Newsletter – 12 September, 2013


The Alleged Farm News – 12 September, 2013
10:00 am to 2:00 pm 
We hope you will join us on the farm this Sunday 



This weeks share: Arugula, Carrots, Dill, Garlic, Lettuce, Onions, Peppers
Newmex Hot Peppers, Potatoes, Squash, Tomatoes

Sam went back to school last Tuesday. He joined the other seniors for several days of mandatory leadership training before classes started. At Sam’s school all the seniors have leadership positions, such as diversity officer, chapel trustee or alumni ambassador. To prepare them for this and for their general role as leaders of the student body, they had to sit through fifteen hours of training sessions, making sure to be there on time, sit quietly, listen attentively and generally do as told.

I suggested to Sam, who was not looking forward to being trained, that he could display admirable leadership qualities by standing up during one of the sessions, declaring loudly that it was a complete waste of time, and urging all the other seniors to follow him out the door. He felt that the compelling force of such irony would be lost on the school administrators, which is, sadly, almost certainly true. Still, they must have some sense that the entire undertaking is at best a little ludicrous. It is not really possible–for psychological, social and logical reasons–that ever senior can be a leader. It is not even clear that you want everyone to be a leader. And even if you do, you are unlikely to achieve that bizarre outcome with fifteen numbing hours of compulsory leadership training and a bunch of bogus leadership positions. 

Vegetable notes: As I suspected the might, the outside tomatoes, sensing the fast approaching end of the season, decided to ripen all at once. Well, not quite all at once, but close enough. Two weeks ago we got two flats of tomatoes from outside; this week, 34. Fortunately, there are worse things than getting a lot of vine ripened tomatoes in your CSA share. Such as getting those weird packing material tomatoes from the grocery store. 

With all those tomatoes to hand out, this would have been an excellent week to have lots of basil to send along with them. But the mildew had other ideas. Or whatever mildew has. Perhaps it does not really possess any intentions at all, but I suspect otherwise. Being a farmer, I understand that like the weather and pests, it causes deliberate harm. 

Fortunately, the dill seems to be immune to most diseases. It won’t make as good an addition to a tomato salad as the basil would have, but it does go well with glazed carrots or in potato salad.

The hot peppers this week are not especially hot. If you just treated as the peppers as sweet peppers you would not suffer terribly. For those who want to distinguish between hot and sweet, however, the Newmex are the green ones. Roasted and peeled, they make an excellent addition to salsa or gazpach or potato salad with dillo or even tomato salad without basil.

But that is not really what the school’s leadership program is about. To the extent that it serves some actual purpose, it is about responsibility, not leadership. My son’s boarding school exercises a fair amount of control over the lives of its students. But it grants considerably more freedom to seniors than to members of the other classes, and it wants to make sure they use this freedom as responsibly as a bunch of cooped up teenagers can. In return, it requires that the seniors take on some responsibility within the school community, and it wants to make sure they take that responsibility seriously.

There’s nothing wrong with responsibility, so why doesn’t the school just call it that? Because responsibility, as admirable as it may be, just does not sell like leadership. 
Turning simple responsibility in to august leadership serves to enhance these seniors’ college applications. Colleges like candidates who display leadership–whatever that means precisely–and so Sam’s school is making sure that all the seniors can offer evidence that they do. 

Or if not actual evidence, which can be so hard to come by, at least the right packaging. The idea, I suppose, is to tell the admissions offices what they want to hear on the theory that they are too overwhelmed with applications to give much thought to what diversity officers actually do or how they came by that position. Were they promoted from the ranks? And if so, for what special act of diversity. And does an alumni ambassador oversee various consular officials who take care of the day to day chores of providing visas to alumni and setting up trade mission to the land of the graduated? I guess the school is hoping that the colleges, satisfied by the suggestion of leadership, won’t ask these sorts of questions 

Hoping, in other words, that colleges will act like the rest of us and make purchases based at least as much on the attractiveness of the package as on the qualities of the actual object in the package. The school is not just selling the seniors (which is a weird enough idea); they are marketing them. That is how you make a not easily differentiable good in a crowded market stand out. It drives a vast amount of our buying, and it is profoundly different from mere selling.

