Categories
Kitchen Garden

Leaving Food Miles Behind

Food Miles
Food Miles

LAKE MACBRIDE— If U.S. fuel prices were the equivalent of gasoline in France at $8.52 per gallon this week, perhaps the discussion about food miles would be more meaningful. Food miles are the distance over which a food item is transported from producer to consumer, as a unit of measurement. In theory, it is better to grow food locally, and use less fuel.

Food distribution and related costs are a social construct that makes transportation seem inexpensive, or irrelevant to what we find in grocery store aisles. Our food distribution system considers an economic model, with many actual costs— such as global warming pollution and federal subsidies of all kinds— remaining unrecognized.  Unrecognized costs drive the current producer to consumer model and most people won’t get beyond the basic fact that transportation costs don’t matter much when picking an item from the bin or shelf. It isn’t clear they should.

Where advocates of local food may have gone wrong is using the idea of food miles as a place holder for complex, flawed arguments. Costs are costs, and a producer has to recover his or her financial production costs when the consumer buys an item. Using any complex argument, including food miles, as a place holder seems a diversion. Such talk belongs more appropriately in a sales and marketing context as a form of puffery.

What would be better is to create a local food system that competes on price and value, using existing financial structures. I’m not sure that is possible given the current, labor-intensive state of sustainable agriculture. To say consumers should be willing to pay more for organic lettuce because it was locally grown at a higher net cost is a non-starter. Society teaches us that organic lettuce is a fungible commodity, and if everything is the same, and one head costs $1 and the other costs $1.75, what reason is there to spend more?

Local food producers would do better to leave food miles out of their arguments, and create real value in the form of tasty food that people want to buy. They should recognize such value is subjective, the playing field is not level and therefore, growing a local food system will not be entirely rational, or scalable the way well capitalized operations are. Recommendation? Leave food miles in the rear view mirror.

Categories
Kitchen Garden Writing

Knowing our Farmers

Germinated Seeds
Germinated Seeds

RURAL CEDAR TOWNSHIP— The seeds I planted last week had sprouted when I returned to the farm for shift number two. The work was easier this time and I finished quickly. I used a water bottle to stay hydrated, and it helped a lot. The greenhouse is starting to fill with the flats of seedlings for three growers who use the space.

Even though it was only my second day of making soil blocks, the skill had been learned, and I trained another worker.

The CSA where I work is not organic. “We can’t afford that,” said the producer. This attitude is common among vegetable growers, and while some equivocate, saying they use “organic practices,” the truth is the discussion about organic is based on penetrating markets. While it is not mentioned much anymore, the purpose of Community Supported Agriculture is to know your grower, and how they raise vegetables. It requires the buyer to have a depth of knowledge beyond fungible commodities. Being part of a CSA is about more than just the weekly share of vegetables, even if our consumer culture focuses on that aspect of the arrangement.
Seedlings
Most consumers don’t have time to know the farmer, and buy food at the grocery store. Maybe there is an alternative, and while labor intensive, it starts on farms like this one.

Categories
Home Life Kitchen Garden

Food in the Afternoon

LAKE MACBRIDE— Food. The afternoon revolved around food after a once every two weeks trip to the grocery store. Root vegetables, a turnip for $1.09, a parsnip for $0.85, potatoes for $0.40 per pound, carrots from the fridge and a leek for $1.05. It’s chik’n stew tonight. With protein cubes from Morningstar Farms®, and vegetables past their prime, but good for stew. The pot is full of the simmering stew. Hope it tastes good, as there is enough to last ten days and I hate to waste— food.

Categories
Kitchen Garden

At the CSA

RURAL CEDAR TOWNSHIP— Yesterday was the first of a long series of work days at a local Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) project. I spent three and a half hours making blocks of soil mix to grow seedlings, then planted lettuce seeds in some of them. I had no expectations for the day, but mostly because of dehydration, had to cut it short. (Note to self: next time take a water bottle). I am not physically ready for farm work, but hope to be soon. As this growing season evolves, my physical condition should improve. The reason for being at there was to learn how a greenhouse works in late winter, and about growing lettuce from seedlings. I am also trading labor for a share of produce.

If one would write about local food, some experience on a CSA seems mandatory. It is one thing to talk and write about local food and another to grow it. The latter takes more work than people realize. What was immediately apparent was the labor intensity of sustainable agriculture in its current iteration. Machines could have done all of the work I did more efficiently, but with substantial capital investment. Local, sustainable agriculture starts out behind in the race with large scale operations over efficiency. It is a conscious choice among options for how to spend limited capital, and as long as cheap labor is available, capital investment will be directed to other things on a long list of priorities.

We didn’t talk much, but between periods of work, managed to catch up on news, and what’s going on with family. The only thing to report is that local CSAs continue to struggle to find customers, with some of last year’s customers cutting back to half shares, or not renewing this season. Managing a base of members whose investment is less than $1,000 per year is also labor intensive.

My sense is that there are pockets of strength in the local food movement in Johnson County. It is not really a cohesive system yet. People enjoy going to the farmers market to buy produce, but they often do so with discretionary income. In a tight economy, discretionary income can be reduced or evaporate completely, effecting farmers markets and CSA business alike because they are perceived as an indulgence rather than a way of life. There is inadequate attention paid to the role of home cooks as buyers/promoters of sustainably grown food. That needs a remedy as well, but is also labor intensive, and the planting season is here.