Thursday, May 30, 2013

The Cost of Authentic Agrarianism

I went to a local garden center today. It’s not a glamorous building. There is no parking lot out front and the lot on the side has pot holes which my mid size sedan managed to navigate without harm. The building is not on a four lane road, nor do I need a protected left turn to access it. Rather it sits on an arterial street in the middle of town, a mere stones throw from backyards, churches, and a school. This store is part of a neighborhood.

The inside of the store doesn’t share the same design standards as Bananna Republic or JCrew. It’s a hodge-podge of goods that are essential for gardening: gloves, seeds, fertilizer, and bulk goods. Without the aid of displays I had no trouble in locating the seeds which motivated my journey here. They were not from Burpee or Parks, but for the most part selected from a bulk bin at a rate of 99 cents per scoop. Judging from the activity here, it’s apparent that despite the lateness of the season, many others like me ventured out on this rainy day in hopes of gathering supplies for when the sun shines.

Yet, I did this when I had the option of shopping from home. I wasted precious minutes driving through town, held captive by red lights, and constrained by their limited selection which included only 10 varieties of squash. The online world beckons and demonstrates that the terms “local”, “agrarian”, “organic” and “natural” are not relegated by any keeper. These adjectives, whether we like it or not, are just as commercialized as the rest of our culture. I could have elected to shop online, for there are plenty of online organic, natural stores ready to rush me an order for only a small additional fee.

But why be constrained to second-rate unreliable retailers? William Sonoma now offers the “Agrarian” collection and shouldn’t we all be appreciative? They’ve collected all the essentials in one online shop. With just a few clicks I can add the “Southern” seed collection ($59.95), Heirloom Herb Seed Kit ($49.95), Vintage Hand Trowel ($69.95), Backyard Beehive Starter Kit (why not? I’ve been talking about it for years ands it’s $499.95), and assuming that my municipality has declared backyard chickens acceptable within urban limits then, I should also order the Ballard Chicken Coop ($999.95, it will remind me of a quaint Seattle neighborhood and how I too am progressive), and now that I have a garden, honey, eggs, and herbs, I better compost so that means adding the Farmer D Cedar Composter ($449.95), to the cart. Hopefully I’ve qualified for free basic shipping.

While creating these things myself will take time, consulting with a few wiser and more experienced people, and of course probably involve a few mistakes, I’d also be developing a skill. I’d be able to tailor a compost bin to be more appropriate for my compost. Or I may choose to visit the Farmer’s Market Saturday morning and purchase my eggs there (besides I like to eat duck eggs from time to time and the City here was explicit about which type of fowl I may house in my back yard). Although the all inclusive seed collection is tempting, I may need to plant varietals which are more attune to the the brisk September evenings of a northern climate. 

While William Sonoma is capable of selling me agrarian themed products, they can not sell me agrarianism. William Sonoma can’t sell me the warmth of that first spring day any more than it can sell me the expertise necessary to know the difference between a cucumber and a squash vine. While copper handled spades and vintage wash tub planting stations are aesthetically appealing, they won’t do an ounce of good to create connections between me and the consumers of my food; for pulling them out of the box is fundamentally a different interaction than the exchanges which take place at the farmers market. While the act of exchanging money and produce may seem no different than that which takes place at a super market, it’s a distinctly different. It’s motivated by a willingness to recognize that there is value in “local”, that there is value in the land, that there is value in bringing forth sustienance from the soil with our own hands. Thus, I am left where I started today, purchasing some seeds from a local shop to be planted on top of a sunny bluff in my local town, to be weeded, watered, and harvested by local individuals, and then consumed in the company of friends and family in my home. While William Sonoma may attempt to sell me the idea, regardless of how much they charge, they remain incapable of selling me the experience.