Published in The Lakeland Times
It’s that time of the year when bird songs once again pepper the springtime air, leaving behind their cold weather repose in a flutter of wings.
Though the dewy ground below their flight is still fallow, soon it will teem with living produce; sweet carrots, twisting bean vines, and tomatoes hiding behind leaves like rubies in a treasure trove will all take their place in farmers markets and dinner plates before August’s waning.
Reconnecting with these backyard pleasures, and swapping them with their distant grocery store relatives, is once again back in vogue. In fact, the local food movement has expanded so much over the past several years that the term “locavore,” or one who eats foods harvested within a 100-mile radius, was added to the New Oxford American Dictionary in 2007. From New York to the Northwoods, initiatives that engage community members in local food production have flourished.
And sometimes going local starts virtually. Which is why Erin Barnett founded localharvest.org, an online catalogue that directs people to nearby locations that sell local, organic foods.
“It’s a starting place to build connections,” Barnett said. “There has been more attention to ‘local’ lately, because people want to know where their food is coming from; people have a real hunger for that. Food we feel connected to feeds us on a different level.”
Why go local?
This hunger is part of why people are carving out spaces for homegrown food, whether on a porch abutting a busy city street, or on an acre of land beneath the country sky.
Here in Woodruff, a small group of local residents recently claimed a plot of land behind the community center. The group hopes to have produce planted here by June.
“It’ll get us back to a more basic way of living, where we’re in touch with our food. It’s a feeling of accomplishment to bring your own food to the table,” local resident Tara Woolpy said. “This will be sort of a classic community garden where people will rent plots and give excess food to the pantry if that works for them.”
But where does the hunger for simpler living and eating come from, and why is it important? Essentially, the answer can be categorized into three main tiers; environment, community, and health.
A century ago, two of every five U.S. citizens lived and worked on farms. Today, fewer than two of every 100 citizens do.
Why this sudden exodus from the land and farming?
In a word, specialization. At the turn of the century, farmers had to create their own fertilizer by recycling livestock and crop wastes, which required mixed farming techniques. But with the invention of artificial nitrogen-based fertilizer in 1909, farmers were no longer bound to the old fertilization process, or the natural nitrogen cycle that resulted from it.
A host of other farming technologies that cropped up around that time – including pesticides, hybridization and genetically modified seeds – intensified production. Shipping methods likewise became more advanced. Large, industrialized corporations slowly bought out smaller, family-owned farms that didn’t embrace, or couldn’t afford to adopt, all of these new technologies.
These large industrial farms slowly re-sculpted the face of agriculture into agri-business.
As Tom Philpott aptly explained in Grist, “… most surviving farms submitted to the culture of monoculture. Now entire regions specialize in certain crops: grain and livestock in the Midwest, fruit and vegetables in the Southwest and Southeast, and so on. And while modern production and shipping methods mean nature’s bounty now makes its way easily into our grocery stores and homes, it brings with it a crop of concerns.”
According to the Union of Concerned Scientists website, those concerns are also connected with the fact that the current food production system requires huge amounts of water, energy, and chemicals. Toxic pesticides, chemical fertilizers, and waste from CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations) accumulate in ground and surface waters. This runoff drastically disrupts natural ecosystems and adversely impacts human health.
As Philpott pointed out, shipping methods also create problems. The average grocery store produce in the U.S. travels 1,500 miles before making it to the plate, burning fossil fuels that release carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, particulate matter, and other pollutants that contribute to global warming, acid rain, and air pollution.
Though buying some food that’s travelled long distances may be inevitable in cold climates, growing food locally during warm seasons can help defray some of these unsavory environmental costs.
“Surviving in northern Wisconsin requires that we get food from a long ways away no matter what we’re doing,” Woolpy said. “But the more food we can eat that’s locally grown, the more we’re reducing that.”
Perhaps the most compelling reason to create a shared garden space is one of the most obvious: the community it cultivates.
Community and education are the dual focal points of the Seed to Seed Edible Garden Project, an Eagle River-based non-profit founded by Debra Ketchem Jircik and LynnAnn Thomas two years ago as part of the UW-extension’s VILAS Vision leadership program.
Seed to Seed’s mission is to educate people of all ages and economic means about growing their own food using sustainable methods and to share the joy of eating fresh food. They advocate for a healthy food system that is accessible to all.
The non-profit also partners with the Many Ways of Peace, an advocacy group for non-violence and social justice. This partnership highlights the easily overlooked social dimension of food production. That is, the importance of considering not only the people growing food, but the people eating it – or not eating it, as the case may be.
“Access to good, healthy, fresh food for everybody, not just people who can afford it, is important,” Ketchem Jircik said. “When a bag of chips is less expensive than a head of broccoli, it does have an effect … who are the people who can afford to eat well?”
Since its incipience, the project’s founders and volunteers have attempted to redefine the local food movement by making it more inclusive. Though a grant from the food pantry, the project has sponsored community dinners in Eagle River for low income residents. They also hosted a workshop on building cost-effective vegetable container gardens that can be grown virtually anywhere.
So far, the non-profit has been successful in educating and converting community members into smart consumers and growers.
“Eating locally is one of those things you can start to sound sort of evangelical about,” Ketchem Jircik, said. “But your passion and enthusiasm for growing your own food, as long as you’re not shoving it down people’s throats, is very contagious.”
Steve Richardson, a farmer in Rhinelander, also recognizes the precarious disparities dividing the local food movement today, not only between the haves and have nots, but also quality and quantity.
Richardson has been selling free-range pigs, chickens, eggs, and produce he cultivates on land he’s owned since 1994, which he calls Shaky Acres. He operates a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) scheme, whereby local residents buy produce in advance, essentially buying a share of the farm. Much of his produce is also sold at local farmer’s markets.
He’s a firm believer that “healthy” and “cheap” actually aren’t mutually exclusive terms – with some exceptions.
“Usually farmers markets are reasonably priced … supply and demand dictate the market,” he said. “But the recession has affected the market for local, organic foods. Sometimes you have to look for price over quality and you shop at the big box store for your food. If times are tough, that’s what you do. There’s no begrudging anyone that.”
But buying from local farms still has several advantages, namely that small farmers often adhere to old-fashioned standards. One of the biggest of these Richardson said he upholds on his farm is space.
“It’s the number one thing I have that factory farms don’t … So I don’t have a disease problem, because what causes disease is stress and crowding, and that’s what factory farms are known for – high volume, low overhead. They cram animals into these buildings and they have to pack them full of antibiotics to get rid of diseases. I don’t have antibiotics. I don’t need them, because my animals are healthy.”
Unsanitary agricultural practices such as these have also engendered diseases over the years such as the mad cow disease, salmonella, and the bird flu.
“I’m old enough to remember when we weren’t afraid of our food,” Richardson said. “Our paranoia about our food has gone up in direct correlation with the industrialization of our food production.”
Transparency is one antidote to this paranoia.
“You have a relationship with many of the professionals and craftsmen in your community; you know your dentist, your doctor, your barber … you now know the person who raises your food and can find someone that raises them within your comfort level,” he said. “I haven’t met an untrustworthy person yet, who is not open about the procedures and processes they use. They’re mostly proud of the way they raise their food and are selling you the same food they feed their families.”
With all the problems and complications surrounding the industrial food system, it’s easy to become overwhelmed and start preparing for a food apocalypse. But although modern food production is undoubtedly more complicated than a bucolic garden scene, the good news is, it doesn’t necessarily have to be.
“As long as a community has a farmers market, you do have options,” Richardson said. “But locals will be growing only as long as there are people willing to purchase.”