Thursday, April 25, 2013

Thoughts on Real England

I just started reading a book by Paul Kingsnorth, Real England: the Battle Against the Bland. Written in 2008, it is in part a eulogy for traditional English pubs, shops, and breweries that have been taken over by multinational corporations. An English pub was where you hoisted a locally-brewed pint and talked with your neighbors. It was a small place, a family business. The brewery was a family-owned business, turning local grains and hops into beer. The beer was great, or possibly mediocre depending on the location, but the companionship was the real attraction. A warm place on a chilly rainy night. A place to drown your sorrows, not yourself. Maybe a local singer or fiddler some nights.

Many of the traditional pubs have closed, in the villages and small towns. Others have been taken over by a new profit model: vertical drinking. Nowhere to sit (because you drink more standing up), nowhere to set your beer (because you drink more when you have to hold your beer in your hand). Maximum beer intake per hour occupancy means maximum profits. And some have just gone to Bland: mass-market beer, popwines, pop music. Most of the small breweries likewise have gone out of business, with only hundreds left out of many thousands a hundred years ago. Every local beer is unique, a product of the water, the climate, the grains and the hops, and the hand of the brewer. Mass-produced beer is all about consistency: the same in every factory, the same in every country, the same in every bar.

It made me think about local food, about Colorado, about our local food cooperative. Unlike the England of 2008, microbreweries are thriving here; the beer scene in Colorado has changed almost totally since the 1950s. Some use locally grown barley and wheat. Some have pubs, although they don't play the same role in our community that English pubs in their social gatherings.
Food used to be different in each place; you mostly ate what you grew, or what your neighbors grew. The Christmas orange was a special treat (unless you lived in California and had an orange tree in your backyard). You mostly ate what was in season. In winter and spring, you mostly ate what you had put aside from the previous harvest.

Now almost of us shop at the "Perpetual Summer" supermarket, where we can buy strawberries in January, shipped from Argentina or Peru. Almost everything there has GMO corn or soy in it, as corn, cornstarch, or high fructose corn syrup, as soy oil or protein. The meats come from gigantic conglomerations (four companies sell 80% of the meat in this country), and they are stuffed with GMO corn and soybeans too. Thousands to millions of individual steers go into each batch of ground beef. You don't want to know about the lives of the chickens or pigs that end up in plastic on the meat counter shelves.

Am I against eating meat? Not at all; humans have been omnivores as long as there have been humans. For 95% of that time, humans ate wild animals. For 5% of that time, humans ate domesticated animals. For a fraction of a blink of an eye, humans have been eating animals unnaturally caged or fenced, fed a diet that destroys their health but is very cheap. It's not good for you to eat such things. We omnivores DO have a choice. We can seek out local small growers of grass-finished beef, pastured pigs, free-range bug-eating poultry. They're out there, pretty much under the radar of the massive conglomerates and their tamed regulatory agencies.

What about the fruits, the vegetables? There is the same disconnect between us and our food, though not as severe. Massive monocultures in California, Arizona and other states grow most of it, and everything you find in the supermarkets. But farmers markets and CSAs are taking more and more of that market (though still miniscule in comparison). If you look for local fruits and veggies, you can find them.

Grains are more problematical. Almost all are grown on massive farms (some of them in Colorado). And each area specializes in the grains that do best there. In Colorado, we grow wheat, loads of wheat, high-gluten wheat. Some oats, some barley, some corn. In the southern part of the state a few pioneers are growing teff and quinoa. Grain growing and harvesting now is so specialized, that few small farmers even try to get into it. The whisker-thin profit margin for the farmer precludes experimentation. That $4.00 loaf of bread in your shopping cart probably has about 10-20 cents going to the farmer. As the movie King Corn pointed out, even in a good year corn growers don't make ends meet; they are subsidized by the government, and by the demented law requiring 10% ethanol in gasoline. (Side point: on the Energy Return on Energy Invested front, ethanol barely breaks even; using the equivalent of a gallon of petroleum to make a gallon of ethanol does not reduce our dependence on foreign oil.)

So where's the connection with Real England? Real England is (was?) a place, actually a large number of small and larger places, where people live, where they know their neighbors, where they buy and sell to each other, where the profit stays in the community. I dream of a Real America, thousands of villages, towns, and cities, nourished by their local farms, cheered by their local beers, in all their endless variety. A place where the person you see on the street supports your business or farm, and you support theirs. A place where the profits and jobs stay in the community. A neighborhood.