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Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Beyond Local: The Case for Regional Food

Where should we get our food from?  How far need it travel?

These are essential questions for anyone who wants a better food system – one that is ecologically sound and socially just.  After all, a big impetus for the rapidly growing movement to transform the food system is the modern-day reality that places like New England – quite capable of raising such crops as apples or tomatoes – will instead import them from thousands of miles away and burn up large quantities of climate-changing fossil fuels in the process. 

Long-distance food transport brings other drawbacks, too.  By getting our food from California or New Zealand, we're often giving up on flavor and nutrition because those distant farms are growing crops that were bred, first and foremost, to be shipped.  Farms supplying national or global markets also tend to become big and concentrated, and thus are more likely (organic or not) to be engaged in industrial, monoculture practices, rather than the kind of agriculture that supports healthy soil, healthy crops, and healthy ecosystems.  And, of course, eaters in this kind of food system are left hopelessly disconnected from the source of their food, which brings all sorts of unintended consequences.

As local as possible

Buy local! This has been a primary response to the crazy, unhealthy, industrial food system we have in this country.  Leave behind that bad supermarket food shipped in from who knows where, and go get to know your neighborhood farmer.  The push to buy local is taking the burgeoning new food system far.  Countless farmers markets and community supported agriculture farms have come into being.  More and more restaurant chefs are buying ingredients from local farms.  Local food has even begun to make its way into schools and hospitals.

The idea of buying local makes sense in many ways.  If our food system is broken and a central problem is that we're sourcing from thousands of miles away, the obvious response is to switch to getting our food from as close to home as possible.  And if the disconnect between farmers and eaters is a serious problem, we should start buying our food from a farmer who we can actually meet face to face.  There's a logic to it, and this indeed is an important part of the solution to building a new and better food system.

Is "buy local", however, the end of the story?  Is the right way to create the food system we need to buy as local as possible every time?  It's an increasingly popular idea.  These days it serves as the basis for commissioned studies and marketing slogans suggesting that single small states – even single towns – might feed themselves almost entirely.  But, I think the real answer is more complicated.

Urban and rural

A trip to a pickle festival in New York City a couple of years ago got me thinking about the issue in a new way.  Addie Rose and I traveled to the Lower East Side to set up the Real Pickles booth at the Peck Slip Pickle Fest, a special one-day event at a public food market called New Amsterdam Market.  During a short break between pickle sales, I got a chance to walk the market, and was struck by how different it was than the farmers markets back home in western Massachusetts.  In rural western Massachusetts, farmers and other food producers typically travel ten or twenty miles to get to a farmers market.  Here at New Amsterdam Market, I noticed that the vendors – vegetable farmers, cheesemakers, maple syrup producers – were coming from a much greater distance.  Some had driven 100 miles or more from various points in the Hudson Valley.  Others had traveled even further, coming down from the Finger Lakes or Northern Vermont.  There were a few vendors with products made in Brooklyn, but few if any were using agricultural ingredients produced local to the city.

None of this came to me as a real surprise.  A place like New York City – with its urban development stretching for many miles – obviously can't support many real farms anywhere close to its borders.  But, it got me thinking about all the talk about being a "locavore" and switching to a "100-mile diet". 

For those of us living in rural places like Vermont or the Berkshires or Maine, it's remarkably easy to become convinced that solving our food system's problems can be wholly accomplished by the act of buying as local as possible – and organic – in an effort to create a multitude of insulated, local food systems.  And, yet the point of changing the food system is not to create an elitist alternative for a limited subset of the population.  The point is to bring about a transformation that gives everyone the opportunity to participate in and benefit from a healthy, just, and sustainable food system. 

If everyone is to be part of the new food system, then I think we need to keep this fact in mind: the majority of the U.S. population lives in concentrated urban areas whose local agricultural resources are entirely inadequate to support the food needs of their populations.  For those in and around cities, then, the task of sourcing food from much closer to home means re-building the food system on a regional level.  Instead of local food systems with a 100-mile radius (as many choose to define "local"), this means focusing on regional food systems with, perhaps, a 250- or 500-mile radius.  

Those of us in rural areas – rich in agricultural resources – thus have an inescapable responsibility.  As we do the necessary work of helping to overhaul the food system, we must consider what part we can play in feeding the populations of places like Boston, New York, and Philadelphia.  While it is surely tempting (and so much simpler) to focus inwardly and exclusively on how to feed merely ourselves, that is not, in the end, the way to build a better food system.  It is essential to be actively promoting and supporting our local farm economies – and, at the same, we need to be thinking more broadly.


There's another strong reason why we need to think regionally as well as locally, one that undermines the notion that it would even be possible for any one town or small state to securely depend on its own agricultural resources.  It has to do with things like weather and pests – those unavoidable factors that make farming inevitably risky and unpredictable.  Factors which also threaten to make farming even more unpredictable as a result of climate change.

The changing pattern of cucumber growing here in the Pioneer Valley of western Massachusetts helps to illustrate the issue.  Dave from Chamutka Farm in Whately has been growing pickling cucumbers (among other crops) since 1980.  Before that, as a kid, he helped out his parents and other local growers raise them for the old Oxford pickle plant in nearby Deerfield.  Dave, who was Real Pickles' first cucumber supplier, has witnessed the harvest season for local pickling cucumbers shrink dramatically in recent years.  When he first started growing, he could harvest cucumbers all summer long, typically going into mid to late September.  By the time Dave started supplying cucumbers to Real Pickles in 2001, cucumber harvests would last at least until early September.  Over the last decade, however, it has come to be a crapshoot to expect a harvest beyond mid-August.  For Real Pickles, that means pickling all of our cucumbers for the entire year (60,000 pounds in 2013) within a single six-week period.

