Who is responsible for local food?

This is something I wrote during the heat wave this weekend — it’s the result of several days of contemplation … not sure exactly who the intended audience is, but apparently I had some ideas on this point …

As farmers, our very presence in any conversation often leads to discussions of food and especially the availability (or lack thereof) of certain locally produced goods. This weekend, for example, we participated in several such conversations. One woman lamented the limited selection of truly ‘local’ vegetables in an area produce section. The particular veggie at hand was asparagus, an item grown by our neighbors here on the island but difficult to come by locally grown in stores.

That same evening, we had a second spirited discussion about the complete absence of organic strawberries at the McMinnville Farmers Market this summer. One discussion participant voiced confusion and frustration: “I don’t understand why there aren’t organic strawberries — I’d buy them if there were!”

And, Casey and I had our own discussion at the farm as we made a small batch of homemade vinaigrette, which contained no local ingredients. “Why doesn’t anybody here in ‘wine country’ make vinegar?” I wondered aloud. “I’d buy it!”

Later I reflected on these conversations, representative of many, and found myself struggling with intense mixed emotions. On one hand, as a consumer myself, I share the frustration of wanting something organic and local and not finding it available to purchase at any price. On the other hand, I am also a local producer, which brings a slew of other emotions, thoughts and knowledge to the discussion.

As a producer, I know intimately how difficult and long the process of farm start-up is. While demand can be born in an instant (perhaps after reading a particularly well written article on the topic), the supply of local produce takes time. Lots of time and lots of work. Asparagus, strawberries, and vinegar are all several year propositions — even if a producer started in today, they wouldn’t have product ready to sell for a minimum of eighteen months.

But, unfortunately, I don’t think that enough producers are beginning today — or yesterday or tomorrow — to produce the variety of local goods people want. Not nearly enough.

In the three seasons we’ve had our farm, we’ve watched the demand for local vegetables skyrocket. It was already strong our first year (or so we thought) and has continued to increase each year so that we now have a waiting list for the CSA longer than the number of current active participants in the program.

Likewise, we’ve seen the number of serious shoppers at farmers market increase steadily each year. The first year, only a handful of market goers appeared to be using market for their weekly shopping — now it seems that many people from all demographics are shopping at the market as their primary source. Our sales have also gone up dramatically, especially this year. Each week we bring more product to try to keep up, and we still almost sell out.

All of this increase in demand is certainly 99% positive for our young farm business, but there’s some sense of difficulty too. For one, we can’t keep up. No matter how big we grew, as long as we stayed a small family-run farm, we could never keep up with the current demand, let alone its continued growth. We see many sad faces each day at market of people who are committed to eating locally but whom we have to turn away because we’ve sold out of their favorite vegetable or don’t have more room currently in the CSA.

Our goal in starting our farm was to be a part of building a real, viable, local food system. With that goal in mind, we struggle constantly with our inability to meet every consumer’s needs, especially knowing that there are only a few other direct-market vegetable farms like ours in our area — all of whom are also struggling with the same issues of scale and pressure to increase production.

At this critical moment in the local food movement, my biggest fear is that people will decide to join in and consequently become disillusioned when they find out that the food isn’t actually there yet — at least, not in great enough quantity for all the newcomers.
And, the cynical side of my nature also gets frustrated by the constant demand. Even though the demand is ultimately positive, I find myself wanting to push back against people’s sense of entitlement — this notion that we have the money and the desire, therefore the product should exist.

Unfortunately, this is the philosophy we Americans have been taught by the centralized food system. If you who have participated in eating local seasonal food, you already know that the centralized food system can’t compete on quality or flavor — but where it competes and wins everyday is on convenience and consistent availability of anything and everything a consumer might want. You want avocadoes, bananas, lettuce, star fruit, eggs, strawberries? The centralized food system can supply it in whatever quantity you desire. And, they can supply it now — not in two or three years.

The hard reality is that the development of a truly local food system will require patience, compromise, and expanded participation by all people. Patience because farms take time to build and crops take time to grow (the asparagus we planted at our farm this spring won’t be ready to cut until 2010). Compromise because we will have to accept the real limits presented by our local climate (Oregon’s wet springs make growing organic strawberries challenging on a production scale). And, expanded participation because for a local food system to truly thrive, many, many more people will need to become involved in the production of food.

