Why Bother?

I'll admit it: Christmas is my least favorite season. Were it not for the shopping, I think I would like it - family, friends, good food - just like Thanksgiving, but with pretty lights. But shopping is an integral part of the season, at least in my circle. Worse, with my tendency toward procrastination and my family's preference for gifts like tools and sweaters, shopping usually takes place at box stores or a mall. This puts me in a foul mood every time.

Two years ago some friends of mine committed themselves to excluding all franchise stores from their gift buying pursuits. Lucky for them, they live in a hip city that prides itself on its thriving small business community. It still took effort but they did it, and everyone on their list got great gifts - things they wouldn't probably have picked up for themselves, but loved because they were beautiful and unique.

It was easy for me to say that I could never make such a pledge because all we have in my small Midwestern town are box stores and bake sales, but that simply isn't true. Main Street is lined with small shops whose owners are trying to make a living, and the truth is that I want them to succeed. They might not carry a great selection of tools or sweaters, but I would miss them if they left. Why? When I can get almost everything I need at Target, what's it to me if the little guys go under? Why should I limit my Christmas shopping to the things that are available from local vendors?

In two words, 'creative autonomy.' No one tells the woman who runs the new and used bookstore in town what to stock or where to place each item for maximum consumption. She makes her decisions based on her love for books and customers can smell that when we walk in door. It is the small things that make each community unique, and one of the ongoing tragedies of the United States, to my mind, is that our culture is increasingly becoming designed, homogenized, and imposed from above by the marketers from the McMultiMegaloMart abomination.

So the reasons for buying holiday gifts from small businesses boil down to the same reason my husband and I shop at the farmers' market: because buying our food there means we belong in this community. And for that matter, it is the same reason that we don't buy strawberries in the winter: because they're not from here. Buying as much of our food as we can locally and seasonally introduces us to the neighbors who also come out early on Saturday mornings for fresh greens, connects us to the farmers who remember that we like sweet potatoes, and binds us to the land outside town where the food grew. In the years when we have been CSA members it has been a similar experience. We have felt more human because of our commitment to eat what one particular piece of land provides. In this age of isolation, anything that makes us genuinely feel more alive and part of the human circle is worth going for.

So how does all this relate to LocalHarvest? Careful observers will have already noted that within the great socioeconomic experiment that is LocalHarvest, there exists a certain tension. While our main mission is to promote connections between community members and their local farmers and farm-related businesses, we also sponsor a catalog of mail order farm-made products. Our commission on the sales proceeds provides the main income stream for the site; without it we couldn't pay the bills. So on one hand, we stand firmly behind the "buy local" movement: our business is steeped in its values. On the other hand, we were awfully pleased to facilitate the shipment of a few hundred high quality turkeys last month.

We have made peace with the seeming contradiction of a business whose very name advocates "local" and whose income is derived mainly from non-local sales. How? By focusing on the people whose goods we are selling, and acknowledging the distance by which they are separated from other mail order vendors. Our "vendors" are family farmers. They make things like blackberry jam and goat's milk soap. They grow cranberries and tangerines; they raise lambs. They work hard, in concert with the land and the seasons, and at the end of the day they too must balance the books and fix their vehicles and pay the vet bill. To our minds, directly supporting any family farmers, "local" or not, is a contribution to the creation of a culture whose roots run deep. Truly.

So this year, I'll be doing some of my holiday shopping downtown, and some on LocalHarvest. I know my friends will love getting dates from the desert of southern California, and some dark, rich, buckwheat honey from Ohio. And I'm sending my mother in law a dried flower wreath. She won't have seen it at the Pottery Barn, but I know she's going to love it.

Photo by Maple Wind Farm

Back to the December 2006 Newsletter