Saturday, November 8, 2008


From the bean of Green Bean.

If you've read The Omnivore's Dilemma, or are aware of big industrial's grasp on agriculture, or pay attention to your food sources, you likely have heard the term "monoculture." Monoculture is defined as "the practice of producing or growing one single crop over a wide area." You know that animals are separated into feedlots far away from Old MacDonald's farm. You know that corn fields the size of cities sprawl over middle America. You know there is no true variety to be found on the shelves of our supermarkets. Corn is in everything. Corn is king.

You shake your head and say, ahhh, but I don't buy processed any more. I've bought in to a CSA. I grow my own. I shop at the farmer's market. "Monoculture", you say, is bad and I am doing my part to avoid it.

But industrial agriculture is only one form of monoculture that is strangling America. It is the most obvious. The easiest to recognize and therefore to avoid. There is another form far more insidious. Another form in which we, or at least me, willingly participate. I am talking about the monoculture of our marketplace.

Last winter, I relaxed in the Napa Valley, just north of San Francisco. For all intents and purposes, it is still "country" there. Vineyards (unfortunately, in monoculture) and undisturbed grassland stretch across the horizon. Cows nibble in the pastures. The sky opens up above you, peppered with soaring hawks and fluttering robins.

The town where I stayed was small. It's main street is comfortingly called "Main Street" and is dotted with a locally owned coffee shop, a mom and pop deli, a single barber - complete with striped barber pole, a family owned bakery, and a host of other unique, non-franchised stores. There is no Home Depot here. You won't find a Starbucks, a WalMart, or an Outback Steakhouse. For the most part, the people who own and work in those storefronts live in town. They know each other, sit on the PTA together,and play Bocce ball together.

At the coffee shop, the coffee is still delicious. The talk amongst neighbors gathered there even better. It is set in a roomy, windowed building overlooking the park and local ice cream store. They serve bagels, muffins, scones - the usual fare but it won't taste exactly the same as the scone that you had at the Starbucks near your house, or the Starbucks at the mall, or the one near Burger King or the one inside your Lucky's. No. These scones, this cup of coffee taste like this particular place.

I reveled in the small town feel. I enjoyed the food and drink that was just a little different than anything else I'd eaten or drank before. I welcomed the discovery of each storefront - who knew what was inside, what they offered, what advice they could provide.

Leaving the country behind, we gradually encountered more and more recognizable signs. A Target here. An Office Max there. Just before reaching the highway, on land once occupied by farm land, cows or wilderness, slouched an enormous strip mall. WalMart loomed above the other buildings occupied by Starbucks, Bank of America, Barnes and Noble, Jamba Juice, AT&T Cellular - a host of household names plunked down in the middle of wine country. I felt both nauseous and at home.

Have you had that experience before? No matter where you go in this country or even abroad, it's like you never left home. There is Starbucks coffee to quench your thirst, a McDonald's to satisfy your craving. Every place looks the same. There is no adventure, nothing new and undiscovered, on global main street.

So, while I'm doing my part to fight monoculture in my kitchen, I need also to consider monoculture in the downtown. As the authors of Affluenza point out, "a franchise dollar is electronically transferred to corporate headquarters, while a dollar spent at the local hardware stays put in towns or neighborhoods." Indeed, you are more likely to find locally made food and products at a mom and pop store than a chain store. Moreover, local businesses give more to charity (including local schools) than big box stores as well as provide interest, local character and that "personal touch." Biodiveristy is as important in the marketplace as in the field as in nature.

Money is a bit tight in this economy and I'm not advocating an all out spending spree. I am pledging, though, that the next time I need a new garden tool or a new pair of socks, I'll look local.

Related posts: Local Yokel

I first published this post on at my former blog, Green Bean Dreams last winter. I unearthed it because it seemed perfect for the APLS Carnival theme this month - buying local. If you would like to participate, please send your post to Burbanmom at aplscarnival(at)gmail(dot)com by Monday, November 10th. Then grab some popcorn and cotton candy (local of course) and join us for the carnival on Saturday, November 15, here at the Green Phone Booth.


kidletsmum said...

Yes! Yes! Yes!

It's only been a few days since I stumbled upon your blog, but I feel the need to shout the above every time I read one of your posts.

You're my new favourite.

Great points on why we should live our lives locally.

Burbanmom said...

Livin la vida local, baby!

Great post and yes, we've all had that sinking feeling when we're driving through the countryside enjoying the scenery and then see the large billboard for "Burger King - 5 Miles Ahead!".

It seems that retail monoculture cannot be avoided. Or can it?

fullfreezer said...

