Acton Institute Powerblog

Free Range Markets

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Here is an question: Where do a lot of socially liberal, anti-capitalists,left-leaning, organic, environmentalist, vegan, social democrat types who enthusiastically support government regulation and nationalized health care go to find a sense of community?

Answer: Free Markets
To be more precise: Farmer’s Markets.

Spring is in the air and so I headed off to the first official day of the farmer’s market in Grand Rapids on Saturday. As you can imagine farmer’s markets not only have an abundant supply of fresh vegetables and meats–but lots of liberal bumper stickers and flocks of “counter cultural” folk who tend to look the same, and love to talk about sustainability, free range chickens, grass finished beef, and the evils of capitalism.

Yes they love to go to farmer’s markets to buy local, drink fair trade coffee, and meet up with their friends and comrades. (To be sure there are a lot regular folks and farmers who also go to the farmer’s markets, less to make a political statement, and more to buy and sell wholesome foods at good prices).

But the irony-or rather tragedy–is that if the left had their way, then agriculture would be even more controlled by the government than it is now, and local growers and farmer’s markets would be regulated out of existence.

Already small local farms face a myriad of rules and regulations that make it difficult to compete with large agricultural corporations. Many people who love to promote the “buy local” movement, too often lack a coherent understanding about how markets and regulation work and while their bumper stickers praise small, local businesses and entrepreneurs, their voting patterns support the exact opposite.

Luckily there are some coherent voices who understand the relationship between local markets, wholesome food, and political and economic liberty. One of them is Joel Salatin, Mr. Salatin runs Polyface Farms in Central Virginia. He has a lot of interesting insights into farming, family businesses and freedom.

Unlike many in the organic movement, Salatin realizes that government and bureaucracy are part of the problem. In an illuminating article, Everything I Want to Do is Illegal in Acres Magazine he documents the struggles small farmers must face to get their food to market. You can also find the book here: Everything I Want to Do Is Illegal

Salatin tells how the law requires farmers to have their cattle butchered at a USDA approved site and not on their own farms, however he writes:

When I return home to sell these delectable packages, the county zoning ordinance says that this is a manufactured product because it exited the farm and was re-imported as a value-added product, thereby throwing our farm into the Wal-Mart category, another prohibition in agricultural areas. Just so you understand this, remember that an on farm abattoir was illegal, so I took the animals to a legal abattoir, but now the selling of said products in an on-farm store is illegal.

People who praise “local-ism” need to realize that for local farmers and businesses to flourish–and for small organic farmers to be able to compete–we need free and competitive markets and not government intrusion that only benefits those companies big enough to send lobbyists to Washington or their state capitols.

Michael Matheson Miller


  • Brett

    Thank you for the very needed and relevant article. I am a sustainable business major at Aquinas college and i completely side with the local,organic, free range, grass fed movement and i believe it will be the corner stone of our new and successful economy. But i also agree that government regulation is stifling the creation of strong local economies. I like your reference of Joel Saltin, he is an inspiring figure and a hero in the sustainable agricultural movement. I think though you have to take note that the government has subsidized multinational corporation and conventional agriculture for many years. This has placed them at unfair advantage over real food, sustainable agriculture and local business. I think what we need now is subsidies in the opposite direction, and regulations to stifle corporate farmers and non-local businesses. Just to even the playing field. Then we can phase out subsidies completely and let the market decide!

  • Subsidies for agricultural producers don’t work. They simply transfer wealth from workers and families to agribusinesses that effectively lobby for government favours. The quicker they are phased out the better for consumers and taxpayers.

  • Therese

    While I can appreciate some of what Mr. Miller discusses in his article, I think he gets sidetracked when he begins generalizing the sort of people who shop at farmers markets, and ignoring the larger problems with corporations monopolizing agribusiness in this country. Yes, there is far too much bureaucracy standing between the small business owner/farmer and success in their respective fields. Having read a fair bit of Michael Pollan, I was already familiar with Mr. Salatin. Unfortunately, at this point in time does anyone see a way of voting out Monsanto & Co.? I don’t. Cutting the red tape, while helpful, would not be sufficient on its own. Besides which, many (most) people in the business are not nearly as ethical as Mr. Salatin. And while I can certainly understand the frustration with what can appear to be over-regulation by the federal government in some areas, surely Mr. Miller is not suggesting all regulation is a bad thing? Not knowing him I cannot say for certain, but I suppose he would be happy to dispose of his own trash, pass on social security and ambulance services, put out his own house fire, and drive around without traffic laws? However, all of this aside, what disturbs me most about the article is his characterization of the people who frequent farmers markets – not, as he so adroitly terms them, the “regular” folks, who are there for the wholesome food, but the supposed irregulars among us, who are there solely to make political statements by showing off their bumper stickers and “looking the same”. Did it not occur to Mr. Miller that those people whose bumper stickers and clothing choices he finds so objectionable could very well frequent the farmers markets for the same reasons he does? I’m fairly certain that enjoying wholesome well-priced foods is an activity not yet delineated strictly by party lines. When visiting my parents in my hometown of Steubenville, with which Mr. Miller is apparently acquainted, based on his bio, I could easily make the assumption that the people who gad about town sporting scapulars and Franciscanite sandals and drive cars littered with traditional Roman Catholic bumper stickers subscribe to one specific school of thought. But knowing many of them as I do, I would never make such a sweeping generalization. Were Mr. Miller to meet me he might be tempted to classify me with the politicos intruding on his free range market – to the labels socially liberal, anti-capitalist, left-leaning, organic, social democrat, supporter of government regulation and nationalized health care, I plead guilty. However, he might be surprised to find that I am also a traditional Roman Catholic, attend daily Mass, am vehemently pro-life in the Cardinal Bernadin school of thought, and, like many folks, regular and otherwise, general despiser of labels, political parties and being pigeon-holed. I am neither Democrat nor Republican, but self-termed Catholic activist. Perhaps if he were less concerned with the choices people make in their attire and automotive decor, and more with getting to know them on a personal level, he might be pleasantly surprised to find a whole new sense of community in his “free range” market.

