Saturday, August 12, 2006

Fair Reflections

The Western Montana Fair is in town this week. At the last minute I decided that we should enter some of our PEAS Farm produce in the agriculture competition. The idea was mostly to encourage the Youth Harvest kids by hopefully winning a few ribbons that they could proudly display to their families and friends at the Fair. It turns out we did pretty well, winning first and third place for carrots, first and second for kale, first for red cabbage and celery, and second place for red onions. Our cucumbers, however, didn't place at all. The contest considers mostly aesthetic qualities such as uniformity and size without regard to maturity of the produce or, most importantly, TASTE! The blue ribbon cucumbers were all perfectly uniform, but actually, not ripe!
Of course, the competition was not exactly fair on many levels. I think we were competing mostly against backyard gardeners. Surprisingly, there was no separate category for farm-raised produce or any distinction between vegetables grown with or without pesticides, herbicides or growth enhancers.
Were I in Montana more permanently, I would love to see the agricultural component of the fair become what it might have once been--an Exposition where all regional farms are represented; where friendly competition contributes to the sharing of knowledge among farmers; where vegetables are judged by their taste and not on perfect shape. It is an environment with so much educational potential that is completely lost in the whirl of carnival rides and the seasonal allure of cotton candy and fry bread.
From our PEAS Farm fieldtrips to organic farms all over the region this summer, I am more aware than ever before of the agricultural activity going on all around us. But before that experience, I had no idea there were peaches growing up near Dixon or lavendar and grape vines in the Rattlesnake. The Missoula Farmer's Market is a celebration, of sorts, of local produce and local farms, but I sense a distinct elitism (or at best, reservation) among the organic farming community when it comes to participating in the Western Montana Fair. The Fair is stereotyped, it seems, as being for "the other half" of the agricultural world--the conventional farmer; more specifically, the ranching and rodeo crowd.
To my mind, knowing now the wonderful farming community that exists, it is unfortunate that the agricultural displays at the Fair are mostly filled, as I said, by home gardeners. None of these beautiful farms we've visited this summer are represented.
And even the conventional farmers (meaning those who use chemicals) seem to be growing mostly grains rather than vegetables. Thus I assume that most of the local produce that is available in the market is being grown by those folks that we have visited. One thing I've learned about these farmers in Western Montana is that they work VERY HARD! I don't expect them to necessarily take the time to consider educating the public about what they're doing. At the same time, however, keeping themselves within the elite community of those who shop at the Good Food Store or the crowd that comes to the Farmer's Market ultimately limits their market, I think. Many Missoulians I've talked to think, for example, that those who buy their produce at the Farmer's Market represent a good cross-section of the population of Missoula. Somehow I think if that were the case, we wouldn't have a population that supports two Walmarts...but I digress...
While farmers may not have the time to educate the public about considering the source of their food, an organization like Garden City Harvest should be doing so. It states as one of the three primary goals in their mission statement that they are committed to offering education and training in ecologically conscious food production. Now celebrating its 10th year, however, GCH has apparently not yet considered the incredible opportunity presented by the Fair to reach a broad cross-section of the population (that might not shop at the Good Food Store) about the significance of growing organically and supporting local farms. GCH could also take on the job of making sure local farmers are encouraged to participate and are well-represented at the Fair and that an awareness of the vibrant local farming community reaches the general population of Western Montana. This could be achieved in a really fun and celebratory way by integrating "ecologically consicous food production" awareness into the historically significant county fair model, which is already deeply rooted in agriculture.
If we really believe in this "conscious agriculture" idea, then we must resist the impulse toward elitism and take every opportunity to promote and encourage HEALTHY LOCAL PRODUCE FOR EVERYONE. If the organic farming community is too good for the Fair, then in effect, they're just preaching to the choir, and losing a valuable opportunity to expand the market for and the awareness of local, organic produce.

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