What scares me (and I think it scared Eliot Coleman, too, or at least half of the people at Eco Farm who sat in their chairs, angrily shaking their heads) is that it's companies like Gary Hirshberg's that are making it impossible for small farmers to make their own yogurt and sell their own milk to their own communities. Stonyfield Farm Yogurt may have started as a small family farm, but as Eliot Coleman said, they "sold the cows" and became a proponent of the model that puts sustainable agriculture at dire risk. But Stonyfield does bring organic yogurt to urban places (far from farms), and they bring it to big stores. And thus they bring a healthier yogurt to the masses, which is great. They also keep conventional companies in check -- at least theoretically. For that, we can thank Stonyfield Farm.
The most worrisome part, however, is how easy it is to listen to guys like Gary Hirshberg, and be convinced there's real progress being made in the world. He uses all the buttons we want to hear about global warming, diabetes, saving our children. But what he doesn't say is that big businesses like his are putting small communities at risk by putting families out of business (at least the ones not part of his co-op), and risking the future of the family farm while claiming to be saving it.
I'm not saying there aren't farmers out there who don't benefit from the dairy co-op model. In the hurting industry, it's certainly a good thing for some (a dairy farmer couple I met at Eco Farm sell to the Organic Valley co-op, and told me they're one of few farms surviving these bad times.) But I don't want to make the success of a few farms cover up for the MANY more that have gone under because of the corporate model. (Gary Hirshberg even admitted himself that Butterworks Farm has the right idea, run by a husband and wife team in Vermont that has stayed small while still earning a profit.)
Hirshberg went on to say we are a culture of consumers, so we should just make that culture a "certified organic" one. He said the most important thing we could do was to be a conscious consumer, and to buy the right thing. He said we should embrace both big business and the small farm, and just be friends, but didn't go into detail about the negative side of big business, or how that model came into existence in the first place. Who's benefiting here? The people, or the shareholders?
I'm lucky. I live and farm in Vermont, a state that still has small towns, local food co-ops, and small-scale farms who operate on a local scale. I can sell eggs to my neighbor, or go in on a community cow. But where are small towns across the U.S. going? They're not prevalent, I can say that. They're disappearing. A Wal-Mart comes in, small businesses go under, and people who have no other choice are forced to shop there. We've robbed them of a choice to do different.
One woman asked Hirshberg (at the head of a gigantic line of questions which were turned down due to lack of time): "So what you're telling us is that we are a culture of consumers, not a culture of self-sufficient beings?"
And Gary Hirshberg said, "Yes." He said, "This is the reality of our world."
Good for him, I guess, for becoming a voice for all the other large-scale organic companies keeping hush hush about their corporate values. I hate using him as a scapegoat, because he's certainly not a bad person, and he's trying his best. But I also didn't elect him my leader. His reality may be that of a consumer, but that doesn't mean mine has to be, at least not forever. Unless of course, I lose my job, my (limited) funds, my access to land, and therefore all of my power. And yes, I buy blue jeans and leather shoes. It's cheaper to buy them than to make them myself! Which is a shame.