Locally Grown

It hit me today as I was wandering through a small town in southern Minnesota. With the clarity of a cloudless day I understood the economic reality of the Midwest.

Since I moved here three years ago (35 months ago, to be exact) I have been struck by the vast number of American cars that populate the roads. Being from metropolitan California, I was used to seeing mostly foreign cars—Toyotas, Hondas, VWs, BMWs and the like. Noticing the majority of drivers behind the wheels of Chevys, Fords, Pontiacs and Chryslers made me wonder a) if Midwesterners were aware that American cars were inferior and b) if they knew American cars were inferior did they just buy them to support the American auto industry. It also made me wonder if they would sneer at me driving my Toyota (imported from Oakland, Calif.). I watched “Roger & Me.” I knew the history. But it still seemed so backward knowing that most American cars were so inferior.

As time passed I did much less wondering about this topic, as others became more pressing—like what do those tornado sirens mean anyway, or what will happen if I go outside when the windchill is -30?.

But the recent catastrophes of The Big Three recirculated this topic into my consciousness.

Back to this small Minnesota town. Lake Crystal, population 2,502 (the 2 being my two friends who just moved there two weeks ago). Not a foreign car in sight. Except for mine, and my friend’s—also a Toyota. And that’s when it hit me: the powerful importance of buying local.

Midwesterners are keenly aware, so much more so than their West Coast counterparts, how much the economy depends on the American auto industry. The people who live here work for them. In some way, shape or form, the Midwest is tied to General Motors, Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler. I recently heard a statistic that every GM job directly or indirectly supports three other jobs. So a loss of 10,000 GM jobs would result in the loss of 30,000 jobs.

So what if the American auto industry had been supported by the West Coasters and the East Coasters and the Southerners with as much enthusiasm as the Midwesterners? Would the companies’ profits be large enough to offset plant closures, outsourcing jobs overseas, a federal bailout? It’s tough to say. Especially when their product has been inferior for so many years. Seems like a flawed business plan to me. But we, the taxpayers and unemployed, are the ones to ultimately suffer the consequences.

In California there is a great push to buy locally grown produce. Farmers’ markets are numerous and well attended, as well as well stocked with locally grown fruits and vegetables, and local crafts and eats. There is an awareness that supporting local farmers through these markets directly effects the California economy. It is not so unlike the mentality of the Midwestern affinity for the American car, though it is on a much smaller scale.

Yet, while the local produce market is expanding and gaining popularity in California, the local auto market is shrinking and plummeting into bankruptcy. Buying local is important. But when an industry becomes so massive it loses touch with its customers, loses its ability to innovate and compete do we continue to support it just because it is local? Or do we cut our losses and move on?

It seems the American auto industry should have held its own farmer’s market long ago, bringing its goods and pleasantries to its customer base, a touch back so to speak. It’s sad to think that the failure of these behemoth companies will have a trickle-down effect on places like Lake Crystal, MN that don’t appear sturdy enough to weather the changing landscape of industrial America. We can only brace ourselves and hope to withstand the coming storm.


…The Worst of Times.

Like the millions of NPR-o-philes out there, ears glued to the local public radio station while maneuvering through afternoon/evening traffic, I heard a story that made me wonder if the country would ever recover from this economic meltdown.

The story was about the long-term unemployed: those who have been looking for work for six months or longer. While I admit to being somewhat of a pessimist and cynic, I really do want the economy to turn around. I am hoping to not become one of the long-term unemployed, but the prospect is becoming more evident.

It’s difficult to swallow the economic reality of the United States, especially with historical perspective. As the country continues its transformation from an industrial country to a service and leisure country I get more nervous. I get this feeling like the country can’t run on Starbucks and gas stations. There needs to be more girth, more meat. We need to sustain ourselves. And that might mean turning inward.

In this globalized economy it’s foolish to think that a country can become isolationist, especially a country with the GDP and consumer power of the United States. But America is in trouble. People need to work. People need to work without having a higher education degree. Someone needs to figure out how to put America back to work in a meaningful way. That equals well-paid, stable jobs with good benefits. Americans need a job that they can actually live on and perhaps earn enough to support a family. It happened once, and it seems it can happen again. Maybe if we stopped buying so much cheap crap from China. Maybe if we curbed our consumer appetite. Maybe if we concentrated on long-term objectives rather than instant gratification.

When the housing bubble burst it was a shocking correction, but a correction that was desperately needed. It signaled need for reform, not just of the financiers who helped to cause this mess, but for the way our society operates and the stock it places in the intangible. President Obama’s election was another signal for change.

I see these signals and I try to push aside my cynicism and pessimism with optimism. I try to believe that we can change, we can progress, we can move toward a more sustainable way of life. And it’s possible, that with more time on their hands, the long-term unemployed, and the newly unemployed will find opportunity for creative restructuring. Revolution begins with a few, and revolution brings change.

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