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Seeing Red: Eating Locally and Debunking the Red-Blue Divide

When my family tried to eat local for a year, we learned as much about politics as we did about produce.

| Mon Apr. 30, 2007 3:00 AM EDT

i grew up among farmers. In my school system in east central Kentucky we were all born to our rank, as inescapably as Hindus, the castes being only two: "farm" and "town." Though my father worked in town, we did not live there, and so by the numinous but unyielding rules of high school, I was farm. It might seem astonishing that a distinction like this could be made in a county that boasted exactly two stoplights, one hardware store, no beer joints, and fewer residents than an average Caribbean cruise ship. After I went away to school, I remained in more or less constant marvel over the fact that my so-called small liberal arts college, with an enrollment of about 2,000, was 25 percent larger than my hometown.

And yet, even in a community as rural as mine, we still had our self-identified bourgeoisie, categorically distinguished from the rustics. We of the latter tribe could be identified by our shoes (sometimes muddy, if we had to cover rough country to get to the school bus), our clothes (less frequently updated), or just the bare fact of a Rural Free Delivery mailing address. I spent my childhood in awe of the storybook addresses of some of my classmates, like "14 Locust Street." In retrospect I'm unsure of how fact-based the distinction really was. Most of us "farm" kids were well-scrubbed and occasionally even stylish. Nevertheless, the line was unimpeachably drawn. Little socializing across it was allowed except during special events forced on us by adults, such as the French Club Dinner, and mixed-caste dating was unthinkable except to the tragic romantics.

Why should this have been? How did the leafy, sidewalked blocks behind the newspaper office confer on their residents a different sense of self than did the homes couched among cow pastures and tobacco fields? The townie shine would have dimmed quickly (I now realize) if the merchants' confident offspring had been catapulted suddenly into Philadelphia or Louisville. "Urban" is relative. But the bottom line is that it matters. The antipathy in our culture between the urban and nonurban is so durable it has its own vocabulary: (A) city slicker, tenderfoot; (B) hick, redneck, hayseed, bumpkin, rube, yokel, clodhopper, hoecake, hillbilly, Dogpatch, Daisy Mae, farmer's daughter, from the provinces, out of Deliverance. Maybe you see where I'm going with this. The list is lopsided. I don't think there's much doubt, on either side, as to which class is winning the culture wars.

Most rural people of my acquaintance would not gladly give up their status. Like other minorities, we've managed to turn several of the aforementioned slurs into celebrated cultural identifiers (for use by insiders only). In my own life I've had ample opportunity to reinvent myself as a city person—to pass, as it were—but I've remained tacitly rural-identified in my psyche. It's probably this dual citizenship that has sensitized me to how urban-rural antipathy affects people in both camps. Rural concerns are less covered by the mainstream media, and often considered intrinsically comic. The policy of our nation is made in cities, controlled largely by urban voters who aren't well informed about the changes on the face of our land, and the men and women who work it.

When we walked, as a nation, away from the land, our knowledge of food production fell away from us like dirt in a laundry-soap commercial. Now, it's fair to say, the majority of us don't want to be farmers, see farmers, pay farmers, or hear their complaints. Except as straw-chewing figures in children's books, we don't quite believe in them anymore. When we give it a thought, we mostly consider the food industry to be a thing rather than a person. We obligingly give 81 cents of our every food dollar to that thing, too—the processors, marketers, transporters, and so on. Less than one-fifth goes to farmers, and corporate "producers" get the lion's share of that. We complain about the high price of organic meats and vegetables that might actually send back more than two dimes per buck to the humans putting seeds in the ground, harvesting, attending livestock births, standing in the fields at dawn. In the grocery store checkout corral, we learn all about which stars are secretly fornicating, but nothing about the people who grew the cucumbers and melons in our carts.

There must be some reason why we don't want to think about or compensate these hardworking men and women. The psychic divide between rural working class and urban middle is surely a part of the problem. "Eaters must understand," Wendell Berry writes, "that eating takes place inescapably in the world, that it is inescapably an agricultural act, and that how we eat determines, to a considerable extent, how the world is used." Eaters must understand, he claims, but it sure looks like most eaters don't. If they did, how would we frame the message to farmers suggested by today's food-buying habits? "Let them eat dirt" is hardly overstating it. The urban U.S. middle class appears more immediately concerned about exploited Asian factory workers.

Symptomatic of this rural-urban identity crisis is our eager embrace of a recently imposed divide: the red states and the blue states. That color map comes to us with the suggestion that both coasts are populated by educated civil libertarians, while the vast middle and south are crisscrossed with the studded tracks of atvs leaving a trail of flying beer cans and rebel yells. Okay, I'm exaggerating a little. But I certainly sense that when urban friends ask me how I can stand living here, "so far from everything." (When I hear this question over the phone, I'm usually looking out the window at a forest, a running creek, and a vegetable garden, thinking: "Define 'everything.'") Otherwise sensitive coast-dwelling folk may refer to the whole chunk of our continent lying between the Cascades and the Hudson River as "The Interior."

In fact, the politics of rural regions are no more predictable than those in cities. "Conservative" is a reasonable position for a farmer who can lose home and livelihood all in one year by taking a risk on a new crop. But that's "conservative" as in, "eager to conserve what we have, reluctant to change the rules overnight," and unrelated to how the term is currently (often incomprehensibly) applied in party politics. The farm county where I grew up had so few Republicans they all registered Democrat so they could vote in the only local primary. My earliest understanding of radical, class-conscious politics came from miners' strikes in one of the most rural parts of my state, and of our nation.

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