It seems to me that a lot of the discussion about regional vs. global food creates a false set of choices. Either we accept that everything will be the cheapest, lowest common denominator food from overseas, or we must be 100% local and organic. I’ll set aside consideration of either of these extreme positions for now. (I think these positions are based more on emotion than fact, and I am incapable of refuting somebody else’s feelings, even if I think them unfounded.)
While I think some (certainly not all) advocates of local food get carried away with grand visions of a new agrarian utopia, I think many of us in agriculture are guilty of committing ourselves to the opposite extreme: the belief that all this hippy nonsense is ignorant of the realities of farming, and can be ignored or even denigrated. But I do believe that there is a potential role for regional models to play. These roles could strengthen our communities in general, agriculture in particular, and are consistent with “reality based agriculture and economics.”
I’ve already stated that I don’t think this is an all or nothing proposition. But what is the right mix of local, regional, national and international food? I think that answer will vary depending on location. For a major urban center in the Northeast with minimal local farmland and a short growing season the percentage of local food may be very small. For a rural community in temperate Southern California, the number could be higher. Since this is where I live, I’ll make my guess for this area.
And my guess is 10%. Local food enthusiasts I know think this number is shockingly insufficient. Mainstream farmers tend to think it is highly unrealistic. But the bigger question is: “Would ten percent matter?”
I think it would. Let’s look at the economics first, if for no other reason than I know I can never get farmer buy-in if I can’t show some math. 10% of Ventura County’s typical annual crop sales would equal $150 million. That’s a lot of money, even though 10% by definition is a relatively small part of our total ag economy. But 10% that is diversified away from other business and distribution models and centered on other crops would offer resilience to our system. I am not naive enough to think that just because a farmer seeks local customers that he will automatically be successful and profitable. Local or regional is not a silver bullet. But a strategy of diversifying our industry is healthy for the industry as a whole, and might prove particularly profitable to some individual farms and farmers.
One of the attractions of being a farmer is the independence. So courting community support, just to carry out a perfectly legitimate farming operation is a little distasteful to some growers. But the reality is that the farmers are outnumbered everywhere, especially at the ballot box, and we live in a state that treasures its initiative process. So at the very least, courting your neighbors is a sound defensive tactic. And how to court them? Give them an opportunity to eat what you grow. People relate to farms visually, but they relate to food by tasting it. Let them. Regions that identify themselves with fresh foods suited to their area have reason to support their local farmers. Oxnard takes pride in strawberries, Santa Paula in citrus, Carpinteria in avocados and so on. So while not every grower need to specialize in local food, the few that do can be valuable ambassadors for the industry as a whole. And if they work out the marketing, it might be a good business for them as well.
For me, the greatest benefits from local and regional food systems are what I call “petri dish effects.” Small farms, growing limited quantities of unique crops can’t distribute blindly across a continent. They sell to a small number of local consumers, who are able to give them feedback, and help develop new crops and varieties. This is a living experiment in crop science, and many crops pioneered at farmer’s markets have grown to become industry staples. There are crops only seen at our local farmer’s markets right now which will be among our regions leading crops in 2030.
Now I just wish I knew which ones they were…