  • Patrick Powers

    Jesus’ comment that what a man eats does not defile him, but what comes out of his mouth. I wonder how our Kosher Brethren surmount these marketing problems. What about all the nutrition firms that offer their foods as a panacea for every ailment. In my case, the Doctor recommends I buy anything I want at the supermarket, bring it home, dump it out and eat the box.

    C. S. Lewis doesn’t limit his discussion of Gluttony to quantities. The following URL maybe insightful:

    With our litigious culture, I believe anyone who goes into food production, shipping, marketing or preparation is heroic. All it takes is one or two cases of e.coli or salmanella to bankrupt a small business. Even a cup of hot water can become a threat to a business, becoming a teapot in a tempest.

    I keep wondering if the ghost of B. F. Skinner isn’t roaming around the Counter-Cultural farm.

  • Sounds like bureaucracy botch-up re those conflicting regs, the right hand not knowing what the left hand is doing. Hope the bureaucracy can get its act together and make things right for that farmer.

    OTOH, since this looks like it only affects small farmers, I can’t help thinking that some big agri-bizzes had their hands in it.

    I don’t know why people conflate organic farming with liberalism. Weren’t Tim McVeigh and Terry Nichols into organic farming, and they are on the conservative side of the spectrum. Tho it does seem that those into organic foods tend to be pro-life, rather than death-mongers.

    Also I saw a film about how a young farmer turned to organic farming after his farmer father died from prostate cancer. Pesticides kill more than insects. He said that while there was some crop loss from pests, the higher prices helped him make more money per acre than he ever had. Integrated pest management and nontoxic pest control measures I think can help in ways that maintain acreage productivity. And then there is the issue of synthetic fertilizers causing blue baby syndrome (from nitrates leaching into the drinking water), soil loss, clogging up waterways, fertilizer run-off into rivers and the ocean/gulf causing algal blooms and dead-zones killing off sea food. I understand that America has lost half of its very rich & deep topsoil over the past 200 years or so.

    Seems like people who are truly prolife would buy organic food when available and within one’s budget. Also they’ve found that organic produce is more nutritious than produce grown with synthetic chemicals.

  • Forgot to mention the people who have died re pesticide production. For instance, in Mission, TX, next town over from mine, some companies set up factories in the 1950s right in residential areas & didn’t even have fences around, to produce the most toxic chemicals known to man, including Agent Orange, which was used in Viet Nam. The people didn’t know these were toxic and the children would play in the effluents. It’s a Superfund site, but the clean up of the now abandoned factory site has been inadequate, and there’s been no clean up of the surrounding neighborhood with has toxins in the soil and homes, and no relocations.

    The upshot has been numerous cancers and other serious health problems, 7 times the still births and miscarriages than the general population, grotesque birth defects. Last I heard the really serious victims have gotten about $100 each from lawsuits (to cover bills for cancer & kidney & liver transplants, etc).

    Since these people are Tejano (Texas Mexican-Americans), they don’t really count in people’s eyes, so people never hear about these stories.

    Just remember, pesticides kill more than insects.

  • Roger McKinney

    Therese: “does anyone see a way of voting out Monsanto & Co.?”

    Yes. In a free market, people vote with their money. Many a large company has died because people voted with their dollars.

    Don’t fall into the socialist false dichotomy of insisting that we must accept either 1) no state at all or 2) all of the regulations that exist. The capitalist way is to have the state perform its God-given role of protecting life, liberty and property for all people equally. The market will take care of regulating individual companies and industries. Of course we want the state to use its police powers to stop businessmen from poisoning others. But when the state gets into micromanaging businesses, then the large corporations, like Monsanto, “capture” the regulatory agencies and use them to limit competition from smaller producers. Nothing can prevent regulatory capture from happening except taking away from the state the power to regulate and manage specific industries.