Tuesday, April 7, 2015

I'll Take the Local: Why Supporting Small Farms Helps Us All

The state of California is in the midst of a terrible drought. Even in a good year, California weather is weird to me as an east coaster. It never rains in the summer. Californians are entirely dependent on winter rain to fill their reservoirs, and this past winter was a very dry one. Governor Jerry Brown has implemented a mandatory water reduction strategy--for the first time ever in the state's history.

Californians are taking short showers, but what does that mean for the rest of us? Higher food prices, apparently. We get an absolutely ridiculous amount of food from California. Something like 80% of the tomatoes Americans eat come from this one state. Yes, the one that's WAY over there. Granted, it's a big state, but still. It's FAR from where I live. I could fly to Reykjavik in less time than it takes me to get to California.

Something's Fishy

It strikes me as insane how much of our food comes from really far away. I recently heard on NPR that the US exports something like 90% of the fish we catch, and we import 80% of the fish we eat. Or maybe it's the reverse--90% import/80% export. I can't remember. Either way, it's INSANE.

And while we're talking crazy, get this: much of the cod fish in local markets is from ICELAND.

WHY???? I live an hour away from a place called CAPE COD. A friend of mine, a Boston local who is one of five children, told me they ate tons of cod when she was growing up because it was local and thus, cheap. Apparently this is no longer the case. We've decided, fuel shortages and all, that we should send our cod to heaven-knows-where and instead ship in cod from a small country 2,500 miles away. At least it's closer than California.

And so, like any good modern American, I shall shake my fist and demand to know,


Earl Butz, that's who.

Butz was Secretary of Agriculture under President Nixon. His task was to lower food prices, which had been rising in recent years. Butz responded with a series of initiatives that favored large farms and punished the small ones. He is famous for telling farmers, 'Get big, or get out.'

The result of these policies was the closure of hundreds (thousands?) of small family farms. We started importing our food from ridiculously far away places. Like California. And Iceland.

About 20 years ago, I visited a college friend at her home in rural Vermont. As we drove around, she pointed out dozens of small dairy farms that had closed. Vermont was once known for it's dairy farms, now it's more famous for leaf-peeping. Butz's policies were devastating for rural agricultural communities that didn't hop onto his 'get big' bandwagon.

The problem with consolidating our food supply as we have is that we are basically up a (dry) creek without a paddle when something like a drought occurs. If we don't nurture our small, local farms, could we end up with something like an Irish potato famine?? Maybe. And good grief, all the fuel we use to ship these tomatoes and cod fish to and fro... it's so inefficient.

Of course, I am not insensitive to the fact that I live in a cold, densely populated area with a relatively short growing season. Late winter and early spring would be pretty lean months if we relied solely on local foods. But if we support our farms, ranches and fishermen, our resources would undoubtedly be more robust. It might still be sparse by March, but by then, the maple sap is flowing freely so we could at least slurp on syrup for a while. Yay!

Local food is fresher and so much yummier than far-away fare. The produce we get from our wonderful CSA, Picadilly Farm in New Hampshire, stays fresh SO MUCH LONGER than anything I buy from the supermarket.

Wow, I'm REALLY getting a lot of use out of the caps lock button today, but buying local just makes sense. We can leave the Icelanders with their cod, and maybe next winter arrange a snow-for-tomatoes exchange with California??


You can find local foods at farmer's markets and some supermarkets, but the best place is directly from the farms. Check out www.eatwild.com  and www.localharvest.org for a list of local farms in your area.


  1. This is just one more reason to plant a garden, or even a container garden, and grow your own food!

    1. Indeed! I grow herbs in pots every year, but apart from that, I confess to being very gardenarily challenged. I am very thankful for our CSA!