The trick of profound change is that it usually comes in ways and from places where it's least expected - and the people most in favour are often the last to know.
If Fred Kirschenmann is right - and he has the creds, both as the owner of one of the world's largest organic farms and as long-time leader of a respected agricultural think tank, the Iowa-based Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture - the North American food system may be in for just such a surprise.
He's the first to predict that the mega-shifts that will drive the transformation to local and sustainable agriculture won't be coming from the usual suspects. Don't hold your breath for the new food order to come via family farmers bringing fresh organics to farm stands and farmers markets, he says.
The food revolution could come just as easily from a less romantic trend - the one that sees corporate suppliers to institutions and restaurants bypassing agribiz to buy more and more from local and middle-sized farmers.
Tall, muscular, casually dressed, with energy that belies his 70 years in the business of farming and philosophizing, Kirschenmann held forth on changing power relations in food logistics earlier this month at a rowdy speakers' corner at Toronto's Royal Winter Fair.
Competing with the background noise of livestock auctioneers and a sales crew hawking local cheese, he addressed a crowd made up half of farmers and half of young environmentalists on behalf of his campaign to save "ag of the middle."
Mid-sized family farms, he says, are the backbone of food production across North America, yet there was a 15 per cent decline in the number of U.S. farmers grossing between $25,000 and $500,000 in the five years between 1997 and 2002. Only about a quarter of Ontario farms today fall into that income group.
This polarization not only threatens the social fabric of the countryside, it has implications for food sourcing since mid-sized farms are where the wide range of foods that are neither bulk staples nor specialities and delicacies come from.
"To me, the flip side of challenges is always opportunities," he says. And one of the biggest for middle-range farms is provided by behemoth food service companies who deliver to the back door of close to a million restaurants and cafeterias where almost half of North America's food is eaten.
"This is not about nostalgia,' says Kirschenmann. "This is tomorrow's business model. What I'm saying about values-based agriculture [local and sustainable] may sound warm and fuzzy, but it's attracting some very big players."
Meet Sysco, one of the un-Adam Smith "invisible handful" of conglomerates. The firm serves 415,000 companies in the United States and Canada, including hospitals, restaurants, schools, colleges, hotels and motels, and feeds over half a million customers a day.
Rick Schnieders, Sysco's CEO, is a heavy-duty supporter of establishing distribution links between large companies like his own and middle-sized farms. He's been known to say his company's marketing strategy is based on "memory, romance and trust." Memory is when a customer eats a product and says, 'Wow, I want that again.' Romance is the story behind the food's production. Trust creates an opportunity to form a relationship between the consumer and the producer.
His company sells a wide variety of fresh, frozen and specialty meats, seafood, poultry, fruits and vegetables, bakery products, canned and dry foods. But the products, though mass-produced, are marketed outside the fast-food arena to consumers who want quality and distinctiveness.
Few restaurant customers feel satisfied paying extra money to eat exactly the same old, same old they eat at home, Schnieders knows. So companies such as Sysco like to provide greater variety to the food service sector and higher quality than is found in a "lowest price is the law" supermarket.
But this can't come from mass-production farms - think particular cuts of meat or free-range eggs. It comes from mid-sized farmers who can still custom-produce specialty products. (Small farmers are out of the running because they don't produce with the consistency or volume needed by large buyers.)
"None of us want to see the WalMartization of our eating-out options." Schnieders told a Washington training session of corporate lawyers in 2004.
The need for repeat business, along with the higher margin that comes when preparation and service are added to the cost of raw food, gives food service companies a vested interest in a different kind of food chain from that of supermarkets and low-end fast food restaurants, which now rule the roost in the food system.
This, says Kirschenmann, bodes well for mid-sized farmers currently under the thumb of mass food retailers. The shift in food service is already taking hold, though it lags in Canada. Could it happen here, giving new clout to our medium-sized farms?
Some leading U.S. universities already contract with food service companies that deliberately source local farmers and processors who feature "values added" from fair wages and environmentally friendly practices. A leading hospital chain in the U.S. Northwest contracts for free-range eggs and meats.
"This movement is just getting too strong not to solve the problem," says Kirschenmann.