producers will get better at delivering consistent product, reliably. I’m sure we can shave the 30 phone calls to 15. But by defi nition, the entire spectrum of local food will never be, or should be, just one call away.