I grew up on a farm that practiced monoculture but I've "seen the light" in the past few years. We try to grow our own or from the farmers market as much as possible and I tend try to shop the small local stores first. I haven't set foot inside the local Walmarts for years- there are actually 2 in town!. People here started complaining when the second one was built, causing trouble for more small businesses, but few listened to those of us who urged "put your money where your mouth is". Unfortunately money talks. If people didn't shop there they wouldn't build another store. I didn't think it was rocket science.
I sometimes get odd looks from co-workers when I make comments about the importance of buying locally- but I've gotten used to that.

EJ said...

Don't forget diversity in banking, too. Support your local bank/credit union rather than large, international banks.

NataleeRae said...

I live in that small town that you were talking about, and YES it is wonderful! See you next time at the coffee shop.

Green Bean said...

Kidlets: Yeah! So glad you found us. :)

Burbs: I think it can. That town is evidence. My own town - smackdab in the middle of Silicon Valley - has done a decent job of keeping local businesses in the downtown. There are, however, two Starbucks on a three block strip which drove the last remaining coffee joint out of business. Working on it here though and I do have hope for the future.

Fullfreezer: First, I just "got" your name - considering how full my freezer is with stuff for the winter. ;-) Can't believe you have two Walmarts!?! But, as you say, if people didn't shop there, there wouldn't be two of them. I hope we can gradually, as a culture, transition back to the stores owned by our neighbors and community members.

EJ: Excellent point!! We're guilty of having our checking in a big bank (I'm working on my husband there) but we did switch credit cards last spring.

Natalerae: Hey! My parents live there too. Look for you next time we're in town. :)

Anonymous said...

I once debated this point with a fellow "small-towner" who was on the Chamber of Commerce. Interestingly, he figured that if small (local) businesses couldn't compete with the big-box internationals, they had no business being in business! And to some extent, I suppose that's true. After all, smaller, local, independent businesses certainly can wield the marketing power/tool of being "unique", "local", etc., etc. But, too, I think that consumer education is key: many people don't think about their purchases at all, and what impact their dollar spending at Point A or Point B has in the whole scheme of things. It's really nice to see so many folks entering into this discussion, especially as it's now been at least 10 years since that encounter with my fellow businessman, and in the meantime the choices for consumers have simply gone down the drain. Really, one thinks that they have so many things to buy when a big box store comes to town, but instead one really ends up being limited to what a big corporation decides to bring in! There's no option to special order, in most cases; there's no real change from year to year; there's definitely no difference from town to town; and there's little local reinvestment. (Not to mention the suburban sprawl as all the big box stores look for cheap land on which to build their huge strip malls...and we all drive on out of town, literally, to support them.) I, for one, enjoy the diversity, the personality, and the knowledgable service of shopping in true local fashion. Life is so much more fun (including shopping) if it's not so cookie cutter!

Donna said...

I completely agree!

The town you described sounds exactly like the town my aunt and uncle live in (the name escapes me right now). We went there for a wedding a couple years back, and it was so delightful to walk down Main Street and wander into the local stores. I wish there were more places like that.

Melinda said...

Hmmm... sounds like you might want to take my "Buy Sustainably Challenge"!! ; )

Great post. We were very lucky to have found a neighborhood in a city where we can walk to just about everything we need, and where it is rare to find chain stores (except our "local" Starbucks, which is technically a local company here in Seattle I suppose!).

I must say it is so pleasurable to buy from local people. It adds meaning, and wonderful stories, to my life.

Green Bean said...

Anonymous: What a beautifully stated and insightful comment. Thank you!

Donna: Yes, I wish there were more places like that. I hope that we can gradually rebuild more and more of our towns to look like that by buying from our neighbors instead of the big box stores.

Melinda: Thanks for stopping by! You are right. I should join your challenge. :) Life is so much more interesting and meaningful by traveling the road less traveled or the store less nationally owned.

Fix said...

Well put. One of the things I LOVE about NYC is that there are still local businesses here. Many of our neighborhoods have been colonized by Targets and Ikeas, but there are still tiny, ancient stores that have city and neighborhood flavor.

One of the things I HATE about NYC, though, is that trying to find something random - like colored string for a project this summer - entails running all over town with no results. I guess I am too used to convenience, but there are some upsides to standardization...and non-standard items definitely cause anxiety for a LOT of people in our modern world. I think it will be a long re-education process for many.

Megan from Fix

kale for sale said...

Great point - I hadn't thought about where our credit card is from even though we bank at a local bank. Thank you.

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