Selling is deciding at what price you are willing to part with a good and then announcing that in the hope that someone who hears you wants what you have and will pay what you want. It is putting up a sign that says “night crawlers, 2 dozen for $1.” Such a sign is not designed to appeal to anyone who does not know what a night crawler is or why you would want to pay for it. It tells you nothing about the special qualities of the night crawlers or the amazing deal you are getting or what sort of person you will appear to be if you take advantage of this special offer or even how many attractive women in bikinis will want to go for a drive on the beach at sunset in your jeep. It is not selling lifestyle or status or self-affirmation to any and everybody it can, just worms to folks who want worms.

But we figured out some time ago that this sort of selling places rather serious constraints on economic activity. You don’t get rich supplying people with what they need. You get rich making people need what you supply, and to do that you need marketing. Consider Domino’s Pizza. It came into the marketplace selling one of the most widely available foods in the country at an uncompetitive price and of undistinguished quality with a service already offered by most of its competitors. It should have failed, except that it came into the marketplace nationally with a marketing budget orders of magnitude larger than anything a pizzeria could afford. A marketing budget it used to convince consumers that it, more so than its multitude of competitors, offered taste, savings and convenience. The success of this message–Domino’s has annual revenues of around 1.7 billion dollars–had nothing to do with the pizza itself and everything to do with how often and widely it was disseminated and clever psychological ploys it used to make millions of Americans forget that they could already get a comparably priced, tastier pizza delivered from a locally owned pizzeria. 

To be fair, those pizzerias had benefitted from the concerted marketing efforts of major processed food producers to make us forget the multifarious advantages of cooking for ourselves. They convinced us to think of cooking as boring, time consuming, complicated, unreliable, uneconomical, demeaning. And so we gave up control, creativity, community for their marketing promises and their microwaveable meals. We learned to get our food from someone somewhere else, which certainly included the local pizzeria.

Not that marketing bears full responsibility for all of the recent changes in American society. There are plenty of other forces at work, some of them even outside the powers of corporate America. But marketers have proved adept at going with the times, turning trends not of their making to their advantage. For instance, as Michael Pollan has pointed out, they used the language of women’s liberation to further their attacks on cooking, not because they cared one way or the other about equal rights, but because those words became powerful selling tools. 

Nor is it always easy to distinguish between selling and marketing. To a certain extent, even a sign for night crawlers could be construed as a come-on, and it is possible to see the the adornments of marketing as adding legitimate value. And of course marketing comes in such a wide array of types. It is a spectrum disorder. One man’s marketing might be another’s selling.

I wonder sometimes, for instance, to which realm the word “organic” belongs. It is in part a shorthand for a specific set of production guidelines. As such, it tells you something quite particular and objective about the actual product. No matter what you think of the production method, you can know precisely what it means applied to a chicken or an apple. But it has also always carried spiritual/philosophical/political implications that are only tenuously related the actual rules of organic production. It has always been as much a movement as a specific way of producing food, and the movement part strikes me as a form of marketing. Admittedly, an odd sort of anti-marketing marketing early on, but it has become a serious selling point, and anti-marketing marketing has become an increasing powerful tool in an age of boredom and easy cynicism. True organic believers are horrified to see major food processors move in to get a piece of the action, but the success of organic marketing (rather than of organic production) made that inevitable.

The whole lifestyle element of the organic movement has always made me uncomfortable, in part because it just seemed like marketing, and I don’t really like marketing. I am not even keen on selling, but at least it seems more likely to be a fair, honest transaction. If I sell you a tomato, you get a tomato, and I hope for both our sakes it is a tasty one. Plus I have never understood lifestyles. Life does not strike me as something amenable to styling. But then I don’t even understand hair styles. Hair, like life and night crawlers, should just be taken as it is.