The role of regionalism

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…

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2 thoughts on “The role of regionalism

  1. Chris,

    Nice post. Not being a farmer (yet?), I enjoy reading your perspectives vis-a-vis food supplies, suppliers, local v. global, etc.

    One thing for certain, the chain between food producer and food consumer is severed badly and, although Pollan, Saletin and others are trying, I don’t think we’re doing a very good job reconnecting people to their food. And this problem is tied up in a much larger cultural dynamic that misplaces values of individualism over collective action, “now” over “later”, immediacy over patience, and so forth.

    I’m not sure how best to fix this, but part of the solution must be getting people closer to their food and local food is a great way. Maybe 10% is too low a goal in this effort? Another means I think we desperately need is connecting one of the largest “industrial” consumers of food (schools) to local farmers. Yes, there is a premium to be paid – at least so long as many of the processed food externalities (medical, transportation, etc) remain unpaid or unseen by consumers.

    One quibble though. … the reality is that the farmers are outnumbered everywhere, especially at the ballot box… This may be the case numerically, but I can think of very, very few special interests that receive less Federal subsidy support than the farm industries. Thus, I think one area where current policy MUST CHANGE is in the way our governments subsidize farmers (and the farmers they subsidize) if we are ever going to balance local, regional, national and global food chains in a meaningful and beneficial way. And given the sheer power of major Ag corporations and farm lobbies, I seriously doubt any change is possible at the Federal level absent a catastrophic, systemic food supply collapse.

    AJ

  2. Thanks AJ! Since you own a farm I’d consider you a farmer. Now you just need to become a food producer!

    As you know, I agree whole-heartedly with your assessment of the disconnect. How to fix it? I believe that you can better connect people to agriculture through their bellies than you can through their heads. (OK, I know, the mouth is part of the head, but anyway…) I don’t think it takes a huge amount of local production to do that. I have wine country friends who feel very invested in their local agriculture, but wine is not the primary compenent of their diet. Not for all of them anyway.

    Is 10% too low? Perhaps… I’m not really attached to the number. But as I said, I do think we can start to have the positive effects at a relatively low level of local production. The number could be higher, but of course it will vary a great deal depending on which local area you are talking about. Certain parts of the Midwest could easily feed their rather meager populaions, while the Northeast has a number of areas where there would not be enough land to support their large urban populations. And Other areas such as the desert Southwest have a good balance of land to people, but not enough water. So 10% is sort of my universal guess, although eahc area will differ.

    I’m also a creature of Ventura County agriculture. I have farmed nowhere else, and doubt I ever will. We could be 100% self sufficient with our moderate climate. But it probably would never make economic sense to do so, since we can supply fresh fruits an vegetables at times that they are unavailable otherwise. That is a market opportunity that can’t be replaced by growing local wheat.

    Nationally, you are correct that the farm lobby is very powerful, but I think we’d agree that the lobbyists and corporate interests are not always the same as the farmers’. I once heard it said that the farm lobby is to farmers as KFC is to chickens. A funny line, and even though I think it overstates the case, there is some truth to be found there. I think it is more accurate to say that the farmers are subsidized as proxies for interests more powerful than their own. I’m glad to be a part of the unsubsidized farm economy. And while I appreciate the impulse that often leads people to argue that I ought to be subsidized the same as corn or soy growers, the day that happens, my farm is on the market. I don’t think it a coincidence that the most disfunctional part of our food system is the most heavily driven by policymakers in DC.

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