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Sept./Oct. 2010 – Shout: Bogus!

Shirttailers are riding on the farming’s good name

On a scale of threats to small scale agriculture, shirttailers—that’s my term for people or businesses that pretend to support farms but in fact are just parasites, free-riding on farming’s good name—are probably not massively serious. Issues around release and control of genetically modified material are surely more important; droning discussions about organic inspection are less so [readers: insert disagreement here].
Whatever you think of the importance of this, I think we can all agree that at a minimum shirttailers are damned irritating, like the fellow who gets ahead in traffic by cutting you off.
I was put in mind of this last weekend, while staffing our booth at a local farm market. Of the 30 stalls at the market maybe six were legitimately agricultural. Us, selling pork, chicken and lamb, were at one end of the market while a cluster of veggie and berry producers were at the other. Between these bookends of farm legitimacy were vendors shilling the worst collection of drek, gak, crud and useless who-ha imaginable. Actually, much of what was for sale was the opposite of local and healthy. Gaudy glasswear, teddy bears, horrible, chemically-scented soaps and potions. . . .it was mostly foreign made, none of it healthy and, in my opinion, lacking in taste (unlike our pork, by the way).
I really felt like I was aiding a deceit. With even a handful of real farm vendors, markets can boast of their agricultural roots, and the shoppers can buy all this junk in a feel-good, guilt-free environment.
It occurred to me that we should get 50 cents every time a market-goer purchased an India-made tie-dyed tee shirt from the vendor two stalls away.
And it isn’t just at farm markets that this deceit is going on. Restaurants are often guilty of menu fraud—that is, buying from a local farmer for (usually) a short period of time but listing the farm’s products on the menu long after they have stopped purchasing from the farmer (SFC covered this in our first issue). One very toney restaurant has reprinted its menu three times with our farm cited as the source of its pork, yet hasn’t bought from us in years. Perhaps a good cook can make a side of pork last a long time.
Other restaurants like to buy from us once a year—typically for a special event (often for a lamb or pig barbeque) then make a huge deal out of supporting small-scale local agriculture. More than once we’ve found ourselves in front of local media, side by side with the restaurant’s owner, mumbling something about great customers but really wanting to shout: bogus! It is a scam, a foodie’s version of buying indulgences from the church; for a few hundred dollars they get to claim moral high ground. Meanwhile, the Sysco trucks are unloading at the back door. . .
Most recently, a local butcher shop has been buying one or two local lambs, then telling customers that they source their products locally and from New Zealand. This is a very busy shop; the odds of getting a loin chop that is truly local are about the same as winning a lottery. No, actually they are much worse.
If any readers have suggestions on how to deal with this situation, please let me know. No use suggesting I kick over a few tables a la road rage. I’ve already thought of that.