Review: Selling Local

Selling Local: Why Local Food Movements Matter.  Jennifer Meta Robinson and James Robert Farmer.  Indiana University Press, 2017.

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Ryan Adams
Lycoming College

Jennifer Robinson and James Farmer bring personal experience and long-term interest in farmers’ markets and local food to their overview of the current state of the local food movement in “Selling Local”. The book is organized around distinct facets of the movement with a chapter devoted to farmers’ markets, another to Community Supported Agriculture, and two additional chapters conglomerating topics like food hubs, urban agriculture, plain Amish/Mennonite communities, gendered challenges, and land acquisition, among others. A chapter prior to the conclusion presents a really wonderful analysis of local food using Nobel Prize winning scholar Elinor Ostrom’s systems approach to common-pool resources. That excellent chapter was a little out of synch with the rest of the book, but once again demonstrated how much insightful and counter-intuitive understanding can be generated with Ostrom’s approach. The conclusion is an impassioned argument in favor of the promise of local food. “Selling Local” is not anchored within a particular discipline nor does it seem well positioned to shift or reframe the current scholarship on local food, but it is a solid, wide-ranging, descriptive book written by experts with a sympathetic and in-depth understanding of farmers selling their products locally.

The local food movement could be studied from many viewpoints, such as a cross-cultural point of comparison to theorize political and economic agency (Counihan and Siniscalchi 2014), as a lens to understand how consumers construct their cosmopolitan identities (Johnston and Baumann 2015), or contextualized as one part of larger social activist projects (Cobb 2011). Robinson and Farmer have directed their efforts toward identifying the challenges and opportunities faced by farmers as they start and sustain farms selling food locally. It is not exactly ethnographic, but their long experience and strong rapport with farmers have led them to include meaningful anecdotes to illustrate their claims. I found these brief farmer profiles fascinating and illuminating. The authors are also well versed enough in local food to expertly identify the key trends and key issues, and to summarize how those trends and issues might impact farmers.

The book may not reliably capture aspects of local food in places that are significantly different than the American Midwest and Appalachia. The material is only partially relevant to my ongoing research in Brooklyn, NY and San Juan, Puerto Rico, for example, but is a very accurate reflection of the market vendors and CSA farmers in Williamsport, PA. I imagine people working in wealthy Pacific Coast cities or the arid and ethnically diverse Southwest might experience similar limits in application, not to mention non-American settings.

Because the authors have focused more on solid, well-researched descriptive claims, the book is likely to prove relevant for a long time. “Selling Local” will not reshape the scholarship of food movements, and it does not debate and analyze the historical causes of the contemporary local food movement, but given the wide scope and descriptive tone, it would be an excellent choice as one of the core readings in an undergraduate class on the topic of food.

Cobb, Tanya Denckla (ed). 2011. Rclaiming Our Food: How the Grossroots Food Movement Is Changing the Way We Eat. North Adams, MA: Storey

Counihan, Carole and Valeria Siniscalchi (eds). 2014. Food Activism: Agency, Democracy, and Economy. New York: Bloomsbury Academic Press.

Johnston, Josée and Shyon Baumann. 2015. Foodies: Democracy and Distinction in the Gourmet Foodscape. 2nd Edition. New York: Routledge

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Filed under anthropology of food, farmers market

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