Forget the gloom — new ways of living and organizing our economy are flourishing
Photo: Judy Merrill-SmithThe last couple of days have been gloomy ones. I kept checking in with the vague and dire reports from the nuclear-power bleeding edge in Japan. For part of the time I was also immersed in a post about truly awful things going on in the U.S. poultry industry. While digging into the industry’s routine abuse of farmers and reckless endangering of public health, I was haunted by the thought that these were the folks on whom we’re supposed to be counting to “feed the world” going forward, according to the likes of The Economist and certain factions of the Obama administration. Sigh.
And then I came across an interview with Wendell Berry, arguably industrial agriculture’s greatest critic, on the Earth Eats website. Berry was holding forth on what it takes to be a proper critic of industrial agriculture, the role I’ve chosen as my métier. Berry said:
But you can’t be a critic by simply being a griper and collecting instances of things that seem to demand griping about. One has also to be a proper critic to search out the examples of good work, good land use, and of simple goodness that can give you some kind of standard of judgment along with the ecological health that is also an inescapable standard of judgment.
Berry’s admonishment reminded me that as grim as the Big Picture often seems, it isn’t the whole picture. Sure, Big Oil lurches on, unimpeded by the Deepwater Horizon disaster and the slow-motion calamity of climate change. Nukes, too, will likely survive the latest proof that nuclear power concentrates too much risk to ever really make sense. Even so, millions of people are working across the globe to create clean, low-risk energy systems based on wind and sun, and community-sharing schemes like mass transit.
And in the food space, examples abound. Just look at the growth of community-supported agriculture (CSA) programs since 1984. CSAs form direct links between farms and their surrounding communities, and allow consumers to become active citizens who share some of the inherent risk of farming. As the 15-second video below shows, more and more people are stepping up to that opportunity:
I’m proud to say that I’ve participated in that trend. One of the many dots in the latter stages of the video represents the farm I help run, Maverick Farms in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Look at the left corner of North Carolina when the video reaches the year 2005. That’s when we launched our area’s first CSA. Since then, it’s morphed into High Country CSA, a community effort that bundles produce from 15 farms. The multi-farm model makes a virtue out of what would otherwise be a limitation of our food shed: most vegetable farms are extremely small, because of limited flatland in our steep-sloping terrain. If any one of those farms ran a CSA alone — as ours did for four years — a single bad weather event could wipe out the entire season’s harvest. With 15 farms working at a broad range of elevations, it’s highly unlikely that a single event would devastate every farm. Thus High Country CSA is a much more resilient institution than our old single-farm version.
Now take a look at the “Localism Index,” put together by New Rules Project’s wonderful Stacy Mitchell (author of Big Box Swindle). From reading me every day, you’d think that gigantic corporations control everything. True, they wield tremendous power, but people are still banding together and creating institutions that answer to their surrounding communities, not distant shareholders hunting maximum return. Mitchell’s list, modelled on the Harper’s Index, proves the point. Here are a couple of food-related highlights:
Increase since 2002 in the number of small specialty food stores: 1,414
Increase since 2002 in the number of small farms: 111,839
Number of farmers markets active in 2010: 6,132
Percentage of active farmers markets started since 2000: 53
So, in 10 years, a doubling of farmers markets across the U.S. Mitchell also informs us that 63 percent of farmers market shoppers end up having a conversation with another customer, versus just 9 percent of supermarket shoppers; and that locally owned restaurants pay out $28 in wages for every $100 taken in, compared to just $18 for national chains. So local-food institutions are actively building both community and wealth within communities.
But as important as the growth of farmers markets and CSAs has been, such institutions alone won’t create an alternative food system that’s accessible to everyone in a society marked by massive income inequality and long-term wage stagnation. To create such a food system, as I’ve argued before, we’ll need to think in regional and not just local terms. And we’ll need a diversity of farm scales — not just small ones like the one I work on but also ecologically minded mid-size ones that can produce plenty of food efficiently. Currently, mid-sized farms are too large for the farmers market and too small for the vast commodity markets dominated by big supermarket chains. What’s known as “ag in the middle” is under severe pressure — we’re losing mid-sized farms at an alarming rate.
For them to thrive, we’ll have to reinvest in the very infrastructure that has been dismantled over the past half century to make way for the industrial food system that now holds sway. Farmers themselves don’t have the profit margins to make these investments, so communities will have to band together to do it. And here, too, I have good news: It’s happening, all around the country. Not rapidly or in any organized fashion, but happening nonetheless.
Last fall, I visited Charlottesville, Va., for a speaking engagement, and got the chance to visit Local Food Hub, a nonprofit launched by the owners of Feast, a small, excellent food shop that I profiled briefly in December. Among activities designed to build up the regional food system — including the critical seed-starting piece — the Food Hub picks up produce from farms in the area and markets it to institutions — everything from restaurants and grocery stores to large potential buyers like the Charlottesville-based University of Virginia. The model works for farms at a variety of scales — from small operations that need an efficient way to get produce to upscale restaurants, to mid-sized farms that can supply tomatoes for a few weeks to a hospital.
As the project matures, Food Hub plans to establish a commercial kitchen, where growers can preserve fresh produce for sale in winter months — providing a year-round income source for farmers and extending the season for local food.
In Portland, Ore., the nonprofit group Ecotrust has launched a similar project designed to connect buyers with farmers at a variety of scales, also called FoodHub. It has been so successful that Fast Company recently named it one of the “10 most innovative companies in food” — a distinction it shared with industrial-scale giants like Pepsi and, gasp, the globe-spanning grain trader and meat producer Cargill.
Closer to home, diversified chicken farmers — the kind who produce a few hundred or thousand meat chickens per year along with vegetables and other crops, not the indentured CAFO operators I’m always writing about — will be getting a break from a new slaughter facility in Marion, N.C., called the Foothills Pilot Plant. Organized with the participation of 30 independent poultry and rabbit producers, the plant cost $636,000 to start, provided by state-run tobacco-settlement and foundation funding. That’s more than farmers could have raised, given tight profit margins. Here’s why the facility makes sense:
These producers are currently unable to expand their businesses due to legal restrictions for growers not using state- or federally-inspected processing facilities. State law only allows up to 1,000 chickens or 250 turkeys to be processed and sold straight from a farm annually. The closest inspected plant serving independents is located in Kingstree, South Carolina, over 200 miles to the east. Most growers cannot handle the logistics of live bird transportation that far, and some who have tried have experienced high mortality rates.
I’ve heard from some young pastured-poultry farmers who say that the new plant will lower their slaughter costs — they currently process their birds on-farm — allowing more profit for their economically fragile operation and the possibility of charging less for their chicken, making it accessible to a broader variety of consumers.
Rather than gripe (to use Wendell Berry’s phrase) about the consolidation of the poultry industry, these farmers organized to create a solution that benefits their businesses and the broader community. In dark times marked by ecological disaster and policy paralysis, they are a model for us all.