A nonfiction writer always faces a fundamental question when beginning a piece of work, namely: Do I insert myself in the narrative? If the piece is about oneself, then the answer is obvious. But most of us are writing about other topics, and inserting oneself often simply gets in the way. Still, there are times when a writer’s role in the story is impossible to ignore. My most recent feature in The Observer reflects one of those times.
When news broke this past winter about a beloved local farmer arrested on 318 animal cruelty charges, our small town in the eastern panhandle of West Virginia was stunned. And confused. And then angry. Danny Rohrer had been selling his beef, pork, eggs, and lamb at our weekly farmers market for more than a decade. We joked with his sisters (who often ran his stand), shared our condolences when his elderly mother died, and commiserated when a traffic accident totaled his van. We bought his products because we didn’t want supermarket meat raised on factory farms under crowded and inhumane conditions – and because it was delicious. So how could he possibly be guilty of the horrible neglect charged in the news stories?
If I was feeling so stunned and confused, I knew my neighbors were as well. The only way to know for sure what had happened was to do my own reporting. And the only way to tell the story was from their – that is to say our shared — perspective. I clearly wasn’t unbiased anyway; I had been a Rohrer customer for years. So I embraced my “full disclosure” and took my community along with me on my journey through the courtroom trial, down to the farm, and out to local markets for answers.
The result is “Lost Innocence for Farm Market Customers” in the August, 2015 issue of The Observer of Jefferson County. I wrote it with my local community of conflicted customers in mind, with an eye to the larger challenges farmers markets throughout the U.S. face in maintaining the integrity of their markets. I hope locavores everywhere find it a worthwhile read.