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The story of Fernforest and Petro Dale

Once upon a time there were some innovative farmers that developed a new hybrid crop that could satisfy the hunger of a growing population. This crop grew best in large farms which had to be situated far from where people lived. The food was so tasty and production could scale so quickly that it became necessary and possible to build a novel way to deliver this food to the population. The farmers built their own transportation network, which they called a “railway”.

This network of rail was itself very efficient and soon overtook the ability of restaurants and small shops to absorb the produce. In order to keep the pipeline of food filled, the farmers (now with their own railways) bought most restaurants and grocery stores. They transformed them into more efficient food retailers and the result was even more consumption and demand for the food.

To keep the population happy, the farmers constantly devised new food hybrids and new recipes for the restaurants. The food design process became a profession, even an art form. The farmers employed the best and most creative minds  when it came to food. They created unique recipes that became instant hits and were widely consumed. They invented “star foods” and “blockbuster dishes”. The process of churning out these hits was so highly honed that farms became factories of ideas.

At the same time, the workers on the farms became unionized and they reached an understanding with the farmers so that every new “food production” allocated healthy wages to the workers. Due to their newfound fame, some of the food designers even got a portion of the profits from their creativity. Food making reached unprecedented levels of quality with very wide distribution to almost every restaurant in the world.

After a while the government became nervous about the level of control the farms (and their railways etc.) had over the nation’s food supply. The government worried that this level of concentration would lead to price gouging. They sought concessions and eventually the Supreme Court decreed that farmers could not own restaurants. The restaurants became independent. However, since the main food supply came from the same farmers and they owned the railways, the independent restaurants could do nothing but serve the same food that was on offer when they were part of the syndicate. The consumer did not see much change in either the availability or the quality of food though food prices did remain steady and the government was satisfied.

This system worked so well that it remained in place for over 100 years. The food production system became the stuff of myth and legend. It had its own name based on the fertile valley where it started: Fernforest.

It was not a system without any innovation. In the interest of efficiency small changes were always made. These “innovations” included outsourcing the farming so independent farmers who concentrated on efficiency had the largest share of production. Fernforest innovated in their financing practices and in their accounting for new food products. Fernforest accepted new ways of packaging the food. For example, freezing dishes and selling them in supermarkets ready to eat. They gave more creative freedom to the food designers and the farm technicians, many of who became rich.

But they all depended on the robust rail network. Over time, the rail network became the most critical component in the Fernforest system. So much so that 30 to 40 percent of all the money collected from food sales went to the railway consortium. With that vast cash flow the magnates of Fernforest decided which food hybrid would be grown, how much money would be spent in its production and essentially determined the flavors and tastes of society. They claimed that only they knew how to gauge what meal would become a hit and only they could be trusted to bet heavily on producing the source ingredients. Each production ended up costing hundreds of millions of dollars and since only they could ship the stuff, only they would finance the production. It was a self-fulfilling prophecy: Fernforest became taste makers and their executives used that advantage to maintain the enormous distribution fees which financed the next hit.

It looked like the system would remain in place, essentially unchanged, forever. Food was a necessity, people would always need to eat, and this was the most efficient way of making and selling food. And it almost always tasted good.

Then a strange new invention came into being. It was completely unrelated to the food business. It was, in fact, a new engine–the internal combustion engine. This spawned a new invention called the automobile. The automobile was so useful for many transportation tasks that it developed its own network architecture: the so-called “road network”. A new industry developed to harness the value of this engine, vehicle and transportation network. It became based in a different part of the country, coincidentally also a valley. It was called Petro Dale after the fuel the new engines used.

Fernforest took no notice of this new industry. They did not find use for the new technology. The Petro engines were too small and inefficient for their food train locomotives. Automobiles were designed for moving around small loads. Fernforest wanted to increase the size of its trains, not to decrease them. Autos were taking stuff in small portions to small consumers. It all looked inefficient and useless.

But Petro Dale was booming anyway. They found that their engines and cars were hugely useful for individuals transporting all manner of goods beside food. They thrived even without the support of Fernforest. The car owners built small businesses and grew them as the power of the engines grew. Eventually some entrepreneurs with cars decided that they could build gardens, greenhouses and farms and get their produce to local markets quite efficiently. It was not a big opportunity and some of these creative food innovators were acquired by the big farms and their recipes were scaled up for the Fernforest system. But small operators kept popping up and many made a modest living growing food.

However, some unscrupulous car owners copied the recipes of the big hits from Fernforest and duplicated the food locally and sold it locally in violation of the laws protecting recipe rights. Fernforest saw this as a clear and present danger and reacted very angrily. So much so that they sought to ban all cars. They saw cars and roads as built primarily to steal food ideas. Quickly, this became a toxic political conflict. After an outcry from car owners, the efforts of the rail and farm protection society (Nourishment Association of America or NAA) failed. They had reached the limit of their political power.

However, the attempt to ban cars caused Petro Dale to wake up to the threat of railways. They realized that even though much more commerce took place with cars and roads, and even though railways were becoming increasingly irrelevant, they would remain a potential regressive threat. In the past Petro Dale had sought to do business with the incumbent food network distributors, suggesting ways of taking the mass market food produce and distributing it to new franchises like mobile food trucks and fast food restaurants. They were spurned. Now they realized that trying to work with Fernforest was not just futile but  harmful.

Instead, Petro Dale changed strategy and sought to encourage local food production and guaranteed that any local recipe designer could get their dish distributed via a far more pervasive road and take-out network. Thousands of food designers took up the challenge. Even some of the designers that worked on the big farms saw the future was in independent distribution. Even though they had grown rich working for the big farms, they had been chafing under the “green lighting” process of railway magnates.They wanted to connect to take-outs and consumers directly, bypassing both rail and restaurants. Cars seemed suddenly good enough.

Farmers themselves began to be disenchanted with the railway system and Fernforest as a way to produce food. Their role had been reduced to being outsourced factories. The decisions on what to plant came from the railway executives. They felt that their technical knowledge, which created the industry in the first place, was not valued. What’s worse, from their point of view, the service railways provided was becoming inefficient. Freighting by train meant that they could not package food in novel ways. Being disconnected from the consumer, they could not create some of the hybrids they knew were in demand (as small growers had already proven). The creative people that had been working for them were fleeing while the cost structures (and union wages) remained. Their idea factories were falling apart.

Even the public woke up to the blandness of Fernforest products. They were becoming increasingly attracted to meal alternatives that came direct to their house (home delivery and take-out) and were tiring of chain restaurants. The local stuff was fresher. Besides, they reasoned, I own a car myself. Why should so much of my money be paid to railroads?