Families and communities have certain rituals that they enjoy year after year. For my family, the again-upcoming Minnesota Garlic Festival (this year it’s Saturday, August 13, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.) has become Christmas, Thanksgiving, Easter, and Independence Day, all rolled into one.
For me, as our clan’s cranky libertarian, last year’s fifth annual festival took on new meaning, as I began to understand what it’s all about. It’s a gathering of loved ones, for sure — a chance to reconnect with relatives I’ve loved since the ’60s (some of whom seem almost unchanged since then). But it’s also a symbol of hope: hope not only that my family will go on despite the deaths of our elders and the march of time, but that the America we know and love will do likewise.
My last visit to the Garlic Festival reminded by that, while free enterprise may not be alive in a corporate system propped up by big government, it is thriving in Hutchinson, Minnesota, home of the festival.
Deep in farm country, 57 miles west of Minneapolis-St. Paul, “Hutch,” as it is affectionately known to the locals, is the county seat of McLeod County. It was chosen to host the festival because it is near Howard Lake, where garlic farmers Jerry Ford and Marienne Kreitlow live. They founded the festival. Marienne is my cousin. Jerry is her husband. This was ample reason for me to turn up at the festival this summer. But before talking about that, I want to say a few good words about garlic.
Garlic is grown underground, like potatoes. It grows in bulbs, each of which can produce up to 20 cloves. Each clove also functions as a seed, so a new crop is planted by burying some of the cloves. The U.S. is now the sixth-largest producer of garlic (China is first). We contribute only 1.4% of the global output, but garlic is now a cash crop in every state except Alaska.
For over 4,000 years, people have prized garlic for its supposedly near-miraculous powers. Besides warding off vampires, it has been regarded as everything from an aphrodisiac to a cure for plague. While the claims of medical science are more modest, it now recognizes this pungent herb as a natural antibiotic, as well as a remedy for acne and an aid in the management of high cholesterol. Some people also consider it an effective mosquito repellent.
Whatever the health benefits, I looked forward to last year’s festival more than any thus far — not only for the chance to reconnect with people I love, but also to rejuvenate my hope.
A few days before Christmas, 2008, I was brutally downsized out of my last corporate job, in the annuities department of a life insurance company. No warning was given, and the two versions I was given of the reason I’d been dumped didn’t even match, much less add up to a single plausible explanation. I was probably let go because our department needed no more than three employees, and I had been the fourth one hired.
While free enterprise may not be alive in a corporate system propped up by big government, it is thriving in Hutchinson, Minnesota, home of the Garlic Festival.
I have had enough of the big-corporate rollercoaster. I was laid off by four of the past five companies I worked for, and I resigned from the other because I was certain it was about to lay a bunch of us off (which turned out to be true). You can walk into a solid brick wall only so many times before picking yourself up and heading in a different direction. Taking the last debacle as a sign that better opportunity must await me elsewhere, I am now striking out as a freelance writer. But all I hear from the media is doom and despair — and right now, I need no more tales of woe. That’s how I felt when I came to last year’s Garlic Festival, on the second Saturday in August.
I was at the McLeod County Fairgrounds from ten in the morning to six at night. There was a booth selling garlic ice cream (“The best stinkin’ ice cream in town”). There were pony and wagon rides. There were vendors of squeaky-fresh organic produce, kettle corn, barbecued ribs, handcrafted soaps, lotions, jewelry and clothing, artisan cheeses, a surprisingly large selection of Minnesota wines, and of course garlic of every conceivable form and description.
But those were just the goods and products. There were also people — adults in Mardi Gras masks and costumes, kids making and flying kites, folksingers, Japanese taiko drummers, a bagpiper, belly dancers, beauty queens and magicians. At The Great Scape Café, local chefs served their delicacies to overflowing lines of hungry festival-goers.
I met more kind and friendly people, that one day, than I probably do anywhere else the rest of the year. Several folks remarked to me on the spirit of the event. Like me, they found it personable, hopeful, human in the best sense of the word. It was a jubilant recharging of the batteries, a reinforcement of my faith in the health of the American spirit. Same-sex couples strolled about, mingling with octogenarian farmers and small-town matrons with absolute ease. We were at home in our own skins, proud to call ourselves Americans and grateful to be living in the best country in the world.
As happens every year, I was reminded about how glad I am to have the relatives God gave me. My cousins came from far and wide. My Uncle Willard, the patriarch of our clan, is still as warm and generous as ever in his 88th year. We accept each other unconditionally, and cherish one another even when we disagree. This lesbian libertarian, as always, found no closed minds — only open hearts.
My libertarianism did make some of them nervous, as it seemed to me. They have largely unfavorable ideas about what we believe. Though they are not socialists, by any means, they tend to view capitalism specifically, and free enterprise, in general, with the sort of suspicion earlier generations reserved for the Big Bad Wolf. But I am unable to ignore them, or to see much fun in making fun of them. Even I, until the cataclysms of Bush and Obama, was a very left-of-center progressive, myself.
And that summer, they were all refreshingly nice; that’s simply their nature. But when I began asking them about their participation in the freewheeling free enterprise of the festival, or mentioned I was writing about it all for a libertarian magazine, they looked a tad uncomfortable. They seemed to wonder how a nice gal like me had gotten hooked up with anything so crazy. And at least a few didn’t seem sure they wanted to be thought of as participating in anything as sordid as free enterprise. That’s for wealthy money barons and big business. It is not, to any great degree, what they think of themselves as doing.
