The Decentralization of Nearly Everything


Is that what’s happening? I kind of think so, in food production anyway. Yes, the vast bulk of our industrial food comes out of large scale factory farming, but electronics surely seems to be leading the way toward something else. The backyard, local food revolution is actually only part of a larger evolution in the way society is reshaping itself. (I just read, in the NYTimes of all places, that there are now businesses that will take care of your backyard chickens while you go on vacation!!!) I see it both in the farming world and in the art world because those are the two areas I know a little about. In the very same way that a small business can start up way out in the boonies growing special heirloom grains and selling them online worldwide is a reflection of what has been happening in the art world. There must be a zillion musicians now who are writing their own songs, putting their music on disks at home with their own sophisticated electronic recorders and sound mixers and then selling their surprisingly professional and sophisticated work on the Internet. One of them lives and works in the woods right here in my neighborhood. He probably won’t make any money, but he does have an audience. The miracle of the Internet is that I can write his name here, Nick Barnes, and I bet you can find him online.  Multiply him by several million and what you are looking at is musical production that does not depend on the big centralized Nashville music center for its existence and which in aggregate, whether profitable or not, competes with Nashville. I think (maybe just wishful thinking) that this can eventually be an economic force as well as a cultural force to be reckoned with.

I have several close friends who are professional artists, Karl Kuerner in Pennsylvania and Pat Gamby just down the road.  Although both of these artists have their studios on their farms, their work can be looked at online from anywhere in the world. It is just bound to mean a renaissance in local art on the way.

Needless to say, self-publishing books has also become a big local activity. Lots of insiders are saying the big publishing companies have had their day because of the ease of self-publishing.

New examples of food production going local occur constantly. In Ohio, scientists at the agricultural research center in Wooster are working to bring hops to Ohio as a local, small farm venture. Hops were commonly grown here in the early 1900s and I have often roamed over one of those farms. One theory says diseases and pests made growing the crop uneconomical here but I think rather, since I have found volunteer hops growing wild in this vicinity, that as the number of local breweries diminished, there was no local market for this very labor-intensive crop. Now that small breweries are increasing again, hop farming could return. Right now, Ohio breweries are importing about $4 million worth of hops. Growing hops for gourmet beers is very much a joint effort of local art and local farming.

Backyard sea salt businesses along ocean shorelines are coming back for the same reason. Small artisanal cheese businesses likewise. In the early1900s, ginseng was raised on the farm where I grew up, some in the shade of slatted frames and some in our woods. Our road was called Ginseng Pike. Since the big market for ginseng is Asia, and Asian incomes are supposed to be increasing, perhaps this local food and art effort will return. People who believe in the healing power of herbs say ginseng is very healthful. Some consider it an aphrodisiac. Oh my, just what we need, another sex stimulant. This could be the next big thing:  a product that combines local art, local agriculture, and local sex enhancement. Surely a winner.


If you think about it, California is probably a case in which north and south are so different that it might make sense to split the state. The populous south and the rural north are as different as night and day. One is truly a desert rapidly draining its aquifer to survive and a big chunk of the other is part of the Pacific Northwest. One is extremely racially diverse and the other is still primarily
Caucasian/northern European. One group goes to farmer’s markets and the other grows for farmer’s markets. One major issue is water — we have it, they want it.One has the huge cities of San Francisco, LA and Sacramento, while the other has essentially one city (of about 100,000) in Redding. One has multiple air flights to the rest of the world each day, while the other has a single airline with three flights a day three days a week to and from San Francisco. I could go on at length, but I’m sure you get my point…

Beth, here in Ohio there is a definite division in many minds between northern and southern Ohio: Cleveland and Toledo blue as can be: Cincinnati royal red. Gene

It’s not just the South, guys. We’re having a similar debate out here in California about splitting the state into north and south.

All good points, but I think Texas would go its own way, and probably Virginia, Kentucky and North Carolina would stay in the Union. I agree probably never happen, but sort of fun to speculate. There is some well-written fiction out there on alternative history where the South wins the civil war. Spike Lee did a movie.

Not that it would ever happen but the old South banded together would have a very small Federal Budget,be pro business and manufacturing,have lots of oil from Texas and off shore drilling,lots of coal from VA coal mines and cheap electricity from coal fired and Nuclear plants.It’d be the
Singapore of the West with lots of energy probably the richest country in the Western World.
Of course protecting the Northern Border could get costly(LOL)

My only observation about the South (having lived there most of my life) is that if they actually had to pay their way with tax revenue they would be even more poverty-stricken. The late Senator Moynihan liked to call TVA the gift from New York state to the south in that NY revenues matched fairly closely the cost for TVA, which absolutely transformed Eastern Tenn. and Northern Alabama. The South has the luxury of demanding a balanced budget because they are one of the greatest recipients of Federal funds, from Cotton farm subsidies, to Military bases, to Social Security payments for retirees to welfare for pretty much half of Mississippi and Alabama. If secession is in the future, then several southern states will shortly sink down into third-world status. Something to think about.

