A lot of people ask me why I don't can food and put it up for sale. I've had people say "Wow, I love your kitchen full of jars of home-canned food - where can I get food like that?" I had a woman ask me if I'd raise my chickens as complete vegetarians so that she could eat the eggs - I pointed out that chickens who have the opportunity spend a lot of their time eating bugs, but she said that she only wanted eggs from vegetarian chickens.
My friend, Beth Hook just emailed me about the same issues - one of her customers eats fish as a primary protein source, and wanted to know why Beth couldn't raise some tilapia in tanks for her in her copious spare time while she runs her CSA, and another customer wanted her to stop using flouridated town water to water her garden.
I think one of the biggest problems we have as a society is that for 50 years, we've been told that the most important role we can have in changing our options is to "create markets" - that is, to tell people "I want this" so that someone else will do it for us. And to an extent, that's true -I'm very grateful to people who buy local food and want to provision themselves locally. But I also believe that the notion tha our primary contribution to the world is to make markets has handicapped us.
The simple truth is that no matter how wonderful the local markets, your local farms probably won't support most of the populace. Thus far, local food is a luxury item, for those in the know, and those who have access to it. Because of the sheer number of interested consumers, markets are indeed expanding rapidly - and that's absolutely wonderful.
But the blunt truth is that if the time were to come fairly rapidly that we needed to *rely* on our extant food and agricultural systems, we'd be in deep trouble, very quickly. The current models are nowhere near large enough or resilient enough to meet present needs, much less enable surpluses to be produced in regions that can produce them to protect us from famine.
So how do we get more local agriculture on the ground? Part of that is the creation of new markets - which means the creation of new eating patterns. Farmers do not exist in a vacuum - they grow foods people want to eat and to buy. That means we need to eat locally, create markets for local foods, and start relying on local markets for staple foods as well. We need to start making and modelling local cusines and diets.
There are limits, however, to markets. For example, unless you are prepared to pay $20lb for potatoes, it will be difficult to make ends meet growing fields of potatoes in Westchester County for New York City - if there are any fields left. The cost of land and living are simply too high. It isn't that you can't grow staples in Westchester - but where real estate market meets farmer's market, real estate wins, at least in high value areas. So no matter how much desire you create for local staple crops in Manhattan, you are unlikely to create sufficient markets unless we do more - encourage agricultural land to be set aside from development, for example, encourage communities to manage their open land agriculturally, transform parts of public parks into farms.
And it means that those of us who want local food have to do more than simply create markets. In order to create a resilient food sovreignty, a local food system that can handle crop failures, floods, droughts and bad years, that can feed its population and in good years provide surpluses for food reserves and for other communities, we have to maximize the use of our land. And that means growing food ourselves whenever possible - getting out to that community garden, putting those containers on rooftops, turning your yard into a food producing area.
A year ago I called for 100 Million farmers, and I've had the pleasure of seeing that idea enter the mainstream. Richard Heinberg gave talks about 50 million farmers, in part based on my idea, and put it in his latest book. Pat Murphy at the Community Solution is calling for 25-50% of the populace to be involved in agriculture. But what does "involved" mean here? Does it mean that half of everyone in the workforce has to quit their jobs and get a farm with a capital F?
No, it doesn't. In fact, I suspect the vast majority of the people who will be growing food will not be doing so on a field scale - the way we've subdivided our agricultural land, turned it into suburbs and put houses on it means that almost half of our land, much of it extremely good farmland, is set in small lots of a quarter acre, half an acre, two acres with houses on it. We must farm that land - by 2050, we will only have 0.6 acres per person of arable land in the US. Our current diet requires 3xs that much land. If we ate vastly less meat and more beans and grains, we could reduce that to 1.2 acres per person. But 0.6 acres means that under the present system, people will starve - unless at least half of our 100 million farmers are people in existing housing, turning existing land into food producing spaces. We are going to depend on our home farmers absolutely - that means everyone who possibly can be must become one.
We need more professional farmers, and more and better markets for them that will enable them to achieve a fair wage. But we also do need people to farm their own bits of land - because the smaller your farm is, the more productive it generally is. All of us who garden know this - manage a pot and you can manage it by the centimeter, a garden bed can be managed by the inch. Small scale home agriculture on a half an acre or so can produce yields that will put professional farmers to shame. There are some crops that aren't especially efficient to grow on that scale, but hundreds more that are.
That means that the responsibility for eating a local diet has to lie with those of us who believe in doing it - so if you want your chickens to be vegetarians, that means maybe going to your zoning board and changing the policies about poultry, building a coop and a run, and raising your own chickens on grains and grass with all the bugs picked out. If you want your state or region to be able to feed itself, you need to be at the forefront of this, working to transform existing open land into gardens, and using the bit land you own, if you own any, optimally.