This last point is perhaps the most crucial for us to acknowledge today. Considering that we have an economy with a large agricultural base, the United States population is dramatically under-involved in food production. Less than 1% of the population is actively involved in farming, and although food gardens are seeing a renaissance today, most Americans have no role in food production their entire lives. Contrast that with some developing nations where a lack of centralized food system forces everyone who’s able, regardless of their daily occupation, to pitch in during harvest season or have their own garden, herd or orchard.

Not only do we need many more people entering production farming as a profession, more (if not all) Americans will need to take a hand in their own food production. Unsprayed strawberries, for example, are easiest to produce on a very small scale — in your own garden ideally, eaten within an hour of harvest.

In other words, building a local food system will be a shared responsibility between producers and consumers — eventually even blurring that distinction or making it irrelevant.

To that end, what are some of the ways that a consumer today could become what Wendell Berry calls a ‘co-creator’ of a local food system?

As I said earlier, begin by being patient and realistic. Secondly, adjust your expectations. Learn to desire what is at hand rather than what is absent — if you arrive late to market and only find bok choy left, buy it and learn to cook it so that you enjoy it.

Further, become actively, directly involved in food production. Read books about producing food; follow agricultural news in the newspaper; stay aware of the process and its ups and downs. If there is something you desire to eat that is not available, find a place to plant it and learn how to grow it. If you don’t have space in your own yard, ask a neighbor for space or gather friends to help with your endeavor and rent some acreage in the country.

If you have any interest in being a full-time producer, explore that option. Visit a farm you respect and admire. Get a part-time job on a farm as an apprentice. Make compromises in your own lifestyle to make it possible.

Becoming a ‘co-creator’ as such will be challenging, in the way that any new significant undertaking is. The centralized food system has given us a false sense of ease and security, which we will have to give up to build a stronger alternative system.

To get that system, we cannot simply sit back and expect the supply to meet our demand. Buying the local food that currently exists is a great start towards encouraging more people to grow and sell locally, but only at a realistic rate of growth. Growing a real, viable, thriving local food system will necessarily require more than just how we choose to spend our money, it will involve the work of many hands.

If we want a future harvest, we need to roll up our sleeves and pitch in. My first goal will be to learn how to make my own vinegar this summer.

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4 Responses to Who is responsible for local food?

  1. Kris Bledsoe says:

    A thoughtful and well written essay. I would never want to go back to eating food that had been early harvested to be trucked thousands of miles and arriving to the store weeks after harvest. In my mind it is no longer real food. Yes, we are spoiled and having such bounty does raise our expectations. I also have a concern re lower income folks who may not have a place to grow their own food. It is cheaper to eat poorly which results in health problems. We need to develop more places for true community gardening which would include gardening for others who may not have the time, energy or transportation available to raise their own food. This is a turning point in our society, going back to the rural community culture. We can do that here because we have room, air, water and land now. The important thing for us is to not take these valuable resources for granted and for us to protect them and share them with others.

  2. Ellen says:

    I do have a home garden (four 4′ x 8′ garden boxes constructed out of reclaimed cedar fence boards) I call it my “hobby garden” because of the CSA. I could never plant the variety of vegetables I receive in the CSA, but there is a certain sense of accomplishment when I go out to harvest a few leaves of the Italian Lettuce blend (never cut the heads!) to complement the single head of lettuce I might receive from the CSA. When we stopped receving green garlic in our weekly share I still had green garlic of my own to harvest for my salads. I’ve continued to plant radishes as well. I’m sad that the garlic did not do well, but I picked up some at the Hillsboro Saturday market this weekend (also locally grown). Thank you for teaching me to eat local, and in season!

  3. Christine Anderson says:

    I am working SO hard to become a producer. Though I have no knack for growing vegetebales (despite the fact that I am having teriffic luck this year in my garden), I do have a serious knack for animals. I milk my goats and make cheese and butcher my goats and rabbits and chickens. I get eggs, etc. A lot of it is a sustainability thing for us, but we always have extra, and we try to bestow it upon someone who will care. We do this all on a 1/10 of an acre city lot, and I wish, desperetly that we could afford something else so that I could produce truly wonderful local food.

    By the way, you can make your own vinegar, VERY easily out of local wine. I may have some mother culture soon to pass on, so if you are interested, let me know, I am in the market share group.

    Christine

  4. Pingback: Oregon’s Natural Foods Connection » Responsibility in eating locally

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