Monday, November 19, 2007

Commentary: Future Possible?

by Martin Holsinger

I just returned from a two-week swing through New England, and overall it was a very encouraging experience. I lived in Vermont for several years in the nineties, and in many ways felt as if I had left the US for a saner country. It was very refreshing to visit again and find a place where sanity and counterculture have spread and grown, rather than eroding and fragmenting as they seem to have done here in the south. And no, it wasn’t ”like I’d died and gone to heaven.” There were plenty of problems still to solve, both personal and political, everywhere I went. But it felt like there was the will and intelligence and infrastructure to do it. Let me give you some examples.

There are nearly 600 organic farmers in Vermont, according to the state’s organic growers’ association. Considering the small size of Vermont, this means that organic farmers are pretty ubiquitous. Not quite as ubiquitous as dairy farms—there are about 1400 of those left, down from a 1947 peak of 11,000. But gee, that’s one organic farmer for every thousand Vermonters, and about one dairy farm for every four hundred and thirty people. If we had a similar proportion here in Tennessee, there would be about five hundred organic farms and over a thousand dairy farms just in the Nashville area alone. That sure would be a different Nashville, wouldn’t it?

These aren’t just fruit and vegetable farms. There are meat and field crop producers, as well as some overlap between the organic farm numbers and the dairy farm numbers, so we are talking about the possibility of a whole diet from locally grownorganic food—yes, even homegrown sweets, because there are honey producers and maple tappers aplenty up in the northeast woods. And there are cafes and co-op grocery stores in the small towns, vibrant little community centers where people eat and shop and meet their neighbors and talk and argue and plan and create.

Not all of this food gets consumed locally. In fact, most of it gets shipped down to Boswash, the Boston-Washington urban conglomerate, where the money is. But the Vermonters would like to keep more of their produce at home, and they are working on ways to keep it local, and benefit their communities as they do. The organic farmers have teamed up with a food-policy think tank called Foodworks and Shelburne Farms, an environmental education center, to create FEED, “Food Education Every Day,” an organization which works to get local school and other institutional cafeterias to use as much local food as possible, and to educate schoolkids about the many advantages to locally grown food. They have gotten the state legislature on board, and so there are grants and incentive programs, but the program practically sells itself. I should add that it’s not a ”top down” affair; each school district, in a council of teachers, administrators, farmers, and cooks, determines its own priorities.

They have had to add one step to make it work better, but that step adds value for everyone. In Vermont, the garden season and the school season barely overlap, and everyone involved quickly realized that having a way to process and preserve food would make it more available. So, voila! Small-scale canning and processing has become part of the mix, adding value and local employment. Tomatoes and peppers become salsa or tomato sauce; carrots are made into carrot sticks, bagged, and stored; apples are sliced by the bushel—don’t ask me why, but they found out that most kids will eat more apples if they are sliced first! Processing also enables them to use produce that is not aesthetically pleasing enough to sell fresh.

And then there are the in-school educational programs—soup making contests, with the kids as judges; farm visits where kids get to pick their own carrots, blueberries, apples, or whatever; school cafeteria staff, long the subject of bad jokes, get to do something creative, nutritious, local, and tasty. It’s a win/win situation, and it’s growing. Vermonters did not seem overly worried about political, economic, or even ecological collapse.

I’m glad to know they’re up there and doing so well. I hope their inspiration spreads. We could use some of that energy down here, where locally grown food, organic or not, is still a novelty, and the organic food stores depend on trucks from California and Florida to stock not just their produce, meat, and dairy departments, but all the other grocery shelves as well. Five hundred organic producers in the Nashville area? What have we got now, about five?

What would it take to start growing our growers to the point where we might imagine local farmers providing a measurable share of the food that is eaten in middle Tennessee? First of all, we have to look at our tax codes and land valuation and zoning policies, which make it much more profitable to subdivide land and sell it than to grow food on it. Zoning has to recognize that small-scale food production is a legitimate use of one’s home, although I think there should be some common-sense limits to this! Then there are infrastructure questions—how to help people get into farming, I think the way to do this is to find people who can take on a backyard garden with a fork and a hoe and feed their neighborhood, then help them graduate to a half-acre or an acre and feed their community with occasional help from teenagers, retirees, or people who want some healthy exercise after sitting at a desk all week. And of course there are weather questions. We don’t yet know if last year’s stunning heat and drought was a terrible anomaly, or the beginning of a new pattern. Growers will have to learn to be flexible; we do live in a climate in which, with a little simple protection, salad vegetables and leafy greens will produce all winter, and that’s likely to keep on being the case, no matter what our summers become.

Meanwhile, oil is pushing a hundred dollars a barrel, and there’s no telling where the price will jump the next time there’s a catastrophe to intensify the growing scarcity. Imported food, whether from California or across the ocean, is just going to get more expensive. The sooner we start providing for ourselves, the better off we’ll be.

Martin Holsinger
Whites Creek, Tennessee


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