Fundamentals of Resilient Design #10: Local and Regional Food Systems

Posted by on Sep 26, 2012

The highly productive Kingsbury Farm in Warren, Vermont in mid-August, 2011. Photo: Alex Wilson

In this final installment of my ten-part series on the fundamentals of resilient design, I’m taking a look at where our food comes from and how we can achieve more resilient food systems.

The average salad in the U.S. is transported roughly 1,400 miles from farm to table, and here in the Northeast, we get a significant portion of our food from farms and processors that are hundreds, sometimes thousands, of miles away. Even in Iowa, where 95% of the land area is in agricultural production, one is hard-pressed to buy locally grown products except on a limited basis, such as at farmers’ markets and food coops.

If some sort of crisis causes a shortage of diesel fuel, or an extended power outage, local grocery shelves will be depleted in a matter of days. And if severe, extended drought occurs in the West combined with a lack of winter snowpack in the Rockies, the Colorado River—upon which a significant portion of California’s and five other states’ most productive farmland depend—would not deliver enough water for irrigation, causing food shortages and skyrocketing prices.

A resilient food system will require that a far higher percentage of our food be produced more locally, to diversify our food portfolio and thus minimize our dependence on distant production vulnerabilites. Here in Vermont, only 5% of the food we eat is currently grown within the state, according to Vermont’s Farm to Plate Strategic Plan, released in July 2011.

Reason for optimism

In many parts of the country, the number of farms is growing for the first time in a generation—even as the total land area in agriculture continues to drop. And many of these newer farms are engaged in direct sales of food to consumers. In Vermont, 21% of all farms are engaged in direct marketing, although these sales amount to only 3.4% of the state’s gross farm income (2007 U.S. Census of Agriculture). However, these sales are especially important to the development of new farms for the future, because smaller, start-up enterprises cannot compete very well in the wholesale marketplace, according to Vern Grubinger, an Extension Professor at the University of Vermont who serves on the RDI Board.

Remarkably, Vermont leads the nation in per capita direct sales of agricultural produce to consumers, with an average of $36.77 spent annually at farm stands, farmers’ markets, and “community supported agriculture” (CSA) operations.

Nationwide, in August 2011, there were nearly 7,200 farmers’ markets, up from just 4,100 in 2005. In Vermont, the number of farmers’ markets grew from 19 in 1986 to 87 in 2010, Grubinger reported at the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont annual meeting in Burlington last February.

With CSAs, consumers buy shares of a farm’s output, and they usually pay for that up-front, providing farmers with needed capital to get crops into the ground. From 1986 to 2010, the number of CSAs in Vermont increased from 2 to 81, according to Grubinger. Local farm stands, food co-ops, and local-food sections of grocery stores also support local farming—while providing customers with higher-quality, healthier food.

Peppers in a greenhouse at the Kingsbury Farm. Photo: Alex Wilson

Food production can be even more local than nearby farms. We learned during World War II that Americans have the capacity to grow a significant fraction of their vegetables at home. As much as 40% of fresh produce consumed by Americans during the War was produced in homeowners’ victory gardens, allowing more of the nation’s farm output to be sent overseas to soldiers. While we have more than twice the population today, and thus less land per person, there is still significant potential for home gardens.

Local food production can be supported through our buying decisions, but also through our policies. Strong local protection of open, arable land is key to enabling food resilience to emerge. Zoning that restricts development of farmland is an important—though often contentious—step in this direction.  Conservation easements also play a critical role in preserving farmland for the future.

Also important is the allowance of farm-related activities in and around our towns and cities. Many places still prohibit raising chickens and other farm animals, though these restrictions are easing. Even in such urban areas as New York City and Chicago, keeping a small flock for egg production is now permitted, though roosters are typically prohibited. More extensive urban farms are popping up from Philadelphia to Seattle.

Food self-sufficiency for Vermont?

In Vermont, we don’t know exactly how much of our food comes from within the state, since nobody tracks food imports and exports at the state level. But my friend Dave Timmons, who is on the economics faculty at UMass Boston as well as an instructor in Marlboro College’s MBA program, Managing for Sustainability, has done a lot of thinking and writing on this topic.

The farm stand at Kingsbury Farm, where baked goods from the farm bakery are also sold. Photo: Alex Wilson

By comparing Vermont’s production and consumption with national levels, the greatest the Vermont portion of our diet could be at the moment is about 38%, he says. That could be achieved if every calorie that was both produced and needed in the state stayed here (though this is clearly not the case; for example, Vermont both exports and imports apples).

By re-allocating land uses and shifting some agricultural production away from dairy towards grains, for example (because the state currently produces more dairy than its residents consume), it is relatively easy to see how Vermont could become nearly self-sufficient in food (though without such crops as bananas, avocados, pecans, and oranges that can’t be grown here). Bill McKibben, in his book Deep Economy, argued that Vermont could become food self-sufficient within one year if needed.

A far more resilient food system is achievable in Vermont—and most states—if we make local food and, in particular, direct sales of farm products to consumers and institutions such as schools and hospitals, a priority. Doing so would take some changes in our land-use patterns and purchasing priorities, but it is comforting to know that, fundamentally, we could create a working model for resilient food systems here.

Along with founding the Resilient Design Institute in 2012, Alex is founder of BuildingGreen, Inc. and executive editor of Environmental Building News. To keep up with his latest articles and musings, you can sign up for his Twitter feed.


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