We are all stewards of the land, and we all share in responsibility for its health. Food, the production and distribution of it, has a big impact on the land and because we all eat, we have responsibility to how the land is used. And how food is being produced has changed considerably over the years. Our food system has changed from a local or regional one to a global one, making it much more difficult to buy local food. In fact, once often considered a hallmark of a region, now local food is almost an oxymoron.
What does this mean? For one, it means a far less transparent food system. We don’t know who grows it and how it was really grown. We don’t know how the grower treats the land. And the vegetables and fruits themselves have changed. Because vegetables and fruit now come farther than they ever have, they are grown more for portability than for taste, freshness or nutritionally quality.
In order to reconnect with how food is grown, we need to start supporting local family farms. This country is losing family farms everyday. They are being pushed out by much larger farms working on different scales of economy.
We were once a country of farmers. In 1900, 38 percent of U.S. population were farmers and the average farm was about 147 acres. It’s been a steady decline since then. In 1n 1950, 12.2 percent of the country was farmers and the average farm increased to 216 acres. In 1990, only 2.6 percent of us were farmers — a number that is close to 1 percent today — and farms more than doubled in size again to 461 acres. There are fewer, bigger farms.
As farms have gotten bigger our food has had travel farther. It used to travel no more than a few dozen miles. Today the food on our plate travels an average of 1,500 miles. Two states in this country produce most of the fruits and vegetables — California and Florida. And nearly a quarter of our food (23 percent) comes from another country outside the U.S.
So what, we say? All that transportation comes at a cost to the quality and taste of the produce as well as the to the environment. In order to make the numbers work, the farms and California, Florida, Texas, Mexico and elsewhere have to grow produce like a factory produces widgets. Profit margins are thin and the volume of sales are what’s important. Vegetables have to fit this industrial model. Tomatoes, for instance, have been bred for two things: to ripen all at once and to meet the minimum impact standard for car bumpers. To get the volume needed, hundreds of acres are planted, fertilized and, because it’s a huge monoculture ripe for disease and pests, sprayed with herbicides, fungicides and insecticides to control for problems. Acreage planted in a single crop is often too large an area to manage any other way.
This is not a sustainable system. There are some indications that all our technological fixes, including bioengineering, may be reaching their maximum capabilities to produce food. Studies have shown that where yields are still low, chemical and bioengineering methods have been able to raise yields. But only to a point and then no matter the application or technology, the land simply won’t produce anymore.
Then begins the law of diminishing returns. Industrial scale farming is energy intensive and as the price of energy increases and yields remain stable, thin profit margins get stretched even thinner.
So what would be the economic impact of a more local food system? Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa, hardly a bastion of wild-eyed optimists, released a study recently that looked at the impact a regional food farm system could have on that regional economy. An agricultural economist at the school looked at what the impact would be if we increased local production of 28 fruits and vegetables to meet all the demand in the six Midwest states. The produce factored in included apricots, asparagus, mustard greens, bell peppers, onions, broccoli, peaches, cabbage, spinach, pears, etc. The food would be produced on land devoted to the conventional commodity crops, corn and soybeans. So a comparison of the economic value of the produce versus the economic value of the commodity crops is important. What the study reports is that if these crops were produced using methods similar to today’s farming methods, a regional food system would produce more than $882 million in farm-level sales and more than $3.3 billion in retail sales. This system would result in 9, 300 total jobs, earning more than $395 million in labor income. How big of change would this be to local economies? Those same acres devoted to corn and soybean are supporting 2,578 jobs with labor income of about $59 million.
Clearly there is an economic boost to producing high value crops versus commodity crops, but how much land would this require since there still will be need for grain crops, fiber crops and pasture land under a regional food system. Well, as it turns out, to produce all of the 28 produce crops considered for this study only a little more than 270,000 acres is needed. That’s about three-fourths the size of Waukesha County.
While the economic mattered, taste and freshness is what consumers would really realize. And the more local a farm, the more fresh the product is going to be.
Does organic growing methods matter on these local farms? It does, but not as much as buying food as close to the source of where it is produced does. And not more than knowing who produces the food does.
The growing season is approaching, and now is the time to seek out those sources of local food. There are number of resources that can be helpful, including the Urban Ecology (urbanecologycenter.org), Farm Fresh Atlas of Southeastern Wisconsin (www.farmfreshsewi.org/), and the website Local Harvest (www.localharvest.org/csa/).
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