Future Cycle: Small Town Revival (of 24 : 6) Eating Local

A while ago I spent a year of Fridays helping out at a local organic farm.

I loved the fresh air, bird calls, rich dirt on my fingers.  I loved the hot midday meal cooked by turns and served out under the trees on big tables.  I loved the provident feeling of piling up cabbages in the walk-in cooler.  The sense of communal connection packing up boxes that would go out to restaurants and local families.  I even loved the all-weather 20-mile bike ride back home along the river in the afternoon with panniers of complimentary –and freshest of fresh– produce.

But as much as any of those, I loved the wide-ranging talk among the young apprentice farmers.

The young farmers at Sauvie Island Organics talked poetry, film-making, nutritional justice, farms-in-the-schools, teaching English in Nepal, beekeeping, local restaurants, local music, good names for dogs, best ways to keep deer at bay, bike rides, books we’d read, rebuilding engines to run on used french fry oil.

(Like Middlest said after one day when she came to work with me, “These are my people!” — but then we had to laugh because we just have so many “people” who feel like they belong to us, we to them.)

Because I was at the farm those Fridays to learn organic farming — and because I was curious how this strand of sustainable agriculture played in the everyday — I listened particularly to the back and forth between these intelligent and widely educated young farmers about the pros and cons of the locavore movement – eating only what’s grown within a 100-mile radius of where you live.

The consensus among these young people — who had already deeply committed themselves to small and local farms (two years working all day, year-round at the farm), who largely hoped to have farms of their own someday —

 wholesome and environmentally responsible eating is a complicated issue.

As one farmer pointed out — her hands quick and capable snapping beans into her tray, body pivoting efficiently in a slow, deep lunge from one side to the other — it’s true that some of the food we eat, grown on the other side of the world by ox and hand-plow, and shipped here to our local grocery freezer actually has a smaller carbon footprint than the same thing grown with the best organic practices here in our 100-mile radius and then trucked into the farmer’s market, scooped up by people from the suburbs and SUV’d back home.

So the question is complicated.  But those young farmers’ conclusions chimed with what I’d observed myself: 

  • local grown food feels deeply right,
  • often tastes better,
  • is often less expensive when you consider total costs (including government subsidies which we taxpayers foot the bill for),
  • creates an enthusiasm for healthier eating and more wholesome growing practices,
  • creates safer public spaces,
  • creates a more authentic sense of place.

Local agriculture used to create local jobs, too.

One of the responses I got over and over when I asked some of my townspeople this past month what they think is missing here was a lament over the disappearance of summer harvesting jobs for teenagers:

Money was easy, we could pick strawberries or raspberries or cucumbers or beans. Simply get on a bus, pick til noon and get rewarded immediately.

Many old strawberry fields are left unplanted now – one in particular, according to the story I hear over and over – because the farmer couldn’t afford to keep the farm up and pay the new minimum wage requirement for summer pickers.  So that farm and too many others folded.

And now, in the place of somewhat-below-minimum wage summer jobs, there aren’t any summer jobs.

Now the harvesting that remains is gathered by the family who owns the farm, occasionally by apprentice farm-learners, or more usually by legal (and/or not) immigrant workers.  (Another complicated issue.)

The solution could be very simple.

Who wouldn’t want to see local farms become more profitable to the locals – supporting farming families, providing healthy outdoor work for more of us, including high school and college kids? Who wouldn’t want to see more local farms period?

And why aren’t there?

Forgive the earnestness, but why not more farms here?  Why not farms all along our river and up the hills? Specializing in particularly delectable local varieties of fruits and vegetables?  Our town sits in an area of particular fertility — as one respondent put it:

If I harvest cherries, apples, corn, tomatoes, kiwi or gooseberries from my backyard, I know there will be a new crop the next season.  If I plant a tree and it dies or becomes diseased, a new one will be tall and straight as soon as planted. If we cut down a tree to build a home or make paper, 3 more will be planted in its stead.

When my Oregon grandfather passed on and finished life on this earth, a grandson resolved to carry on the name in Oregon and to make him proud. Spiritually, mentally and physically.  Everything grows better in Oregon.

I’m not saying farming is for everyone, but that’s not the issue.

There are farmers enough who would choose to farm full-time if they could keep body and soul together and support their families, many ready right now, many already putting the sweat in to learn best practices, braving sun and rain to learn from older farmers.  They just need a market that will support them.

We are that market. 

The choices we make when we buy food to feed our families is what shapes the town we live in, our region, our nation – and really our world. 

But buying local, not to mention eating local, can be another complicated issue when the costs at the superstores over the hills are so much lower:

I don’t go to Saturday Market. I’m not a thrift store shopper, either.  I just want to getter done.  Price also talks for me.

For groceries, WinCo wins. It is worth the gas money to drive there. Safeway is way overpriced, Red Apple is sad but I do drop in for produce now and then, Fred Meyer gets my business when I do buy groceries locally but they can’t beat WinCo either,

explains a a dear friend of mine.

I could say that, for me, the local grocery comes out ahead because I can bike my groceries home and save not just a little gas money, but all of it.  But that’s not going to be the answer that will work for her.

Nothing I could suggest will be the answer for everyone.

The good thing is – we don’t need an answer for everyone.

One of the things I love about our town is that there are lots of answers, lots of ways to eat locally: from our own gardens to farm share to organic co-op to farmstand to farmer’s market to local produce showing up in some of our grocery stores.

In coming posts I’ll highlight some of the local food options in my town — and even if my town isn’t your town, I’d still really like to know:

How local can you go?

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6 thoughts on “ Future Cycle: Small Town Revival (of 24 : 6) Eating Local

  1. I go to my backyard for as much as I can. I tried buying local eggs, but found that you really have to know who you’re buying from and how they feed their animals. I was more than a little concerned to find out that the chickens whose eggs I was eating ate chicken.

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