Sunday, May 18, 2008

Weekend Update--Local Agriculture

Like the swallows returning to Capistrano, farmers markets all around the District of Columbia made their ritual spring appearance yesterday. The sudden profusion of local food opportunities brought to mind a recent essay by chef Dan Barber in the New York Times raising the possibility of local farms gaining a competitive advantage over industrial agriculture because of the spiking price of fuel.

With diesel more than $4 per gallon, Barber's thinking goes, locally produced lettuce will start to look cheap compared to the stuff trucked in 3,000 miles from California. Of course, we can't replace all that food at farmers markets. It could hardly be fuel efficient for individual farmers to all be driving their trucks hither and yon on Saturday mornings, dropping off crates of bok choy here and kohlrabi there. So what Barber envisions is "a system of well-coordinated regional farm networks, each suited to the food it can best grow."

"Farmers organized into marketing networks that can promote their common brands (like the Organic Valley Family of Farms in the Midwest) can ease the economic and ecological burden of food production and transportation," Barber writes. "They can also distribute their products to new markets, including poor communities that have relied mainly on food from convenience stores."

Ah, it's a grand vision. We who advocate local food, who subscribe to a CSA, who have our milk delivered from a local dairy, who frequent the farmers market and even grow our own produce--we are easily swept away by grandiose dreams of environmentally-friendly, community-minded agriculture. Then we visit the newly-opened farmers market down the street and are quickly brought back to earth.

This particular market first opened last year. It is situated in a highly desirable demographic area of upwardly-mobile, urban 20- and 30-somethings. Yet the spring opening was pretty underwhelming. There weren't more than a handful of vendors. There weren't many customers. The goods for sale looked sparse, and some of the items seemed to point up what I see as the extreme disconnect between these urban farmers markets and the average cook. For instance, who, exactly, is shopping for pea shoots at $9 a pound?

All of this will probably change, of course, when the tomatoes and summer squash, the brighly colored peppers and multiple varieties of eggplant, come into season. If this year is anything like last year, people will be lining up to bag their Brandywines and Green Zebras. But that precisely is one of the shortcomings of the local food system we have that makes is so difficult for me to embrace the vision of a food system painted by chef Barber as something that will actually happen any time soon.

When all is said and done, local agriculture--as much as we love and support it--still represents just a tiny fraction of the food required to feed this country. Most farmers markets are open only a few months out of the year, and then for only a few hours during the week. Most Americans do not have easy access to locally produced food, nor are they ready to swallow the prices that local farmers so often charge. And for the record, efforts to provide fresh produce to under-served and needy areas right here in the District of Columbia have been tried and failed. The people weren't buying. The farmers markets in poor neighborhoods closed.

Okay, let's say we move past farmers markets to "regional farm networks." Where do all the farms come from? Are we talking about farms on the land that used to be farmland but has since been paved over for housing developments and Jiffy Lubes and WalMarts? Or are we talking about the mega-farms currently engaged in growing commodity crops such as corn and wheat and soybeans converting to growing diversified fields of cabbage, beets and sweet potatoes?

And just what will these farm networks be providing in winter? Will we see hothouses springing up all over the landscape? Will we all be building are own cold cellars, fermenting our own sauerkraut, canning our own green beans and apple sauce?

Somehow, I don't see Americans buying into this voluntarily. Barber thinks that if only we could get consumers to think of spending their food dollars for "nutrient value" rather than just quantity, wholesome local produce would catch fire. Somehow, I don't see 100 years of conditioning by the corporate food juggernaut being so easily overturned by a cry for "nutrient value."

No, you'll have to excuse me for sounding like a cynic. This system of bad agriculture and bad food that we are saddled with has been in the making for a long time. It is firmly entrenched. It owns our federal government, and holds sway over every legislature in every state. Undoing it is going to be no easy task, and not something our current culture is ready to sign up for.

But there is the sound of heavy footsteps coming. Those fuel prices Barber mentioned could portend big changes. There are plenty of suburban lawns that could be turned into vegetable factories. Perhaps what Barber didn't want to say is that the day may not be too far off when growing food close to home isn't so much a choice, but a necessity. Maybe we should start getting ready.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It's ok to be a cynic, just don't give up. Something I've observed living in rural Northwest Illinois is that there are a whole lot of farmers that don't appreciate a wide variety of fresh, healthy produce as well. Local sweet corn is about their limit. Our local farmers market is pitiful. So it becomes obvious that the lack of interest does not always stem from a lack of availability, or even money. I think it is a matter of what you grew up with in a lot of situations.

I think Americans need to be re-educated about the value and the fun of growing, preparing and eating a wide variety of fruits and vegetables. The best place to start is in our schools, and the sooner the better. The reality is that even if inner city neighborhoods suddenly have access to fresh foods, they likely have never prepared them, so they aren't interested regardless of price. Programs like the edible playground programs being started all over the country are going to go along way in raising the next generation of gardeners and healthy eaters. I think that once demand increases the rest will take care of itself. It's the American capitalist way.