So What Do the Other 200 Million People Do?

Sharon December 9th, 2010

In the book I co-wrote with Aaron Newton _A Nation of Farmers_, Aaron and I called for 100 million new farmers in America.  We picked this nice round number simply because in pre-modern societies, and in societies under great stress (say wartime) about 1/3 of populations needs to be involved in food production.  We point out that we use the word “farmer” comprehensively to include everyone who participates by growing or raising animals, so our call was for not 100 million of any one thing, but millions of backyard gardeners, and millions of people growing in containers, and millions of small farmers and a couple million larger farmers…

But that does leave the question open - what the heck are the other 200 million Americans going to do (actually, more like 210)?  Don’t they have a role in our food system too?  Aren’t we mean to have left all of them out?  Well, you’ve got to give us a little bit of a break - some are infants and toddlers or too ill to really get involved, but there’s still a lot of people left out.  Our suggestion was that we also needed 200 million home cooks - because, after all, who is going to cook all this fresh produce?  In a society where most foods people eat are processed, who does the cooking?

But we’ve got an additional plan for anyone out there who feels that simply by calling on you to cook from scratch and grow food, we didn’t give you enough jobs, or for those who don’t want to be farmers, but who still feel they have a role to play.  This is very clearly articulated in an article by Jeff Nield who points out that most of us are still eating some pre-made, processed foods,  rather than making everything from scratch and thus, there’s a big gap in our market for food processors using local ingredients.  Nield is speaking about larger scale processors, and he argues that it doesn’t make sense for those companies to focus solely on local markets:

If diversity is a key to success for small- and medium-scale farmers, it would make sense that the same principal is equally important to a processing industry that relies on those farms for raw materials.

“It brings a great opportunity, of course, when you talk about being able to source unique and different foodstuffs within different regions within the province, but the problem of course then is scale, right, because those companies have a difficult time moving up and exporting and serving larger markets,” Eto points out.

Which begs the question, is it possible, or even desirable, to bring a local, processed product to market solely to supply the local market? Probably not. This approach may work for perishable staples like dairy, meat and eggs, but the average person can only eat so much jam, salad dressing and potato chips. With shelf staples like these, the obvious business case is to capture the largest market share, beyond any defined local boundary.

But with the current consumer shift towards local food, any product with a locally sourced ingredient list would presumably have an automatic market that would at least try the product once, says Walker. The hard part is getting these products out there in the first place.

This may not be true for factory-scale production, but it is true for the kind of small producer that many of us could be - and this is a useful reminder that if other people are willing to pay for someone to transform food from its natural state to a more complex one, here are jobs for many of us.  We need a lot more small scale producers, particularly producers that build on local agriculture, making good use of the things that grow well in your climate.

It is unlikely that we will entirely shift away from a people who like to be able to pick something up on the way home to a people who cook everything straight from the rutabaga, as it were.  That’s ok - most places in the world have a bustling local economy made up of small scale food producers, snack stands,  street food, etc…  most of it delicious.  This can be a viable way to make a living - and a viable way to serve a clear and identified need in your community. 

This hampered by the lack of commercial kitchens. In most states, home kitchens are insufficient for the production of most food products.   Moderate scale production things like jam, bread, casseroles, sandwiches, healthy snack foods, etc… is marred by the fact that most of us can’t get a place to make them.  So one of the things we desperately need is a larger amount of public infrastructure for small producers.  And many of us could enable this process - your church, school, community center may already have a commercial kitchen, and leasing it out might be a fairly simple process.  Otherwise, you might get it certified.

 In most states, there are also quite a lot of people violating these laws regularly - and it may be both remunerative and effective for you to consider violating these laws.  Right now, there are restaurants being run out of people’s living rooms, immigrants producing their traditional foods in uncertified kitchens, and Amish women selling pie out of their kitchens.  The lack of inspection does raise risks of food borne illness - of course, so does the lack of inspection in your office kitchen, the lack of inspection in your mother’s kitchen…   Such covert enterprises may be worthwhile, or not.

Some states, like mine, allow home kitchens to be inspected and certified for small-scale food production, below a certain amount of sales - if this is not the case in your state, you might lobby for such a change.  Or we might all lobby for the right of small scale producers to produce low-risk foods at home - it is awfully hard to poison someone with most baked goods, for example - you have to work at it.

There are also oppportunities to be had in distribution - being the person who drives your neighbor’s eggs and produce into the place you work to sell is one possibility.  A less commercial oen, but with considerable benefits is what the couple we stayed with in Charlottesvillle, VA are doing - their home is the site for their cow-share pickup and has in the past been the site of their CSA pickup.  They derive strong community benefits from being the site of food distribution, and they often get extra produce or dairy products if a member doesn’t come to pick up their share.

I know that you were worried that you wouldn’t have enough to do in the post-peak world, particularly if you decided not to be a farmer.  Now, I can reassure you - there are plenty of jobs to be done, and many of them allow you to get your hands into the food system as small scale processers and distributors.  Cool, eh?


