Categories
Local Food Writing

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.

Categories
Farming Local Food

Organic Salad Greens

First Spring CSA Share
First Spring CSA Share

Is the local food movement here to stay?

Intellectually, how could it not be? The future must necessarily be one of producing food much closer to where people live, especially as transportation costs escalate, and current food sources in the California Central Valley, in South Florida, and in Texas face the extreme weather characteristic of climate change.

That said, life with food is not always about rational behavior.

Growth of organic food sales is unmistakable, with 2014 food and non-food item sales setting a new record of $39.1 billion. Organic was almost five percent of food sales, according to the Organic Trade Association.

There is good and bad organic food. When we think about it, what good is it to buy organic canned black beans produced in China more cheaply than what a local farmer can sell? Is it bad that local producers use “organic practices” yet do not secure USDA organic certification of their operations?

The good news is interest in organic food helps small-scale producers generate needed sales. As organic sales go mainstream, being found in four out of five grocery stores, a crop of informed consumers is making up 18 percent of buyers, accounting for 46 percent of organic food sales. There is room for continued growth in this segment as wider availability of organic food, and mainstream information about organic foods drive people to buy them.

Each week, I hear people explain why they buy organic food. Their reasons are diverse, and don’t always make sense. The commitment is often to “eating healthy” as opposed to any sound rationale. This attitude toward organic food can become problematic, and  small-scale producers in the local food movement are particularly vulnerable. If organic is the latest fad, then long-term sustainability may be out the window for them.

Another thing people don’t mention much is as organic food becomes mainstream, large-scale players will increase their share in organic, and dominate the marketplace. Companies like Earthbound Farm Organic will become the norm, rather than the exception. Food conglomerates may establish gigantic organic food divisions as they have already done with gluten-free food. Better margins in organic food will attract capital, and small-scale farmers seem seldom have enough of that to compete.

I brought a bag of seven or eight kinds of spring greens home from the farm, reminding me of why I buy and barter for local food. I know how the farmers treat the soil, where they get seeds and rootstock, how they control pests, how they treat animals, and how they treat labor.

There is not much hope for a market based on “eating healthy.” It is not sustainable, even if organic is gaining market share.

Some of us find hope in being close to the means of production and getting our hands dirty. We also know the face of the farmer—something that gets forgotten midst the hoopla of buzzwords.

Knowing the face of the farmer is sustainable in local food systems. It is hard to replace, and it is time we got to know more of the farmers whose production we eat every day.

Categories
Local Food

Feeding the Hungry – Iowa Style

Harvest
Harvest

The United Nations asserted that food production must double by 2050 to meet growing world-wide demand and to combat hunger which affects a billion people who are already here.

The 2009 report explained, “to achieve food security, investment in agricultural research, natural resources, financial services, local infrastructure, market links and safety nets are pivotal. Food prices, already high and volatile, could spike again as droughts, floods and other climate-related events affect harvests.”

In Iowa almost everyone has an opinion on how to feed the world, and there is no denying that the factors listed at the UN are important. There is also a role for increased productivity, measured in food produced per acre, in feeding the world.

To an investor—the kind that derives a living from Wall Street trading—opportunity presents itself. Synthetic biology writer Maxx Chatsko explained on The Motley Fool:

To boost yields and combat pests, farmers will need to increasingly rely on technology ranging from high-yield seeds to agricultural biotechnology to even the Internet of Things.

While progress is being made, consumers in many wealthy nations are demanding that their food be grown using organic farming principles. Some consumers rationalize their purchasing decisions by claiming the health benefits of organic food (which have been thoroughly debunked), the avoidance of health risks associated with genetically modified foods (with which the scientific consensus disagrees), or the more environmentally friendly and sustainable approach to agriculture that organic farming enables.

This chart from Tom Vilsack’s USDA, cited by Chatsko, is a bit misleading:

USDA Organic Food SalesFor anyone who has been in a popular grocery store, box store or warehouse club, the proliferation of organic products is no secret and people are buying them. Growth of this market segment may represent an investment opportunity, or as Chatsko indicated, “the trend in organic food sales hints that opportunity does indeed exist, even if it’s fueled in large part by outsize marketing budgets, a fundamental information gap, or, worst of all, misinformation.” What’s most misleading about the chart is that it is only a market segment, not the global picture. That’s what the UN report was describing.