I think your base point is good, but isn’t New Orleans’ “local flavor,” for instance, itself a combination of what we might call “nonlocal flavors”? And I’ve never been to Boston, but I imagine a lot of its “local flavor” is derived from its history of Irish immigration. Seems that the idea of local is a dynamic one. This does not, of course, excuse sameness and–heaven forbid–chain restaurants, but I think it is, ahem, food for thought.

De-Centralization of our food system will bring back local flavors to our resturants and kitchens. San francisco, New Orleans & Boston have retained some of their local flavors but the rest of the country has becom a watered down sameness with large chains in Resturants and grocerys dominating our landscape. I for one like local resturants, home cooking and mom and pop business all reflecting what is made and grown locally.

louisc. I guess my post wasn’t written clearly enough. I was referring to businesses that will take care of your chickens while you are gone and you found that article. Gene

Can you please provide the link to the NYT article you referenced? I searched and did not find it, however, I did find this story about new businesses that rent chickens.
Hmm, interesting.
As far as the theme of your piece, I think there is something to it, but I am not as optimistic perhaps. For some reason, the bulk of the profits always seem to end up with the middle men such as Whole Foods, or Amazon.

Secession wouldn’t necesarily be a bad thing,like divorce sometimes its just better for people that don’t agree not to be forced together.Remember we separated from England.
Really in my opinion the answer is to go back to the original intent of the founders and have strong individual states and a weak Federal Gov’t.I have no desire to force my will on states like
Conn and Mass but sure don’t want their brand of Gov’t/ideas forced on me.Much of the deadlock in Congress is geographical based.And yea if going by the Constitution and having a solvent debt free Gov’t makes one a ‘Tea Party Nut’ then count me in.

What are the impacts on local innovation and the role of technology in marketing if the Trans Pacific Partnership trade agreement is ratified? How does SOPA/PIPA which is being backdoored with this agreement effect the nature of this conversation? If Ohio starts passing laws that make local agricultural innovation protected (say we legalize raw milk for instance or a county bans GMO) what happens when a corporation has been given the right to sue domestic local governments for infringing on projected future profits as they are with this piece of policy? I don’t see us becoming geographically balkanized as much as culturally balkanized — what happens when sovereignty and home rule are abandoned for the empowerment of corporate agendas beyond our influence?

Chris N, very penetrating. I have worried about secession for several years now. And my own ambivalence about being against secession but for small in just about everything else. Gene

No worries, Beth. In an age of decentralization, freelance editors abound. My mom is a freelance indexer. I know students from Columbus College of Art and Design who do freelance layouts for book covers. And I’m in the middle of freelance writing project for an international content provider with an Ohio office doing work for a major publishing label. So the line between freelance and Big Publishing is blurring more and more.

As de-centralization proceeds, I think we are going to see some interesting things in nation-states. We see that already in Europe with the Scots, Walloons, Lapps all seeking their own territories. America is an immigrant nation, but the South in particular likes to think of itself as a separate place. There is certainly lots of noise regarding secession, and not all of it from Tea Party nuts. How would we regard new political divisions such as a Pacific North west, possibly allied with B.C. (which is already quite different from the rest of Canada)? There are some unintended consequences for the balkanization of our social order and Small Is Better ain’t necessarily so.

The more decentralization the better, in my opinion. Hope it leads to tight communities, increased understanding and distribution of power. Folks in the country are drivers. Homeschooling. Home births. Electric generation. Food production. True decentralization – Thomas Jefferson style.

Thanks again! You never cease to put a smile on my face! Your perspective makes the work we are doing seem even more worthwhile.

I do not know about other States, but Pennsylvania Dept of Ag has a variety of web resources to help people search for and hopefully shop at local farmsteads and farmers markets. Listed under online services: Agmap, Pa Preferred, Certified Organic Producers, Farm Stand and Markets are a few of the links there. Pa Association for Sustainable Agriculture and Pa Certified Organic also link browsers to local ag producers. Not being the most tech adroit person (think crossing the digital divide with the Donner Party), I can find these resources quite handily. The information on where to shop locally is much more available than the desire by most Americans to do so. We readers of Gene are the choir of a fairly small congregation. I do my best to spread the word, but living locally is more work than many are willing to do.

P.S. Is the climate shifting? Last Saturday, 26 Oct., bought and thoroughly enjoyed fresh picked sweet corn grown in Penns Valley. Whodathunk!!

It seems like a good trend to me.

