Sticking People Together, Making People "Stick" Out: Oh, Honey
Almost everyone around the world eventually discovers that food brings people together and apart. Bread and rice start medieval peasant riots, GMO's strain or heal international relations, family business for many people happens around the table, and in some countries chocolate may win a girl's affections for a day. In Charlottesville, VA, the Saturday morning City Market clearly brings people together, but an interview with a local honey merchant shows that homegrown food can form communal relationships while also setting people apart from each other within that community.
The Hungry Hill Farms booth sits next to the popsicle stand, the first booth in a long row of organic and homemade stalls. The couple working the booth first caught my attention when the friendly man complimented my friend's "I'm no rocket-surgeon" shirt. Other people who stopped by to look at the honey often just stopped by to chat; two ladies paused because, as they said, "I buy your honey at the Cville Market." The honey they had purchased at the local store had become a way to open up alliance in conversation; it had created a social "debt", albeit a very small one, between the person at the booth and the customer, and while the customer and the vendor did not know each other, they both acknowledged a small friendly bond. Colin Johnson, the friendly man watching the booth, said that often regular customers will come solely for conversation, not to buy honey.
Conversation and social bonds actually started the Hungry Hill Farms business back in 1968 when Glenn Clayton Sr. had a conversation with a friend from the fire department. The fireman had kept two bee hives as a hobby, but became allergic and gave them to Clayton Sr. as a gift. The two beehives expanded to the current 500, and the hobby became a business as the honey became popular among friends and family, who received it from the Claytons on holidays and as gifts. Honey, then, drew people together, and the drawing of people together produced surplus honey. The Claytons soon found that they had too much honey for use year after year, and began to sell it. As they sold honey, they expanded their hives and social linkages, and so the cycle continues. Colin Johnson, who told me the story about "her grandfather," actually joined the business himself through social bonds: he is in a relationship with Mr. Clayton's granddaughter, the confident-looking lady who sold us honey sticks.
The basic needs of food-provision are still a very real part of why Happy Hill Farms exists. In addition to honey, the farm has ten acres of garden which supplies much of the produce that the Clayton family consumes. The farm also grows shitake mushrooms to sell. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that social and communal connections form a great part, if not most, of the push and pull of Hungry Hill Farms.
While honey brings people together, it also establishes distinctions between people. When asked what kind of people bought Hungry Hill Honey, Johnson told us that "a smattering of people", from the "crunchy hippie types" to those who looked like they "just came off their yacht." While the purchase of the same product seems to establish a kind of unified identity between these kinds of people, Johnson's division of the customer group along sociopolitical lines--rather than racial, ethnic, or otherwise--mirrors a general mental division in the local food conversation. A largely false stereotype does exist to make local and sustainable food a liberal "hippie" issue; an additional stereotype, that conservatives have all the money for highly priced goods, breaks down as in Charlottesville, where it's an upper-middle class liberal bourgeois that provides the purchasing power for farm products. Elsewhere, in more stereotypically "conservative" rural areas, the price of sustainable and local food goes down. Generalizations may not provide true pictures of a society on the outside, but in the local food conversation, they do show glimpses of the stark mental and social attitudes that surround food consumption in the minds of the consumers, vendors, and the rest of the society. People in Cville set themselves apart from each other through the food they eat.
A conversation with one of Hungry Hill's customers further illuminated the way that food purchasing establishes uniqueness. She buys Hungry Hill, she says, because it's a walking distance from her house to the Cville Market that sells it "and besides it's local," but she goes to the Farmer's Market because "everyone's here." It's where the politicians campaign, the people hang out, and you can buy sustainable and local food, she says. She described a communal event that brings people together. As she went on, she explained how sustainable and local food was a lifestyle for her, not "the latest social trend", because she grew up on a farm. The conversation, while demonstrating how food became a unifying event, succinctly demonstrated that my interviewee's identity became set apart by her history with sustainable food. She distinguished herself not only from those who do not buy local, but from those who have a different purchasing history with local food. She wanted that distinction.
Quite obviously, the food that people sell also sets them apart. Every business strives to point out why its food is different or better than everyone else's: that's simply a factor of business. Hungry Hill Honey comes with an additional degree of vendor separation besides that which comes naturally with business products. Vegetable and meat farmers work directly with the crop they sell: bee farmers work with it second-hand from other living creatures.
This distinction creates interesting environmental and political consequences for farmers. Johnson explains that large companies truck their bees across the country to try to hit all the different blooms. The first, the almond blooms, come in very early spring, and when the bees have gathered as much as possible, the companies truck them elsewhere, hitting cotton blooms down south, cherry blooms, and everything else. This travel weakens the bees' immune systems, and understandably leads to disorientation of their internal compasses. Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), a phenomenon rocking the bee industry over the past five years or so, occurs when bees simply stop finding their way around, or fly away and leave the colony for good. Bees without a colony die, and the suicide of the colony becomes a suicide for the bees. A year or two ago Hungry Hill Farms also lost several colonies, even though most of their colonies remain stationary all the time. Johnson and Ms. Clayton attribute CCD primarily to bee diseases spread by the large bee businesses.
The CCD discussion shows that inherent in the honey itself, and the manner in which it can be practically harvested and grown with minimal bee loss, one finds social and economic distinctions and decisions. This occurs, of course, for all products, but for honey, with its unique nature and source, these choices become especially pronounced and complex. The purchasing and selling of honey, then, says something about the people who purchase and sell it. Honey sticks people together in community; it also shows us who we are as individuals.