Monday, August 11, 2008

OPINION: Going Local in The Adirondacks

There was an interesting story in Sunday’s Press Republican about Gordon Oil in AuSable Forks. The company was founded by Clifford Gordon in 1921 and is now in it’s third generation. Part of the story was a tiny detail at the end that says a lot about our current economic environment:

“Starting out as Standard Oil of New York — or SOCONY, as the sign on top of the display [at Gordon’s main office] states — in the 1920s it became Mobiloil and then, in 1931, Socony-Vacuum.

Following 1955, every decade or so the parent company underwent business transformations, which included Socony Mobil Oil Co., Mobil Oil Corp., Mobil Corp. and, in 1999, ExxonMobil…

Lewis [Gordon, who operated the business with his brother Waxy for 50 years) recalled the big tanks they used to have, which were cut down for steel during World War II.

“There used to be storage in Plattsburgh,” he said. “Big barges would come through Whitehall and unload up there, and we would go get it.

“Now it all has to be trucked in. All the big companies had their tanks there in Plattsburgh. It’s kind of too bad.”

When the company switched to electrically operated pumps years ago it gave it’s older pumps to a local farmer who used them for many years. That’s the kind of localism we’ve lost and it’s to our detriment.

Localism – involvement in local politics, local economies, an understanding of local culture and the environment, underlies much of the Green movement. It’s not just politics and the environment, it’s about supportive communities of neighbors working together to protect each other from the sometimes ravenous capitalist economy (seen most recently in energy and food costs). It’s what was happening when Gordon Oil gave over those pumps to that farmer. It’s what was destroyed when those tanks were taken down and not replaced.

Localism is also the future we face. I was recently talking with a local hardware store owner, part of the True Value chain. He sells lumber, paint, the usual goods (plus his simply built furniture). He was telling me that he needed a special piece of lumber that he didn’t stock. He took his truck to pick it up at the Home Depot in Queensbury; they were out of stock, so he went to the Lowe’s and found what he was looking for. The piece of lumber cost him an additional $30 in gas for the truck, plus about two hours of time away from his shop. That piece of lumber could have been boughten for a fraction of the price not a quarter-mile away – albeit at a competing lumber store.

The story of the fuel oil storage facilities and the local hardware store owner are revealing for local businesses. They once stocked nearly everything a household needed. As corporations took over our world, local supplies (seen on store shelfs and those Plattsburgh tanks) have had to pared down their stocks as consumers have opted to drive long miles to shop at big box stores (or shippers have turned to trucking and on-demand wharehousing).

That is something that we’re going to see come to an end, although it make take a while for our neighbors to break their old habits. Even if the price of oil goes down before the election (as we argued it would), the damage has been done, and Adirondackers have started turning local out of necessity. That necessity is something local greens have been vociferously saying was bound to happen since the late 1980s, even as they argued for serious political efforts toward locally sustained communities.

The trend toward localism has already begun in a number of segments of Adirondack society – especially among small farmers and local wood products producers – but now we are going to see a much more general trend. Already Chestertown, North Creek, Schroon Lake, and surrounding areas have taxis – that’s right, cabs, right here in the North Country above Warrensburg. Not just a single car either, several companies that range widely through the mountains. You don’t need a taxi unless you are going someplace local.

James Kunstler (recently interviewed locally here) has been the most public area voice for localism. His books are a must-read for people interested in what future local economies could look like:

The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America’s Man-Made Landscape (1994)

Home from Nowhere: Remaking Our Everyday World for the 21st Century (1998)

The Long Emergency: Surviving the End of Oil, Climate Change, and Other Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century (2006)

One thing Kunstler makes clear, is that it’s not just about energy – food is as important, and there are several ways to get informed about going local.

NCPR recently celebrated 10 years of the Warrensburg Riverfront Farmers’ Market, and new markets have been established around the region in recent years. Local Harvest does a good job online showing where you can find local farmers and farmers markets in our region, but eating local means more than local farmer’s markets. It means connecting with a local CSA (Community Supporter Agriculture) farm, it means growing your own food (alone and in cooperation with your neighbors), and it means shopping locally for locally produced goods.

Speaking of growing your own, Cornell Cooperative Extension has a program for beginning framers that has recently expanded on the web. According to NCPR who recently reported the news, the new site:

…guides new farmers, and farmers changing crops or marketing strategy, step by step through starting a farm business: from setting goals and writing a business plan, to evaluating land, to taxes and permits. There’s a frequently asked questions section, worksheets to download, and an ongoing forum. The website is the latest offering from the New York Beginning Farmers Resource Center. The center is based at Cornell, but its roots are in the North Country.

We need to get to know our local farmers. The Wild Center is holding two more “Farmer Market Days 2008” on September 11th, and October 2nd “in celebration and promotion of the wonderful local food producers in the Adirondack Region.” Naturally we can’t live on the mostly fancy foods the Wild Center’s program seems to focus on, but their effort is a good start to introducing local farm operations to the Adirodnack community at large.

Adirondack Harvest is a buy local food group that was started 7 years ago. They recently received a $50,000 grant to expand their program, which they describe on their site:

Since its inception in 2001, Adirondack Harvest has grown to encompass Clinton, Essex, Franklin, Hamilton, and Warren counties in northeastern New York. These counties contain major sections of the Adirondack Park and the Champlain Valley. Our focus has been on expanding markets for local farm products so that consumers have more choice of fresh farm products and on assisting farmers to increase sustainable production to meet the expanding markets.

A more direct path to lessening food costs and supporting local farms comes from Adirondack Pork, aka Yellow House Farm and a member of Adirondack Harvest, where you can buy a whole or half locally raised pig (or go in on one with another family). A whole pig serves a family of four for about 6-9 months, depending on your eating habits. They raise a pig for you until it weighs about 200-225 pounds. Your pork is prepared for you by a local butcher – you tell them any special cuts, wrapping, etc., you want. Your meat comes to you wrapped, labeled and frozen. It takes a lot less freezer space then you would imagine, and its cheaper.

The bottom line is the economy is changing and the sooner we accept that it true and end our reliance on the big box stores filled with products from half a world away and their corporate partners. They have a stranglehold on our local economy and it’s time we fought back.

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Stories written under the Almanack's Editorial Staff byline are drawn from press releases and other notices.

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