Grit Alone Won’t Protect Local Food Systems

Red Delicious Apples

The marketplace of home vegetable gardens, community supported agriculture, farmers markets, road side vegetable stands, restaurants, retail interests and direct farm sales hasn’t coalesced into a sustainable local food system, and may not.

One should never doubt the resilience of farmers. At the same time, due to unwelcome changes in society, our local food system is at risk before it has become sustainable.

A small group of pioneers made progress toward a sustainable, local food system. People like Denise O’Brien, Dick and Sharon Thompson, Fred Kirschenmann, Francis Thicke, Laura Krouse and Susan Jutz took ideas about sustainability and put them into practice. Their work enabled a new generation to enter the local food business — people like Tony Thompson (New Family Farm), Kate Edwards (Wild Woods Farm) and Carmen Black (Sundog Farm).

The idea of a return to diversified farms producing food for local markets begs the question how did we get away from it?

If markets for local food become stale or disappear due to changing tastes or financial stress, increased commodification could erase slim margins and lead to bankruptcy.

A local food system is about cooperation and support: between farmers, and with their customers, suppliers, workers, volunteers and bankers. Without that a family may have their dinner on the table, but the entire system is risked if such individualism is the prevailing attitude.

Change is in the air. Change driven by economic hardship and oppressive policies originating in Des Moines and Washington.

It doesn’t look good for growers, retailers or consumers, not because business models have changed, but because we are entering an era when wealth flows to the top, leaving the rest of us struggling. How will farmers get health insurance if the individual market becomes too expensive? They may take a job in town and let their agricultural aspirations go.

These changes and the challenges they bring will test the sustainability of a fledgling local food system.

Climate change is impacting society negatively as well. What we assume about Iowa’s growing conditions — adequate rainfall and predictable temperatures — is subject to change as the oceans and atmosphere warm, increasing the number and intensity of extreme weather events. Likewise, increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere may be reducing the nutritional value of food, according to a recent study published in the journal Nature.

I don’t doubt the resilience of farmers I know. If a local food system can be sustained, they will do it. Isn’t it time you got to know your farmer? We could all use a friend during these turbulent times.

~ First published in the Saturday, Sept. 30, 2017 edition of the Cedar Rapids Gazette.

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