Tuesday, September 25, 2007

An Inch Deep

We're right in the middle of New York apple season--my season--and we're once again being smacked in the face by the duplicity of some large food companies and grocery chains, and their commitment to "Local." As you may be aware, Local is all the rage. It is the latest trend in food. Really!

In Europe, local has always been what's its been about. Small farms dot the landscape; small family wineries still make the same really mediocre wines they have for centuries; goats and sheep are shepherded across the road; cheeses actually taste like cheese.

But here in America, we're so damned in love with the lowest price and the best supermarket deals, that we forget some of the underlying costs that allow those deals to exist in the first place. Deals that encourage multinational corporations to source anything they need from anywhere in the world with little or no regard for small farms. So be it. The next iteration of our farmland is bad architecture and traffic jams.

Americans for too many years have paid absurdly low prices for food. Because of horrible government programs and this love affair with cheap, the real price of food has never even been approached much less paid by your average consumer. But thanks to the resurgence of sincere interest in locally grown products, the salvation of the small farmer has arrived. Or has it?

The fact is that the majority of our food system in the US is still mired in decades old price supports and bad food policy. The average consumer still doesn't get that if they want local, they'll have to pay more for it. It is that simple. But they complain to their produce managers about prices, and the managers in turn do exactly what they have been trained to do: buy cheap.

This hurts the local farmer; our open spaces; our clean air and water; those wonderful vistas; and most importantly the security of local food supply. My experiences over the past week certainly suggest that my theory is correct: Most large food companies and grocery store's commitments to local is an inch deep and a mile wide. That's why your consumer that cares is going to farm markets, farmer's markets, CSAs, and to shop at chain stores that really care, like Whole Foods and Balducci's.

Americans have a choice. They can save 20 cents a lb on apples, or they can support local. They'll shell out over a hundred dollars a month on cable TV, but God forbid they have to pay a few dimes more for apples. You get a lot for that 20 cents; more than you'll ever find on the 500 channels of crap on TV. Come on Folks [this means produce managers, too], step to the Plate!

Disclaimer: this blog is meant for those least likely to read it. For those of you already on board: thank you; thank you; thank you!!

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Why Farm?

Besides the obvious answer to the title query--because we need food--I ask more fundamentally why would anyone in this day and age would want to farm. Recently we've seen yet another measurable loss in farm acreage in the Hudson Valley; the average age of the American farmer continues to rise; fewer young people are staying with their family's farming tradition. It seems the only people actually getting into farming these days are retirees looking for a post-retirement hobby (boy, are they in for a surprise) and visionary folks looking to undo the industrialized, petroleum dependent food treadmill we're currently on. Well, there are a few folks that just like to grow food you can actually taste.

But the simple fact is that farming isn't as lucrative as many other occupations, and it probably never will be. Agriculture does not generally attract folks looking to make a career out of farming. There's more money to be made elsewhere. That's why when one does make a commitment to farming, it is deep and it is long-term. It is about a connection with the soil beneath their feet, the ecosystem they participate in each day, the germinating seeds, and ripening fruit. It is about more than money. The rewards from farming come from someplace other than the cash register.

And yet farmers need to make a living, too. But society has put such a huge emphasis on making LOTS of money, that farming gets lost in the shuffle. Agriculture is considered an expendable commodity. And with it we lose open space, clean air and water, and farmers. The only solution I can devise is to reinject some balance into the system. Sure, farmers do get a lot of breaks. Yet the developers still come knocking with suitcases full of money and promises of long Caribbean vacations for the farmer. And our food supply gets pushed further away to places most people will never visit and grown by farmers we'll never meet. We need to invest money in protecting farmland and encouraging new farmers the way we invest money in the stock market and new technology companies. We need a model for an economically and ecologically sustainable agriculture in regions where farms are losing ground to McMansions.

Despite the public's current love for local food, we still lose farms not because of any kind of lack of demand of local farm products--in fact, demand here at my farm far exceeds supply--but because of a lack of farmers. There are lots of little CSAs and hobby farms popping up all over the place, but these hardly have the ability to feed the 20 million people in the NYC metro area. We need to commercial agriculture close to our population centers.

While I am very much in favor of population control--negative growth is best--the fact is if we do not figure out how feed the masses with good, healthy, safe, local food, then we put our society at risk. Food, like oil, becomes a bargaining chip in global politics. Even now, most people don't know where their food comes from, and they should. Local farms and farmers can and do keep this ever increasing void from expanding too rapidly, but society needs to make the choice. The value of farmland and its farmers comes in forms more important than money. It is the underlying intrinsic value of local farms, farmland, and local food that society needs to embrace.

For me it is about walking out into the orchard early in the morning with the steam rising off of the lakes, hearing birds wake up, and eating that first fresh apple of the day. It is about the memory of my grandparents' farm and the lasting impression it made on me that probably planted the seed that allowed me to take up a career in farming. Other people need those experiences, especially while young, if farming in the US has a chance to reverse its trend of losing farms and farmers. That's why I anticipate launching a farm and food education center that allows to people learn about and experience the wonders of great food from the soil up. Maybe some will decide to take up farming, but all will understand and appreciate where their food comes from. It really is about that first apple.