Growing a sustainable food system
By Allison Perrett and Charlie Jackson on 03/13/2013
Food is the most basic of human necessities, but it’s easy in our current food system to make decisions about what we eat without much knowledge of the human or natural resources used to produce the food. Writer and lifelong farmer Wendell Berry has observed that the boundaries of the global economy are so large that its participants can neither see nor take responsibility for the impacts of their decisions. On a global scale, we participate in an economy of which we have no knowledge; we know nothing of how goods are produced — with whose hands, using what resources, extracted by what means.
In this context, most “eater” have little or no understanding of food production; it is not part of the normal realm of social experience. Food simply comes from a supermarket shelf without any history, and we don’t think to think about how and where our food is being produced. But, as Berry put it, “eating is an agricultural act.”
The tobacco transition
Agriculture in Western North Carolina is nearing the end of a fundamental transition. Two decades ago, and for most of the last century, tobacco was the area cash crop. In the mid-1990s, anticipating the end of the federal tobacco program that had supported the tobacco economy, a group of farmers, agriculture-support personnel and concerned community members got together and asked themselves: What can we do to make sure that farming survives, that farms continue to be a part of our landscapes and communities?
The answer the group eventually came to was “local food.” Localizing food production made sense for farmers and consumers. It could provide a market for the region’s smaller mountain farms, which were unlikely to successfully compete in global markets. Profitable farms would keep land productive and free of commercial development. Consumers would have an alternative to the mass-produced food of the industrialized food system and even have a say in how their food was being produced. In 2000, Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project launched a campaign to raise awareness about the region’s agriculture and the benefits of buying food grown by the region’s farms.
Today, with tobacco mostly gone, the region maintains a strong farming economy. Local food and farms have become a conspicuous part of WNC culture, and the market for locally grown food is thriving. In the past 10 years, the number of farmers markets in the region has grown from just a handful to more than 90; the number of farms with community-supported agriculture programs, a kind of subscription service where customers prepay for a farm’s seasonal yields, has increased from just 10 to more than 100.
Farmers have responded to increased demand by growing a greater diversity of products. A decade ago, local food was mainly fresh produce. Today, not only can we choose from a rich array of fresh fruits and vegetables, but also locally raised meats, artisan cheeses, eggs, honey, mushrooms, herbs and much more. Shoppers aren’t restricted to the tailgate markets; they can purchase fresh local goods in a number of grocery stores or order them prepared in a restaurant. Students and teachers are eating local in their school cafeterias. Hospitals are serve regional foods to staff and patients.
Changing the global food system
A dozen years ago, ASAP’s Local Food Campaign was one of a handful in the country. Today, the degree to which local food has entered the public’s mindset is evident in a national movement — in a proliferation of local-food campaigns across the country, in the growth in the number of alternative food markets like farmers markets and CSAs, and in the number of big food retailers with local-food-marketing programs. Amid of all this excitement, there is also increasing scrutiny of the local-food movement and speculation about the economic, social and environmental benefits that movement advocates claim.
Local-food advocates like ASAP argue that localizing food production is the means to address the social, environmental and economic externalities of the global food system. The question is, how and why? Last year, ASAP launched the Local Food Research Center to study what happens when we localize food production and to test the idea that food production integrated in local communities leads to positive changes.
For ASAP, integration is key to the transition of our food system; it is the basis of ASAP’s theory of change. Local-food systems emerge from the ground up. Food production is grounded in the natural and human resources of a particular place. It responds to ecological limitations and possibilities. It emerges from the skills, ideas and knowledge of local people — from you.
The boundaries of a local-food system are relatively small, and this creates the opportunity for the development of feedback loops, the ability for community members to observe and monitor the impacts (good and bad) of agriculture. Short food-supply chains create transparency. Because food production happens where we live, we have knowledge of how it is being produced, by whom and using what means.
Anchored in communities, the processes involved in localizing production and consumption develop human and conceptual connections. Relationships develop around food production and provision; conceptually, we re-learn about the connections between growing food, land use, labor and consumption. These connections change the way we think about food and eating. Our food decisions are conditioned by them.
Food in this context is not without history. It is connected to a person, to a landscape, to a growing sense of community. We make value-laden choices based on an appreciation of this interconnectivity. Collectively these choices — your choices and the choices of your neighbors — directly shape the characteristics of the food that we eat and the way our food system works.
The maturity of the Local Food Campaign here in WNC provides a unique opportunity to study the transition to local food systems. How do we transition from a largely anonymous economy to one where decisions are embedded in the relationships and conditions of place? How can localizing food systems bring about positive economic, environmental and social change? What actions do we need to take to bring these changes about? In the coming months and years, ASAP’s Local Food Research Center will focus on these questions and others, often seeking your input.
With a little long-term research into the assumptions that are the foundation of the local-food movement, the critical study of this region’s evolving food system — from producer to diner — will be relevant to its continued development, and to the development of local-food systems in other regions.
To learn more about ASAP’s work and Local Food Research Center, visit asapconnections.org, or call 236-1282.
Since 2002, WNC has seen:
- 855 percent increase in farms selling locally
- 733 percent increase in CSA farms
- Nearly 200 percent increase in farmers markets
- 558 percent increase in farm-to-table restaurants
- In 2012, the number of Appalachian Grown-certified farms and partners grew to 558 farms and 352 businesses
- Estimated purchases of Appalachian Grown certified products increased fourfold since 2007 to more than $62 million.
- WNC is home to 16,206 farm operators who work on 11,533 farms
- Direct sales totaled $4.9 million
- The average age of farmers in WNC: 57.3
Charlie Jackson is ASAP’s executive director and has been with the nonprofit since its inceptions. Allison Perrett is a researcher with ASAP and has been with the organization for five years. ASAP’s mission is to help local farms thrive, link farmers to markets and supporters and build healthy communities through connections to local food.