Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Can Vermont be a Model for Small, Local and Self-sufficient Farming: Reactions to "The Vermont Movie: Part 5"

Above: Part of a single day's harvest from one garden in the Fresh Start Community Farm network in Newport, Vermont.

Yes, farming in Vermont is changing..... in two different directions at the same time: towards larger, more mechanized, energy intensive farms (100 plus milking cows), and an increasing number of small, sustainable, diversified, organic farms with added value food producers. Will we reach a ‘tipping point’ as some hope when the small farm movement reaches sufficient momentum to become the dominant model? Or will the two models continue to co-exist, mutually supportive or at least not antagonistically? 

If 95 percent of Vermont’s food is imported, does it mean that the model of the large scale industrial farm still has the lion’s share of the agricultural community, and that the industrial farm will still be needed to feed America? 

I want more information. For example of the 5% of locally produced food, what percentage of the population of Vermont are fed partly by local farms? I assume the percentage of each family’s diet includes anywhere from a taste of local farmer’s market fresh produce, to a major portion of locally produced foods. Which foods are locally produced and consumed in which percentage? For example, I assume (due to climate) that 100% of locally consumed bananas are imported. Is the inverse true: 100% of all maple syrup (including artificially flavored corn-sugar imitations) consumed in the state is from Vermont. Likewise is 100% of fresh fruits and vegetables consumed in Vermont from local producers when in season, or are out-of-state, and out-of-season fruits and vegetables consumed in large percentages EVEN WHEN locally produced foods are available. Do consumers have to have broccoli in Spring and strawberries in September? How does marginal cost differential between organic or locally produced foods and those from out-of-state (of the same product) impact consumption? In other words, if broccoli is available at the farmer’s market, but is more expensive than that in the supermarket, what is the marginal change in demand, difference in consumer behavior? Would it take comparable pricing to achieve greater demand for locally produced foods, and thereby increase the percentage of locally produced foods that are locally consumed? Or is the differential more structural? In other words that the consumption pattern of local versus supermarket depend on distance to farmer’s market; 7 days a week availability vs. weekly availability; out-of-season availability; information on availability or lack of public transportation to local farmer’s markets? Does the convenience store format for selling locally grown produce expand availability and thus consumption? 

Is it merely a matter of public education to promote the nutritional value, healthfulness, low environmental impact, low energy consumption, support for local farmers as sufficient motivation for consumers to change habits? Or is it a structural problem of not having local goods available in low-income areas or in convenient urban centers, to a higher percentage of the population? Is it simply a marketing and distribution problem? 

I read of a study that indicated that it takes 15 calories of energy to produce one calorie of food in the United States. If this is near the truth, can we look at the food we consume in terms of its true cost. Is there any indicators or index that could take into account the cost of energy used on a small diversified, organic and sustainable farm versus the energy for machines used on a large farm, per unit of food. Could we likewise compare farm types in terms of fossil fuel use, natural resources depletion from off-farm inputs of pesticides and fertilizers; energy costs of extraction, transportation of all inputs as well as energy costs of transportation for distribution, including material and energy costs of packaging. Could such an index be developed of the contributions to the environment from two types of farms in terms of water conservation or use, erosion and flooding control, genetic variability, chemical concentration and soil health. And lastly the health safety and financial status of workers may be an important unit of comparison between the two types of farming. 

If total information were available to consumers would it change behavior? I am not so sanguine, given that nutritional labeling has not stemmed the consumption of high fructose, chemically laden, high fat and dubious food values that are still a major part of the American diet. The weight of the federal guidelines, labeling, food pyramid, nutritional education campaigns cannot stand up to the million dollar advertising onslaught of the agriculture industry. 

And there are still many well-educated intelligent people who shrug and say that they are not convinced of the superiority of organic produce. There are still many conscientious people who have such busy lifestyles that canned and packaged food-like products fill a need to remain ignorant of the source of their foods in order to rush on to the rest of their lives, not seeing the foundation of living that food is. Any millions of home-bound, transportation handicapped individuals and those living in urban food deserts who do not really have choices. To these people, the mirage of choice is in the brightly colored multitude of ‘brands’ and packages, not the true choices of healthy food from healthy local sources. 

So what would it take to make healthy farming and healthy foods the predominant model for consumption and production? It will take advertising, marketing, relationships, access, cooperative distribution, access to ‘supermarkets’ and other more conventional outlets, education (such as farm to school programs), institutional support, government support, labeling, symbols, ..... money. So what are the actual strategies, town by town? What community partners (such as farm to table restaurants) are available? What strategies to outreach to local consumers? This is where the leadership is needed and consumers can have a major impact. This is where non-farmers can work to improve the landscape and economy for all. 

Mary Brenner

No comments:

Post a Comment