As this internship is largely devoted to re-evaluating the agricultural system in the US, I try from time to time to translate the lessons I learn here in France into ideas we can apply in our own country. The other day, one of those lessons just happened to boil to the surface.
One afternoon last week, Mikhail and I were assigned to pick raspberries that eventually became the jam we sell to customers and local organic stores. As we were making our way down the neat rows, enjoying a pleasant breeze and the powerful Ardèche sun on our backs, we talked a lot about the problems of industrial agriculture and found we have a common interest in the issue. Before I tell you about his idea, however, you must know that Mikhail is simultaneously a great comedian and an intensely reflective thinker. He moves from back and forth between moments of histeria and contemplation with an ease and charm that wins over almost all who listen to his words.
Frustrated by the environmental and societal problems that come from America’s (and increasingly France’s) modernized food supply, Mikhail has concluded that the best solutions is a focus on both localized production and regional specialization. Like many of the writers who have engaged with this issue, his first conclusion is that the sale of vegetables and fruits produced elsewhere is not a sustainable process. Not only does the travel time result in massive fossil fuel consumption, but additionally, the focus of production becomes durable fruits and vegetables that end up looking good but tasting just okay. The result, then, is to produce as much as possible on the local level to increase tastiness and decrease transportation costs.
Though the first idea was not too original, Mikhail’s second conclusion, about regional specialization, was an innovative idea that I have never before heard. While he believes that each region should produce as much as possible, he also understands that local climates do not always allow one to grow every sort of product. In other words, warm weather fruits like figs, oranges, and lemons probably do not grow in Maine’s cooler climate while lobsters do not thrive in Florida. Considering the concession, Mikhail believes that each region should also identify its unique products and maximize their production for sale elsewhere. Yes, the process will result in higher transportation costs, but simultaneously, it allows regions to exchange goods and ideas. Just like it was important for villages in the Middle Ages to exchange people (via marriages) to keep bloodlines diverse, so Mikhail argues the sale of special, regional goods can keep local economies fresh.
To the greatest extent, Mikhail’s idea is quite theoretical (and you might ask how it can be applied), but here in France, regional specialization is already the norm. In the Ardèche, one type of plant that thrives is the chestnut tree. Knowing that it does not grow as well elsewhere, the locals have been harvesting chestnuts for centuries and transforming the good into a peanut butter-type jam that is a favorite all over France. (If you get the chance to taste “La Crème de Marrons,” I strongly encourage you try it.) On a much larger, societal level, we can also see France’s attachment to local specialities in the famous “Appelation d’Origine Controlée” system. Simply put, the system is a patchwork of local organizations that recognize the advantages of their local climate and stringently control how similar products from other regions name their goods. The most obvious example is wine because a Bordeaux or St. André can only come from a very small region in France. The system, however, is applied to everything from cheese to Chestnut Jam. Each good is controlled and similar products are forced to find other names, reducing their selling power. The Crème de Marrons and AOC (Appellation d’Origine Controlée), therefore, are both great examples of how localized specialization can create better products, keep production local, and earn a region a bit of money.
Realizing that our food production system in the United States creates mostly homogenized products (think Corn Flakes), maybe one lesson that we can take away from the Petit Ane Bleu and France in general is that valuing our local specialities is one way to revamp local consumption. Whether it means waiting for New Jersey blueberries to come into season, tasting that first Rhode Island fluke, or eating a real Philadelphia cheesesteak (not sure if that one works), focusing on the specialities of the region might put better food on your table and help those small, struggling farmers stay in business when Shoprite is just down the road…