A Hill of Beans

Lately there seems to be a lot of interest in the concept of foodsheds. Connecting rural food producers with nearby urban consumers is a worthy goal. Transportation costs and energy consumption go down, dollars stay in the local economy, and people are reconnected with the landscape that sustains them.

 

So why is it that I seem to have this visceral negative reaction to almost any discussion of them?

 

Perhaps I’m just an old-fashioned farmboy, distrustful of change, particularly when it comes from urban environmentalists. But maybe there is something more….

 

I’ve had the chance to be engaged in a number of discussions on the topic, and the foodshed concept seemed great at first. But my discomfort seems to have risen over time. Are foodsheds the futon couch of the sustainable food world?

 

The foodshed analyses that I have seen do a fine job of discussing what is grown in a region, and better yet, what could be grown in a region that would support the nearest metropolis. So I can look at the study and know that Ventura County could be producing all the potatoes and wheat and lentils that Los Angeles could eat.

 

So why aren’t we? It’s because we are instead producing crops that can economically sustain a farm in coastal Southern California. Could we grow potatoes here? Sure… they’d probably be great, and every farmer around here knows it. But does anybody want Southern California potatoes? Not at the price it would take to grow them. So no potatoes. Low value crops just don’t have a place in one of the most expensive agricultural locations in the world.

 

Maybe this is just harmless chatter… reports produced with grant money that create interesting but useless factoids that make for great cocktail party banter, but no real guide for action. Is that why I dislike the concept?

 

In an analysis that I read late last year, a great map was prepared showing the different crops that could be grown in Ventura County. Our place was slated for beans. There is an old expression: “not worth a hill of beans” which of course means something with little to no value. Therein lies my fear: that rather than useless cocktail chatter, these studies could be seen as guides for policy (which is undoubtedly what their grant-writers intended) and implemented by well-intentioned but naïve policy makers. And what will a farmer like me be left with?

 

A hill of beans.

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