“The average food item on a U.S. grocery shelf has traveled farther than most families go on their annual vacations.”
~ Barbara Kingsolver
At our local farmer’s market, there’s always a stand that makes me uncomfortable. The owner brings a semi-trailer up from Arizona full of boxes of vegetables, and sells them quite cheaply. For some reason, it feels like cheating to bring to a local farmer’s market the same mass-farmed produce that Safeway and King Soopers sell in their stores.
Being something of a locavore, this practice feels wrong. I’d rather support my local businesses. I know that shopping locally provides them with income and my local government with taxes. That keeps my town able to provide more services and it supports the viability of local businesses. “Use it or lose it” applies to local businesses as well as to anything.
I admit, I’m not certain about the origin of all his goods, but his stock is clearly out of season locally and displayed in considerable bulk. Nearby stands with their season-limited local harvests sell produce that I know can be grown around here. I include as locals the people that bring fruit over from the west slope or melons from southeast Colorado. Maybe I think of these people as ‘craft farmers’ the same way I prefer craft beer to Coors, even though it’s brewed down the street from my house. (For that matter, there is a craft brewery, Golden City, just one block from my house that I frequent more than the Coors brewery.)
The spirit of a true farmer’s market allows farmers a local outlet for their goods. At a small street fair recently, there were lots of booths with homemade, handmade jewelry, pottery, photographs and paintings. But among the local folks, there were several booths where people were hyping catalog clubs, where you joined up to buy stuff online and maybe host parties where you got your friends to buy stuff. These Tupperware Party-type outfits seemed out of tune with the rest of the event — somehow artificial, superficial.
A recent study by IPES-Food (International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems) proposed a paradigm shift from industrial agriculture to ‘diversified agroecological systems.’ The holistic approach looks at both the benefits and costs of industrial agriculture not just in economic terms, but at their ecologic, societal and political impacts, as well. For example, the political push in the U.S. for growing corn has led to subsidized production of corn oil and syrup. This has led to oversupply and its widespread use in many different foods with a significant impact on obesity and heart disease, not to mention ecologic disruptions. Industrial farms have replaced family farms, amping up the societal impacts.
The ‘diversified agroecological systems’ propose to keep more carbon in the ground, support biodiversity, rebuild soil fertility and maintain yields over time, creating a more sustainable farm livelihood. So, from a system standpoint, this approach makes a lot more sense than shipping lettuce to New York from California, J.H. Kunstler’s “3000-mile Caesar Salad.” Local farmers can grow local foods, and sure, not everything we want to eat can be grown locally, but the diversified approach has many benefits when compared to industrial farms.
Anyone who has driven across the mid-western U.S. or other farming regions can attest to the vast acreage of plowed fields suitable for a monoculture. If it’s devoid of native vegetation and wildlife, it’s also devoid of farmers, farm houses and farm families. If Norman Rockwell were alive, I doubt that he’d paint today’s Iowa farm. The dearth of farm families has also decimated all those small farming towns and the culture that they represented. Politically, we hold the family farm or the family ranch as sacred ideals, but in practice, we have destroyed the reality of them.
With the current economic imbalance in this country and others, maybe repopulating smaller farms and farming towns would benefit us all. When I was a kid in Texas, you could drive comfortably, if slowly, nearly anywhere on farm-to-market roads. These barely two-lane asphalt strips provided access to the county seat from the far-flung reaches of the county. They created a sense of community and provided a connection to the wider world. School buses collected the kids daily, and the RFD (rural free delivery) provided the mail. Local businesses from the five-and-dime to the bank to the farm store to the diner served families the majority of their needs.
I doubt we’ll ever return to that ideal; but moving in that direction is not only possible, but may be necessary for ecologic, societal and political reasons. For too long, we have ignored the whole costs of our agriculture and transportation industries. Maybe it’s time to re-balance our systems.
Whether you accept the inevitability of climate change and the need to shift away from fossil fuels, or just prefer fresh, flavorful food, it makes sense to support local resources over national or international ones when you have the choice. We complain about shipping our jobs overseas, when there are willing workers available here. If local farming and ranching can be a better option than welfare, maybe we should give it a try.
Barbara Kingsolver documented her family’s attempt to eat locally, and discovered it was largely feasible and actually enjoyable. I wouldn’t suggest that everyone take this on to the degree that they did, but taking steps in that direction is possible and, I believe, inevitable. I must note, however, that they were unable to find locally-grown bananas in Appalachian Kentucky in any season. Some things may be hard to do without.
I admit that as I passed the stand with the Arizona vegetables, I coveted the pile of ripe red tomatoes, but resisted. Later that day in Safeway, I saw a nearly identical display. It was tempting, but I resisted it as well in favor of the local, greenhouse-grown tomatoes. They’re not as good as the ones we’ll get in July and August from local gardens, but they’ll do for now. I just have to be a little patient.
Suggested reading: Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, Barbara Kingsolver