Another good thought provoking essay Gene and I think you are right. Central planning always leads to dull drab ‘average’ products and lives. The Corvette,Organic Farming or
a hundred different breeds of chickesn would never have happened in the old Soviet Union but in America where we have some freedom the individual can can carry out their dreams and make them happen no matter how large or how small.Also small and decentralized makes it harder for the power hungry (tax happy) folks to control the masses which is a good thing.Much activity these days goes on ‘under the radar’ and always has to some extent but things like chickens in basements hidden from the zoning inspector are common in some places which is good.Always good to challenge or skirt oppressive Gov’t and small is the best way.

I suspect that the electrical grid which keeps the web humming will not last a whole lot longer (or at least not remain reliable), though at the same time this becomes a problem due to waning energy supplies, “local” business will again become a necessity rather than a nicety.

I know, and that’s my point. Because they’re well known I’m certain they get inquiries from all over. Meanwhile, those people from all over have very similar farms and farmers nearby that they know nothing about, because those particular farms and farmers don’t self-promote. (And I don’t know that Polyface is going to be able to recommend locale-specific farms for anyone or everyone who calls looking for their products.)

I guess what I’m trying to say is that with how easy it is to self-promote, perhaps too often those who don’t do so are overlooked and maybe assumed not to even exist. Or maybe I’m just over thinking it. I’m not meaning to bemoan farm (or any other industry) self-promotion, or complain that some farmers get all the attention; I just wonder what the implications are of a populace that has only a limited amount of information readily available, without the apparent understanding that it’s only a limited amount of information. If that makes any sense.

Wes, you have a point, but I think that’s precisely where these technologies can help. Self-promoted local producers should not exist on their own, but as part of a network of other local producers so that the consumer can easily hook up with what’s available locally before tapping into external sources for products that are not available locally. Something that goes beyond the Yellow Pages and includes social networking.

Boy, isn’t that the truth, Deb! I’ve been saved by good editors time and time again.

Polyface only sells locally, though. You have to go to them as they don’t ship anything, and they recommend sources for people to find food in their own neighborhoods. They walk the talk…

I think the problem Wes is we are looking at the beginning of these things and they are always messy at first. When good techno savvy farms who truly care for the planet find people contacting them from afar, they can then become hubs of information to find more local suppliers. Often the information is out there, but people don’t know where to look, then along comes someone who is fed up of hunting for the information and starts compiling links and lists and before you know it you have a viewable resource available that people can add to. The future will be different I think, as our children and grandchildren grow up with the internet and social media as second nature, they will think of ways to do things that my generation have never conceived. I’m quite excited to see what comes out of all this

I find it interesting at what some people do that’s out of the box. It’s always good to see people think outside of organic vegetibles or free range chickens. Last summer when I was in Tennessee and came across a small distillery making legal moonshine, now that’s out of the box.

I often wonder about how beneficial the whole self-promotion thing really is. For one there’s the issue of just because you can, doesn’t mean you should (personally, I learned that lesson from Jurassic Park), i.e. just because you can publish a book about your life doesn’t mean the story of your life needs to be published. As to who gets to make those decisions, I don’t know, but ability doesn’t signify need.

Then I wonder about the fact that a consumer from south Florida, say, can look up and request food from a farmer in Washington state, just because he or she likes what that farm does, and that just because they happened to find them online. Certainly Polyface Farm, for example, gets requests to purchase from all over, largely because they’re such a large and ‘out there’ producer, but there are farms with very similar practices all over the place that don’t have the press or the outreach or what have you, and because maybe they don’t self-promote through a website or blog or whatever nobody knows.

I guess really what I wonder is if this technological ‘connection,’ via social media primarily, is really just alienating us. I find myself falling in love with farms and scenes and communities all over the place via the internet, when I know that really all I’m seeing is what someone wants me to see. That beautiful bucolic scene on someone’s blog or Facebook or whatever might be framed so that you don’t see the dirt-lot mega dairy across the street. Surely there’s beauty to be found, but it seems the tendency, when dealing with a disconnected (online) form of ‘connection,’ is to show the beauty but hide the ugliness just around the corner. Meanwhile I miss a good bit of the beauty to be seen nearby, while I have to face the ugliness…

I agree with you Gene. My only concern on decentralizing publishing is we will lose good editing. Writers NEED editors.

Got my chuckle for the day with your last paragraph, Gene! Thank all the gods and goddesses or whoever else you want to include that this decentralization is occurring, and let’s hope it speeds and spreads. The signs of some very nasty possibilities that will disrupt not only our food production and distribution system but a whole bunch of other things in our daily life do seem to be increasing… I’m trying to either grow/raise it or limit what I eat and use to a local radius so I can weather the storm I am reasonably sure is coming. We’re well supplied with milk and meat (which I consider the most important issue, given the considerable problems with commercial meat) from chickens, pigs, cows and sheep. Orange juice from Florida is a rare food in our house, but there’s lots of home-grown apple, pear and grape juice. This is the year to start raising our own grain. And I continue to stick with open-pollinated plants so I can keep growing without the “help” of the big seed companies.

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