McDonald’s is set to launch a new advertising campaign which personifies the farmers that grow their potatoes. Already some are calling it “farmwashing”, a blatant attempt by the fast food giant to co-opt the idea of “local” and apply it to the farmers that produce the raw materials for their fatty fatty french fries.

Small farm advocates let the definition of “local” slip away from them when they tried to define the term geographically. Ever shop at a farmer’s market that wouldn’t accept vendors from outside of a 100 mile radius? Why not 101, or 99? I have yet to hear someone proffer a definition of “local” that was not based on some arbitrary mileage limit.

The mileage limit definition misses the point entirely. For every McDonald’s located in Idaho, the french fries are local. A geographic definition of “local” is unnecessarily inelastic and it will be remorselessly green-washed as Big Food finds its groove.

Big Food is responding adroitly to the new skepticism of consumers. Giant’s like Land-O-Lakes have web pages that personalize the commodity farmers who produce their milk. Smithfield has trademarked the phrase “Good Food. Naturally”, for whatever the hell that means in the hellish context of commodity hog production (Serial Number 77375782 in the USPTO database). Tyson has its own Sustainability Report to demonstrate its own good stewardship ethic. Whatevs.

A social distance methodology to define “local” would describe far more accurately the kind of close (closed?) relationship between producers and consumers which small-farm advocates would like to see. “Local” should define a relationship, an information loop between a producer who knows her customer and a customer who knows something about how the food is made. It would require a simple drafting change to incorporate a social distance definition of “local” into the bylaws of an agricultural coop, the business plan of a neighborhood grocery store, or the vendor’s guidelines for a farmers market. There is no need to change preexisting practices – just codify the act of direct marketing farm products. On limitless marketing budgets, industrial producers will obfuscate the meaning of words like “local” and “sustainable” all day long. No amount of money will allow them to fake the seamless nexus between the grower and the eater, which is the best asset a small scale farm can have.

Now behold! this clip from Seinfeld, as I further persuade and entertain you!