Sunday, July 19, 2009

Buy Local Challenge is on!

Well folks, we are on day two of Maryland's Buy Local Challenge, which asks you to eat something from a local farm every day July 18-26.

Today I ate a piece of sausage that I bought from Danny Rohrer. When I go to my parents' place tonight, I am going to bring a fresh fruit dessert. I have pie cherries and peaches from Scenic View Orchards and blueberries from Glade Link farm. I figure I will either make a cherry pie or a peach berry cobbler. Choices! I think I will make the cherry pie because the cherries are ready to go.

I had a good chat with a couple of farmers at the market on Saturday. One of the things we talked about is the true cost of food. Sometimes food at the market costs more than what you pay at a grocery store. There is a temptation to think that the farmers should sell for less (especially if a few "farm stands" do- but they are often hobby farmers without a profit motive, or people who are selling off produce at a loss lest it rot, or people who have brought in industrial food from elsewhere), but many local farmers exist at a subsistence level and don't even have health insurance. The difference in cost is that the food in the grocery store usually comes from industrial processes with all aspects of production and shipping heavily subsidized. The quality of the food is sacrificed for its uniformity and portability. According to
  • Corporate agribusiness profits increased 98 percent during the 1990s; meanwhile, in 2002 farmers earned their lowest real net cash income since 1940.
  • Modern industrial agriculture is making farming unprofitable for many. For more than 60 percent of farm households in 1998, farming actually lowered the household's before tax-income.
  • Taxpayers provided $22.9 billion in subsidies during the first three years of the "Freedom to Farm" law (1996-98), but 10 percent of the recipients (144,000 participants) collected 61 percent of the money.
A side note: many of the farmers in our area refuse subsidies altogether. They have ethical reasons for doing so. Also, while we are on the topic of costs, in this region, according to one farmer friend, he raises his seedlings starting in January and has to raise some in greenhouses to get early tomatoes. Getting a longer growing season in a climate like ours requires some additional resources, like a $5000 greenhouse, for starters.

The red tomatoes you see in the grocery store most times of the year are actually green tomatoes that have been sprayed with ethylene gas to "ripen" them. In fact, the nutritional content of industrially produced foods is declining, not to mention the taste. According to an article at Worldwatch Institute,
food scientists have compared the nutritional levels of modern crops with historic, and generally lower-yielding, ones. Today’s food produces 10 to 25 percent less iron, zinc, protein, calcium, vitamin C, and other nutrients, the studies show. Researchers from Washington State University who analyzed 63 spring wheat cultivars grown between 1842 and 2003 found an 11 percent decline in iron content, a 16 percent decline in copper, a 25 percent decline in zinc, and a 50 percent decline in selenium.
Foods that are not nutrient-dense cause the body to eat more. They also lack phytochemicals that fight disease and free radicals. This is a partial explanation for the increase in diabetes, cancer, and obesity. Other negative impacts from factory farming:
Plants cultivated to produce higher yields tend to have less energy for other activities like growing deep roots and generating phytochemicals—health-promoting compounds like antioxidants—the report explains. And conventional farming methods, such as close plant spacing and the application of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, often cause crops to absorb fewer nutrients and have unhealthy root systems and less flavor, and sometimes make them more vulnerable to pests.
Nothing compares to the taste of a farm fresh tomato for a reason. It is a real tomato, with real phytochemicals that are good for you.

We have gotten used to food costing less than it ought to. According to the Alabama Farmers Federation, "Americans spend about 10.7 percent of their disposable income on food, compared to 11.2 percent in England; 14.9 percent in Australia; 17.6 percent in Japan; 24.5 percent in Mexico; and 51.3 percent in India." The percent we spend on food of our total income has declined by about 50% in the past few decades.

Let's talk about the benefits of buying local. According to
  • Buying food directly from local farmers reduces the portion of your food dollar going to corporate agribusiness and ensures that farmers get their fair share of your food dollar.
  • Local farmers will reinvest more of your food dollar in your region. Buying local food increases the circulation of your food dollars locally, in effect "creating" money and economic prosperity in your region.
There are other side benefits to keeping agriculture around. One is that the land your food is grown on won't turn into housing farms. Two is that your local area will have resilience if there is a problem with transporting food, or shortages of certain crops in main food-producing regions. You can also build a personal relationship with the producer of your food, and I find that personally life-enriching.

If money is tight, you can still find ways to eat local food. First of all, grow your own. Second, help out at a farm with your own labor-I have friends who take their toddler with them and he loves it. Some Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farms will let you pay off the cost of your share with labor. Also, pick your own. The cost of labor at the farm is about 39% of the cost of food according to the PA Ag Extension, and farms will cut you a deal if you do it yourself. It's also a fun field trip, as Yeon and I can attest from our berry picking excursions.

I would love to see more people make fresh food a priority and think about their budgets more closely. Do you go out to eat a lot, like I do? Where are you throwing money away? And if money is not the main issue, why not frequent locally-owned establishments that feature local produce? Shop in stores like the Common Market that support local farmers? Shop at the farmer's market?

It's all about priorities. I know that our readers already care about local food, and I would love to hear from them what they get out of eating local.

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