Thursday, March 31, 2016

'Just a business decision'

Recently our small-town hardware store stopped carrying the chicken feed produced by Mule City Feeds in nearby Benson, N.C., replacing it with a nationally marketed brand transported halfway across the country from someplace in Missouri. As he loaded the Missouri feed into my truck the other day, the gentleman who works at the hardware store explained that since Mule City didn't deliver, he used to spend half a day each week making the trip to Benson for a pallet of feed. The nationally marketed brand, on the other hand, would be delivered free of charge. "It's just a business decision," he said.

I can't argue with that. Even without seeing the financial breakdown, I am fully aware that established national brands are able to drive down costs through huge volume and intricate, hyper-efficient delivery protocol. Although I haven't run a hardware store, my grandfather owned one in the era that saw mom-and-pop stores like his join the national franchise corporations like Ace, TrueValue and DoItBest. Today my grandfather's Wisconsin hardware store--still in the Klein family--is a franchise of the TrueValue parent corporation, while our local hardware store here in rural North Carolina is a "DoIt Center." Being a franchise means access to deep discounts, as the parent corporation is able to negotiate vastly lower prices for raw materials and large-order products. Which in turn means that customers continue to buy from the local store rather than traveling to the nearest Lowes, Tractor Supply, or Home Depot.

So, it's a sound business decision. But there's something disquieting in witnessing the web of locally connected businesses unravel still further. Despite seeing the "DoIt Center" sign out front, I have the notion that I'm buying local products from local people, helping to put food on the tables of my friends and neighbors. Yes, the switch to feed from Missouri rather than from nearby Benson is a small thing, and our chickens really couldn't care less, but it gives me much to ponder over.

Specifically, how does one live out subsidiarity, that Catholic social principle that militates against profit-driven, dehumanizing centralization? Should we start driving to Benson to purchase feed for ourselves? Then I could look my neighbors in the eye and say, "Yes, my chickens eat grain from your fields." But what would that mean in terms of supporting the local hardware store, which is responsibly doing what it can to stay in business? And what of our own time commitment in figuring all of this out? We already drive all the way to Reedy Fork Farm in rural Elon, N.C., for organic feed for our broiler chickens.

These are not easy questions to answer. And with at least half the products at Kleinshire manufactured in China--everything from the buckets we use to feed the animals to the plates and bowls on which we eat our own food--it might seem trivial even to offer this lament. But a lament it is--over an economic system that brings me excellent chicken feed all the way from Missouri, from people I've never met and never will meet, at the expense of fostering connections and thereby humanizing the very people that I walk by and greet in my own community.

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