It means that if you want to eat local, seasonal food all year 'round, if you aren't so disabled you can't cook, you'll have to do your own food preservation. It is more work - but just in case I've given the false impression that I want everyone here to eat local so badly that I'll come to their house and put up their peppers for them, let me clarify - I don't want it that badly ;-). I do believe it is essential for our future and survival - but my goal is to persuade you to believe it and do your share of the work ;-) - most years, I can barely get my own food preservation done.
The tiny percentage of the American population who are professional farmers cannot do it alone - they can't because farming is a tough job, but they also can't because the places we most need to grow food are places with little or no farmland available. That is, we need grow the most food in densely populated areas - this is common sense. If peak oil means transportation problems (duh), we're most secure if we have a lot of food grown where we live.
This is perfectly possible - many cities, including densely populated Hong Kong, grow signficant portions of their produce and meat within the city limits. The average suburban lot could provide half the calories for a family of four plus surplus to sell for neighbors. But home prices are high in places near urban centers, and farmers can't afford to buy land - because it is much more valuable with houses on it than potatoes. So one of the essential factors - perhaps *THE SINGLE MOST ESSENTIAL FACTOR* in our food security will be small scale farmers (and I prefer to call small scale producers farmers - it is far too fine and significant a word to leave to the Con Ag folks) and gardeners who do the work *in addition* to the work they do for their economic support. Those are the only people who can afford to farm high value land near cities - the people who live there already. And that also means that we have to find ways to keep people in their houses as the economy tanks and the transition begins - because in areas where home food production is feasible, it must go forward, and food production requires a degree of stability - you cannot build soil, nurture fruit trees, design for permaculture without staying place. This may not be perfectly possible for everyone, but to the extent that it is possible, most of us need to find a place to stay, and to advocate to for ways to keep people in their houses.
And we must farm that land - as studies demonstrate, there will be less and less available arable land over the next few decades, and more and more people eating. The truth is that if we don't make the suburbs, cities and exurbs into food producing areas, we will most likely know real and serious hunger. We cannot afford to lose the best farmland we have, just because we put houses on it. And we cannot afford to lose our sense of perspective, and to trust that if we just make markets, other people, different people, will do the hard work of producing the food for us. More will be asked of us than that.
Green consumerism is a growing phenomenon - my current favorite ad shows a man standing in front of his McMansion, with arrows pointing to his "sustainably harvested wood trim" and garage made out of rare tropical wood harvested by hand by native tribesmen of Indonesia with stone axes (ok, I exaggerate a little), with a big smile and a comment underneath about how proud he is that he can have what he wants, and what is right.
And underneath the message of green consumerism is an enormous lie - that our major job in the world is to open our mouths like baby birds and wait for markets to feed us a big, juicy, environmentally-friendly worm. The simple truth is that none of us are served by being told that we don't have to do anything. In fact, I wonder sometimes if that isn't the reason that Americans suffer so much from depression, anxiety and other disorders - because we are told that we are powerless, and thus not obliged to contribute anything so very often. That is, I wonder if the absolute most destructive thing we can do for people is to lie to them and say "just buy better stuff" rather than "get to work." The message of "get to work" involves inconvenience, of course, but it also involves power, and autonomy, and making meaning - things that human beings value and indeed, revel in. We like to do a good job. We like to find meaning in what we do - in fact, that latter may be the most fundamental human project. And we are not so stupid that it has escaped the notice of at least our unconsciousness that there is no deeper meaning in opening one's mouth and waiting for a worm.
It will not, of course, be an easy transition. You cannot tell people for fifty years that they have nothing to contribute but their wanting without them having some difficulty with the message that now, we want more from them. But I also believe that those who say that sacrifice and commitment are not possible, that we're so spoiled and lost that we don't have the capacity for those things are completely, utterly wrong. In fact, I would argue that we long to make our work matter - in every study I've seen, most Americans express pride and a desire to do well when at work. We want to matter to - the overwhelming message after September 11 was "what can I do." And the answer, of course, was that we could go shopping. We did, but many, many people expressed their dissatisfaction in that answer - they wanted to do more, give more, find an outlet for their desire to help. Now some might argue that the momentum of September 11 is long gone - that's true. But I don't believe that September 11 made us different than we are, I believe it forced us to confront for a moment our deep desire to make meaning, to be part of something meaningful - and that if that lurks back in many of us, waiting for a crisis, it could be called forth, exposed to the light and made beautiful and transformative.
We need to buy local food and support local farmers, to create markets for local economies. That is good and important work. But MORE WILL BE ASKED OF ALL OF US THAN THAT. It is time to get comfortable with that reality. As my friend Beth said, "Gesh, Grow It Yourself!" It is time for all of us who can to move from simply buying local, to producing local.