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Local Food System Fragment

Winter lettuce salad.

When I left a 25-year career in transportation and logistics, food occupied part of my attention. Over the years my blood pressure and cholesterol levels had increased, and when I left transportation they quickly returned to normal, mostly by eating more regular food as opposed to restaurant food.

When we moved back to Iowa in 1993, growing a large garden was part of what I wanted to do with the land. We couldn’t afford an acreage, but managed to find 0.62 of an acre not far from the trail around the north shore of Lake Macbride.

I was ready to produce some of our own food, more than we had in Indiana, but not really ready to embrace local food as anything other than a kitchen garden.

The local food movement was a growing group of individual operators struggling to make a living and an impact in a turbulent world. It remains a nascent system directly tied to our consumer culture, dependent upon disposable income and open mindedness in meeting humankind’s most basic need.

I spent seven years working and living in our local food culture and can say food we consume is not all local and needn’t be. At the same time there are benefits of a local food system beyond living within the season, better taste, and knowing the farmer who produced what we eat.

In our home fall canning leads to a pantry full of soup, tomatoes, hot peppers, sauerkraut, vinegar, apple sauce, pickles and sundry items from the garden and farm. The freezer gets filled with bell peppers, kale, sweet corn, apples, broccoli, blueberries and raspberries. It is food – as local as it gets – driven by what is fresh, abundant and on hand.

Along with home processed goods our pantry has bits and pieces from all over the globe, with each serving a purpose in our culinary lives. Combining ingredients and recipes in a personalized cuisine is where the local food movement lives or dies.

More people seek processed or precooked food because of a perception there is too little time for cooking. If adding kale to a smoothie seems easy, making a stir fry using it is less so. Contemporary consumers want a quick and easy path to making meals and snacks, and don’t have the patience it requires to add many new recipes to their repertoire. Cuisine as an expression of local culture has been tossed out the window by many.

Having worked in the food system, whether at home, on a farm, or in a retail store, has been an important part of my life since retiring in 2009. I found it is a way of life to grow food for direct consumption or sales. It also became clear the local food system is a jumble, even if farmers and consumers want it to be more organized.

One operator runs a community supported agriculture project where members pay in the spring, then share in the luck of the farm, good or bad. Another sells chits to be used to buy farm goods at a local outlet framed as a “store.” Another grows specific crops to sell to restaurants, absorbing any financial risk. All of this and more leads us to a point where an onion isn’t only an onion anymore. In the end it’s not about the onion but the culture.

If someone could organize a local food system, they might make a living. That would miss the point. Local food systems are intended to cut out the middlemen in the food supply chain. At the same time, faced with a need for scalability and the tick tock of the growing season, operators might use the help of an intermediary for marketing and sales.

While some of the trail blazers of a sustainable, local food movement are well known – Alice Waters, Joel Salatin, Fred Kirschenmann, and others – a sense of coherence or agreement on basic terms seems missing among local producers. It is as if operators would rather work inside the bubble of what works for them personally as long as the farm to market system seems to work generally. In a way that is not much different from how corn, soybean, egg and livestock producers view their operations.

Where we go from here is uncertain, although I have some ideas about that based on my experience in our food system.

One reply on “Local Food System Fragment”

What the usual farm system has with it’s corn, soybean, wheat and feed grain operations is the blessing of the USDA that supports them at every level of production or maintenance of their cash flow up to a point. In fact when the USDA created a thing called parity at the end of the First World War, when they established what it cost to create, harvest and market crops as a floor for prices, we have never reached that level to curtail those supports from government. True food producers who grow and market their own products as vegetables don’t get any help other than marginal assistance, but have no parity to get them to a fair or at least cost of production price. They get no crop insurance subsidized by the government, in real terms they get squat. Market farmers are the last of the true farm capitalists who find their own way to operate to try and make ends meet like the old farmers did who produced some of a lot of things in the hope that there would be enough to keep farming and pay the bills. If milk prices were down, maybe hog prices would be up and that balancing act kept the farm going. I grew up on a small dairy farm that was as much rock ledges, sand hills and timber as it was crop ground in the 1950’s. The five of us survived on $7,000 a year gross income, I have the paperwork to prove it. We survived on the food we grew more so than the money we made or we wouldn’t have survived at all. We grew our own beef and pork, we had our own milk and eggs, everything else came out of the garden patches we maintained or from the natural larder of the forest around us (black berries, mushrooms, squirrels, rabbits and pheasants) and the Maquoketa River, creeks and ponds that we fished. Today’s farmer would starve to death trying to maintain him/herself on the industrial product that are being created on the farm without this diversity. Earl Butz model of “get big or get out” farming, that in the end is turning our true crop ground into virtual coal mines, producing things like plastics and alcohol rather than food for humans.

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