Local food production doesn’t come up in the UN report or on the Motley Fool analysis, and some of us believe it represents an answer to eliminating hunger. So where is it?

Partly, we are enamored of a few rock star farmers like Joel Salatin. It is hard not to like the stories Salatin tells in books like “Folks, This Ain’t Normal: A Farmer’s Advice for Happier Hens, Healthier People, and a Better World.” If Salatin and his ilk are great promoters of eating “real food,” such punditry doesn’t get to solutions to real problems. Thoughtful nuggets like this one distract us,

The world is awash in food and 50 percent of human food goes to waste because of anything from pernickety consumers, or because a Red Cross truck can’t get through a border. If you and I could figure out how to double food production, there would still be people going hungry for a whole lot of socio-economic issues.

We like Salatin, and some of us are glad he is able to make a living by speaking, farming and writing, but a few rock stars will not feed the world.

The story of Cuba tells a different, and I believe more sustainable story. Cuban agricultural systems were disrupted the end of Soviet support, oil imports particularly, in 1989. Reacting to change in the agricultural system became a national necessity as Cubans literally lost weight due to lack of calories. Cuba went local and semi-organic. Christopher D. Cook is among the most recent to recount Cuba’s story in “Cuba’s Harvest of Surprises.”

Cuba’s farmers shifted to organic fertilizers, traditional crops and animal breeds, diversified farming with crop rotations, and non-toxic pest controls emphasizing the use of beneficial plants and insects. This blend of measures is part of a sustainable-agriculture approach known as agroecology. It’s often described as a promising innovation — which is a little ironic given that it draws on age-old peasant farming practices.

There is a case to be made for peasant agriculture as a way to feed the hungry in a sustainable way. In doing so, there are substantial world-wide obstacles, not the least of which is access to land. In the United States people perceive a return to peasant-style lives as unappealing when they already cannot find time in the day. If Cuba represents a possible solution, it needs an advocate, and I don’t mean U.S. normalization with the island nation or a rock star promoter of it’s semi-organic food system.

There is a growing local food movement in the U.S. and it has had successes and challenges. A lot of folks are entering the local food movement only to find that it is tough to make a living. To clarify, by local food movement I refer to producing consumer goods to support a Community Supported Agriculture project, restaurant, farmers market or other geographically local food sales.

How people access land is a key constraint to entering the local food business. Local food production also relies on cheap labor—barter agreements, volunteers and lowly paid professional staff. Like with so-called traditional farming, success has been elusive and often requires government subsidies or working off the farm to pay basic, year-round living expenses.

Jaclyn Moyer, a Slate writer who operates a 10-acre farm in California, asked some key questions of the often rosy picture painted of small scale, local food producers. “Do you make a living? Can you afford rent, healthcare? Can you pay your labor a living wage?” She answered her own questions, “if the reporter had asked me these questions, I would have said no.”

Global hunger is a real problem, to which “feeding the world,” especially from Iowa, is no solution. Increasing food production is, has been and will remain a key challenge to agriculture as long as the value of a day’s work is eroded by marketplace demands. There is nothing new about that, and the introduction of farm subsidies during the New Deal is rooted in this basic problem with farm life.

There is a lot we can do to alleviate hunger. For urban dwellers, there is a substantial opportunity in food recovery, about which I wrote for the newspaper. Donations of food, money and time to a food bank all produce positive results toward hunger elimination. The use of urban space has potential for local food production. Whether one grows herbs on a window ledge or plants some kale and tomatoes on a few square feet in the backyard, everything helps increase the amount of available food for people who need it. These are small things that can make an impact.

Growing world population is not a new issue, but the limits of our ecosystem to sustain people are becoming increasingly evident. While a row crop farmer may be able to carve out a living by increasing yield or reducing input costs, it isn’t a solution to world hunger. As the UN pointed out, it is about more than productivity. It is about climate change, political issues, finance and land as much as it is about growing food. Until those issues come to be recognized and closer to resolution we can do as many small scale things as we like and people will continue to go hungry.

That’s not to say we shouldn’t do what we can. We should. At the same time, if we don’t accept what the UN has said is the problem, then someone with standing, and less of an axe to grind, should get to work on the issue. Don’t look for a rock star to do it. Hope is the solution lies within each one of us working together.