Who is sustaining the local food movement? The wealthy? The foodies? Not necessarily. Check out the homemakers.
January snows build up outside our kitchen windows as Bob and I scurry about at 3am this morning. The kids are asleep, and we’ve taken to using these dark hours to make the last minute frantic preparations to launch my newest book, Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity From a Consumer Culture. Our kitchen table is scattered with promotional post cards, my desk is a mess of sticky notes regarding our new website, radicalhomemakers.com; my inbox contains a folder specifically designated for the press review copies, and we are frantically clearing floor space in our mudroom and shed to accommodate the thousands of books that will arrive outside our door tomorrow morning (or is that today?). For the first time since 2001, it has been over two months since I have tested a single grassfed meat recipe. The work of writing and releasing a non-fiction non cookbook is quite different from my comfortable grassfed niche. And while the departure from my normal kitchen work feels strange, the path by which I came to write a social science book examining the social, economic and ecological importance of domestic work was actually a natural progression from my work on the farm and in the kitchen.
I was prompted to explore the topic of homemaking in response to frequent remarks I’ve heard while participating in the grassfed movement. Any of us who garner our living by directly marketing our pasture-raised meats can attest to the familiarity of this statement: “Sure, grassfed is better. But only the wealthy can afford it.” While this belief prevailed throughout our industry, my personal observations were different. For certain, Sap Bush Hollow Farm has had some high-earning epicurean customers seek us out as a result of learning about grassfed products through books, news stories and glossy magazines. But more often than not, these folks would make one or two trips out to the farm to satisfy their conscience and curiosity, and then we would never see them again.
The bedrock of our business is not people who follow food trends. They are people who have made decisions to lead socially responsible lives. Most of the families who support us have very moderate incomes. (That’s not surprising, since quite often, a person who is willing to do whatever it takes to garner an extremely high salary typically does so because he or she is not exercising much of a social conscience.) With somewhat limited means, our customers have figured out that in order to afford ecologically responsible foods, they must know their way around a kitchen. Grassfed meats are not expensive if a person knows how to cook them, how to make prudent use of them by working with all the parts of the animal (rather than with just a few select cuts), and if a person is adept at using leftovers. A family does not need to earn a lot of money to eat local, sustainable, grassfed foods. But someone in the family does need to have the domestic skills to be able to procure, process and prepare them affordably. And someone in the family needs to be at home to get this work done.
I traveled the country visiting homes to see what domesticity can look like in an era that has benefitted from feminism and ecological awareness. The resulting lifestyles were beautiful to witness. As many of you can probably imagine, some of the Radical Homemakers I met were also farmers. (Indeed, most of the farmers who I have come to know through the grassfed movement are also Radical Homemakers.) But while many grassfed farmers are homemakers, not all Radical Homemakers are farmers. I found Radical Homemakers creating beautiful lives in Los Angeles, Chicago, Midwestern suburbs, rural villages and on back-country roads. I met single moms, stay-at-home dads, multi-generational families, widows and divorcees. All of them were ardent supporters of the local food movement, had deep connections with their surrounding agricultural community, and yet not one of them was rich. Most of them lived at about 200% of the Federal Poverty Level. They are living proof that Americans can eat well, pay a fair price for their food, heal the planet, and lead a meaningful, rich and enjoyable life.
I hope that you will find some time over the next year to pick up a copy of the book and give it a read. I also ask that you check out the new website, radicalhomemakers.com. I know that many of you who read my posts have ascribed to the radical homemaking lifestyle for quite some time, and I am hoping that, after visiting the website and/or reading the book, you will take a few minutes to share your Radical Homemaking story by posting it on the site (you can use a pseudonym if you’d like). Over the course of my research I wound up receiving hundreds of letters from people who were pursuing this life path. Simultaneously, I received letters from people who desperately wanted to step on board, but who were afraid to make changes in their lives. Those people need our support. They need to see stories about how this life can be possible, about how the obstacles can be overcome, about the truths and struggles that they can expect. Please, if you are a radical homemaker, please take some time to contribute your experience to the site, and check back now and then to participate in the ongoing dialogues or answer questions. If more people can switch over to this way of life, our communities and economy will be more stable, our farms will be more secure, and our future more sustainable. And I can get back to testing recipes.
Shannon Hayes is the host of grassfedcooking.com and radicalhomemakers.com. She is the author of Radical Homemakers, Farmer and the Grill and The Grassfed Gourmet. Hayes works with her family on Sap Bush Hollow Farm in Upstate New York.