11 Responses to “So What Do the Other 200 Million People Do?”

  1. Tegan says:

    I still just want to farm. :-P But it’s nice to see that someone’s looking out for those who don’t (*cough cough my entire family cough). For some reason, I just always figured that when it got tight enough EVERYONE would realize why they needed to have control of their food supply and start gardening.

  2. Tegan says:

    Also, finally got around to making a post on the question I’d emailed you about in august (how much does it cost to homestead?).

    Just so’s you could see. :-P

  3. Jennie says:

    My toddler farms with me! ;-) Well, gardens anyway.
    He’s great help at removing stray leaves, investigating grasshoppers and moving piles of things from one place to another.

    Supporting roles for farmers may need filling too. Local makers of quality farm tools, like cold frames, carts/wheelbarrows,
    Handy people experienced at building worm farms, chicken runs, compost bins, hoop houses may be needed.

    Helping hands at certain points, like garlic planting, always make the job easier. I used to get food from a farm South of Des Moines and every fall they host a garlic planting party for any of their customers that can make it out. 30 people can plant a lot of garlic in one day. (Or harvest pumpkins, or wheat, etc.)

  4. Zillah says:

    This is really interesting. We are a small bakery, at the moment only one step on from baking out of our own kitchen. Using local raw materials (where we can) and selling directly to local households. We also have an idea about creating a common space for small scale commercial cooking when we outgrow our ‘garden shed’ size bakery. I’m very glad we’re not the only ones who think that this is a coming necessity.

  5. Brad K. says:


    Canning foods takes care - but many foods many of us see today in frozen or canned form, were initially local products, often sold in Mason or similar jars. Like jelly jars, the container (not just a “packaging system”) was at times part of the product appeal.

    Selling eggs? It is easy to get on the mailing list - and they can be very helpful.

    I haven’t tried their “KePeg” egg preservative - they claim it seals the egg, without chemicals, making the egg good for one year without refrigeration, without going bad.

    I remember living near Corpus Christi, TX. A popular, local brand was Gephardt canned Mexican foods. There really are small, regional outfits that don’t depend on a national or international market. (Gephardt was a German immigrant, that fell in love with a lady and the foods.)

  6. Leigh says:

    I hope I’m wrong, but if the s510 food safety bill actually makes it in to law (and it looks like it probably will) it opens the door for the alarming possibility of the government restricting all farming, except for the agricultural conglomerates. I hope I’m wrong. In fact, please show me I’m wrong.

  7. Brandy Williams says:

    In Kitsap County (Washington state) artisan food producers vend at farmer’s markets. We have two commercial kitchens which can be rented for slices of time, both of which are busy all the time. One successful enterprise, Crimson Cove (they smoke salmon, locally made cheese, and nuts), has set up their own kitchen in a semi-rural shopping center, and is sharing their kitchen with others, like Viking Fest Ice Cream.

    One vendor, Kris of London Maid Crumpets (remember them? she’s making them as a local cottage industry now) turned her garage into a state inspected kitchen. Another artisan who makes herb mixes uses that kitchen. It might be possible for several people to club together to pay for the expense of that kind of small kitchen.

    City of Seattle is asking Washington state to pass a cottage law to let small operations make herbs, jam, and other low-risk items in home kitchens. I don’t know if inspections would be part of that program.

    I’m a die-hard local eater (and co-producer), and excited to add to my diet smoked salmon, crumpets, crackers, herb mixes, salsa, soups and cookies made within 10 miles of the house.

  8. skreader says:

    Don’t forget drying and fermenting as small industrial scale food processing.

    Drying fish for sale

    Making shrimp paste

    Making sausage & bacon

    Making jerky

    Making saurkraut

    Making pickles

    Making pickled eggs and/or “thousand year old eggs” (an acquired taste)

    Parched corn

    Dried vegetables

    Dried tofu skins

    Dried fruit & fruit leather

  9. Mitty says:

    A lot of snack foods used to be produced on the local or regional level. Small New England towns used to have potato chip factories that were the size of a garage. Many areas still have their own regional soda pop (not that the sugar is local!).
    My great aunt operated an ice cream stand on my uncle’s dairy farm and there are still a few of these places remaining today. Ben and Jerry got their start in high-butterfat ice cream in an old service station in Burlington, VT. My grandfather always bought doughnuts from a neighbor lady who had a small home business, and my bachelor uncle survived on baked beans made by the same woman.
    And let’s not forget the folks who ran the feed stores which supplied a lot of farm needs.

  10. Julie says:

    There would be other things to produce besides food still, such as cotton for clothing, sewing clothing, making all sorts of tools, making paints and growing pigments for such, that have nothing necessarily to do with food production.
    So i think there would still be plenty of jobs to do.


  11. Leta says:

    If you have a parent or grandparent who is a member of the American Legion, you can become a member yourself for a small fee (maybe $25?). Virtually all Legion halls have a commercially licensed kitchen, which they will rent to members for a ridiculously low rate.

    I am using this plan for making yogurt to sell at the farmer’s market.

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