If Things Are to Stay the Same,
the More They Have to Change
by John Lee

Five years have flown by since the first issue of Edible Boston appeared in the then–sparsely populated food mag market. Back then, food journalism really was just beginning to catch on and mostly in the areas of food travel and food preparation (viz Cook’s Illustrated, Gourmet, Food and Wine, Saveur et al.).

Edible Boston and others in the Edible Communities organization changed the focus to food production and focused further on food production and marketing at the local level, bringing attention to the growers and entrepreneurs who were bringing new crops and cuisines to the burgeoning market of fresh ideas and food and fresh awareness.

But what has not changed is the complex role that New England’s small farmers must play in the economic dance to stay competitive.  Just as food journalism has become more competitive (in the sense that there is a burgeoning plethora of increasingly reputable food-related journals), Massachusetts farmers have had to justify and define their markets, invent new markets and research new income sources.

All the while, local growers have been subjected to the whims and ignorance of local boards of health, ill-educated (if not ill-intentioned) abutters, a largely city-bred bureaucracy and well-intentioned but misdirected animal welfare groups. A further interesting wrinkle that has resulted from the increased excitement about hands-on, small-scale agriculture has been the proliferation of not-for-profit, community or quasi-public-sector farms, which are competing most effectively for the consumer’s attention and food dollar.

However, competition usually breeds creative inspiration and excitement.  This is exactly what has happened to Massachusetts agriculture, thanks in part to an exciting relationship with local chefs who are not only excited about putting fresh food on their menus but creating value-added products for their restaurants, ranging from fermented delights to pickled delicacies. And if restaurant chefs were not enough to help out local producers, there are the retro foodie trucks that are now populating local towns and cities with great fast food derived from any manner of cultures. Stand aside, Mickie D!

It is ironic that as agriculture was historically at all-time lows, a new younger generation of nontraditional agriculturists has begun to infiltrate agricultural politics, to buy and resurrect farms (albeit ever smaller but more intensively cultivated operations). However, unlike the failed agri-resurgence of the ’60s, today’s young farmers appear to have some marketing skills. There also seems to be a greatly expanded vision of the realities of what a successful farm might actually look like. Today’s consumer is seriously interested in supporting forward-thinking producers.  Barefoot subsistence has given way to smarter relationships and functional partnerships between smarter producers and sophisticated consumers.

Creative and literate food journals and blogs in company with energized farm-to-plate, farm-to-institution, farmers markets and young farmer training programs have made farming in this new century a realistic vocation, not just a hobby or money pit.

John Lee is the manager of Allandale Farm (Boston’s last working farm), which specializes in naturally grown local produce. Each summer, John manages an outdoor children’s program on the farm. He writes for local new outlets and is deeply involved with farming and locally grown issues in Massachusetts.