What's steadily squeezing out our local cucumber season?  It's a disease called cucurbit downy mildew, which blows in from the southern states each summer and, just about overnight, wipes out the cucumber crop.  These days it's showing up much earlier than it used to, a trend that is likely to continue as the climate warms.  As UMass Extension vegetable specialist, Ruth Hazzard, explained to me recently, human attempts to breed cucumber plants resistant to it have been failing to keep up with downy mildew's rapid evolution via genetic mutation and natural selection.  In the future, cucumbers could become a much less reliable local crop.  And yet, as downy mildew does not typically reach all parts of the Northeast (check out these maps illustrating its recent impact), it may still be a reliable regional crop.    

Differences in weather (and its effects) from one locale to another point us in a similar direction.  Tropical Storm Irene barreled through the Northeast in August 2011 and brought epic amounts of rainfall.  Small rivers flooded immediately, and within a few days, major rivers started overflowing their banks – leading to crops losses for numerous farms located along riverbanks (where the best soil is).  Three of the six farms that regularly supply Real Pickles had flooded fields and ruined vegetable crops.  It was a disastrous event for many farmers – though not for all farmers in the region.  For one thing, Pioneer Valley farms located on higher ground tended to fare better during Irene.  Looking regionally, the storm was a disaster for farms in such places as Vermont, the Hudson River Valley, and western Massachusetts.  But, farms in many other parts of the Northeast – further from the track of the storm – emerged relatively unscathed.

Last season, farms in our area had to contend with one of the rainiest months of June in memory.  About ten inches of rain fell here in the Pioneer Valley that month, adversely affecting our local food system in a variety of ways.  The direct effect on Real Pickles was that 20,000 pounds of summer cabbage that we had planned to buy from one of our local farms rotted in the sopping fields.  While our local farms had all experienced similar weather, farms in some other parts of the Northeast had not.  The same week that we got the local cabbage news, we received a call from our friends at a farmers co-op in Pennsylvania and learned that organic farmers down there had produced a bumper crop of summer cabbage.  We bought enough to fill up a tractor trailer – making the transport as energy efficient as possible – and were able to make the batches of sauerkraut and kimchi that we needed.

These examples all drive home the same point:  While a global industrialized food system is clearly not a resilient one, neither is an entirely local one.  If we are to build a better food system, resiliency must be among its central features.  The inevitable conclusion, then, is that we need to make a shift toward regional scale.  We must move away from the hopelessly unhealthy, inefficient, and insecure reality offered by our current global food system.  And we also need to properly account for the impacts of weather, pests, and climate change – and do our best to ensure that everyone can be reliably fed.

Local and Regional

The work of building the new food system that we need involves a wide array of priorities – like reducing corporate dominance, expanding organic production, and shifting to healthy, minimally processed foods.  Cutting back dramatically on long-distance food transport is another top priority.  Here, we need to engage in food system development on two scales: local and regional.

How do we do this?  CISA recently put out a fantastic guide, Eat Up and Take Action for Local Food, outlining all the many ways one can help build up our local food economies.  Buy locally-grown food, support access to it for low-income folks, become a local foods entrepreneur, invest in a local foods business.  There is plenty of important work to be done.

On the regional level, a key task is to build up the regional connections between farms, processors, distributors, retailers, and eaters.  At Real Pickles, we enjoy working with and supporting three family-owned distributors – Angello's, Regional Access, and Associated Buyers – all of whom do a great and efficient job of connecting Northeast family farms and producers with retailers throughout the region.  (I mention "efficient" because regional food distribution can, in many cases, outcompete local food distribution when it comes to minimizing energy consumption, a key consideration.)  We also make a point of keeping in touch with Northeast farms outside the Connecticut River Valley, so that we are prepared whenever those inevitable weather challenges arise.  We primarily buy our vegetables from local farms, but we can turn to Pete's Greens in Vermont or Tuscarora Organic Growers in Pennsylvania if we need to. 

Encouraging retailers and eaters to support local and regional products is important, too.  For years now, "buy local" marketing campaigns have been successfully raising awareness about the benefits of supporting local farms.  It may be time for "buy regional" campaigns, as well.  At Real Pickles, we honor our original commitments to buy our vegetables only from Northeast family farms and sell our products only within the Northeast.  This is our way of publicly promoting the idea of regional food systems.  We would love to see many more food businesses making similar commitments!

If we want a better food system, then we must be sourcing our food much closer to home.  The food system is complex, however, and simple prescriptions will only take us so far.  Responding to the reality of global food transport with the call to "buy local" is extremely important.  If, however, we are to truly to change the food system – the whole system, not just the margins of it – we must also develop a regional perspective.  By doing so, we will help to ensure that our food system can be healthy, secure, and sustainable.  And that it can be so for everyone!

NOTE:  If you're interested in learning more about regional food systems, I recommend checking out the work of Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Working Group (NESAWG).  In particular, you'll find excellent in-depth papers on the topic here and here.  For a number of years now, NESAWG has also been helping to build a Northeast regional food system through their annual conference, It Takes a Region.