But why has free enterprise gotten such poor PR, anyway? Is it the result of a plot laid by communists in some dark and smoke-filled room? Some conservatives are quick to think so. I’m not so sure.
After the recent business bailouts by the taxpayers, and the constant spectacle of high-priced lobbyists courting big-shot politicians, willing to work backstage but never to come out in front of the curtain and defend the capitalist system to the folks in the crowd, it’s not surprising that a good many among the public believe big business deserves its bad reputation. Though welfare-queen corporations are only a small percentage of the total, the baddest of the big boys have often hidden behind the label of “free enterprise” so effectively that, to many Americans, they represent it. A rose by any other name may smell as sweet, but some roses . . . just aren’t.
A couple of the people I talked with brightened visibly when I told them I was writing an essay to offer readers hope. They, too, had heard so much despair of late that they’d almost forgotten what hope felt like. “Yes, do that,” one festival-goer urged me. “I want to read it, too.” Several other visitors and vendors shared similar sentiments.
So let’s talk about some more of the people I met.
Joe and his wife Mary, who sell handcrafted wooden items, fermented foods, and preserves, certainly seemed the hopeful sort. (With names like Joseph and Mary, one would think so.) I asked Joe whether what went on at the Garlic Festival represented real free enterprise, and he readily answered Yes. “One of the reasons we started doing this sort of festival,” he said, “was out of hope.” When I asked if he was hopeful about the future, again he said yes.
I met more kind and friendly people, that one day, than I probably do anywhere else the rest of the year.
But government regulation is a burden that smaller companies feel more painfully than their bigger rivals do. While Joe, who also does landscape maintenance, doesn’t feel overburdened in that end of his business, he noted that “in the food-vending and selling, I feel there’s a little more inappropriate regulation.” A lot of it, he feels, is “based on food fear in America.” The fear is “irrational, but easily manipulated.” To Joe, it makes perfect sense that the “consumer gets mixed up because the [big] corporations and regulations seem to ease their fear.”
Big companies, he appears to suggest, often support the fearmongering that leads to stricter and more stifling laws. I think he regards big corporations as so crafty and powerful that they can simultaneously create a problem and at least appear to solve it. He did not elaborate on how this happens. The festival folks in general appear to regard big business as crafty and dangerous, much as they might an invisible but highly poisonous gas. But government regulation is a burden that smaller companies feel more painfully than their bigger rivals do. A lot of those at the festival hoped to break the corporations' awesome and superhuman power using a means other than big government.
John and Stephanie, beekeepers and sellers of gourmet honey, seemed upbeat. John said that the festival was “a good place for us to feel better about ourselves as humans.” He observed that friendly trade relations build mutual respect — which is precisely what libertarians have been telling state department diplomats for years. When we trade with each other, we find that we need each other in ways we might not have realized.
John remarks that face-to-face connections between buyers and sellers are attracting a growing number of people. They’re a big part of the appeal of festivals, farmers’ markets, and community fairs.
Is this the attraction? Is this why people drive hundreds of miles to an event like the Garlic Festival, even during a severe recession? Perhaps the attraction is quality — not just in products (although they get that, too) but also in the experience of being involved in free enterprise.
This is a consumer desire every bit as legitimate as the desire for convenience or disposability, and arguably more common than any demand for impersonality. It’s a desire that is satisfied by resourceful, hard-working, innovative tradespeople. America is still America, after all — even, or perhaps especially, in “flyover” places.
The people at the Garlic Festival are examples of the larger meanings of free enterprise, and they are helping to change it, visibly and enjoyably, back into what it should be.
“You can tell how successful a festival is by whether the other vendors come by to buy T-shirts,” said Mary Beth Heine, another of my cousins and a festival stalwart since the beginning. Her small but growing company sells antiques and apparel, including hand-knitted items, online and at venues like the Garlic Festival. Each year she sells the event’s official T-shirts, and this summer, the summer of recessions for all and depression for many, everybody seemed to want a souvenir of the happy occasion. Last year, she reports, very few of her fellow vendors had been in the happy-souvenir-buying mood. Now, apparently, they’re reviving. They’ve got their hope back, because they make their hope themselves.
Should libertarians laugh at lefties coming full circle to meet the capitalists? Should we ask them, “What took you so long?” and twist their arms till we get them to admit that they do believe in free enterprise, after all?
I don’t care about making them say “uncle.” If they prefer to call what they’re doing “reconnecting with the community,” “reviving small independents,” or “regaining local control over commerce,” instead of helping free enterprise continue to evolve, then I say more power to them. Again, a rose is a rose. One may smell sweet, another pungent and savory — like garlic.
The people at the Garlic Festival enjoy making money. They also enjoy doing creative, healthful things, things of their own choosing. And who wouldn’t? They are examples of the larger meanings of free enterprise, and they are helping to change it, visibly and enjoyably, back into what it should be.
They are not asking for a handout from anybody. They are not asking for any help from government. They are only asking it to stay out of their way and let them enjoy the fruits of their labors. They’re always brimming with new ideas — things that the big boys would never think of trying, but that, if they prove successful, will someday be imitated. They’ve found some needs, and they are meeting them brilliantly. If that’s not capitalism at its best, then I don’t know what is.
If we are to save business in this country, these are exactly the sort of people who must be persuaded that free enterprise is a noble thing. But we aren’t persuading them; they’re persuading themselves. We don’t all want the same things out of life (and one of the great things about the real America is that we don’t have to), but as long as enough of us want the liberty to pursue our varied visions — to savor our rose, or our garlic clove, if we prefer — then this grand festival we call America will live on and on.