Y’all, I hate to be the first person you hear this from, but it might be time to ask some questions about the resilience of our food systems. And here is where I’d like to offer a couple of distinct measurements we as a culture might want to explore. At this time I have little to offer in terms of economic measurements, as I’m not all that well-suited to give anybody the what-for on money. Global food systems are inseparable from commodity markets, arcane and intangible as they are to some of us. While I know that commodity markets have real life impacts, I do not see that whatever is beneficial to Cargill in the stock market as being mutually beneficial for the 7 billion of us who gotta eat. So, in full transparency, I am not taking propping up global corporate hegemony as a given in any evaluation I make.
When it comes down to it, and it probably will, the value of food systems will depend more on their potential ability to sustain production (soil and fertility resources) and their ability to meet complete nutritional needs locally. I differentiate ability to sustain production from current production. Yes, with enough fossil fuels and synthetic fertilizers, farmers can crank out a lot of corn or beans. In a good weather year. It takes a long while for those calories to end up on anyone’s plate, if at all. Many of these fields would require years of regeneration to transition to more diverse crops, as the soil resources are depleted without a steady supply of synthetic fertilizers. Really, I am not dogmatic. If applying conventional agricultural chemicals is the difference between famine or none, I’m for it. But it’s just an attempt to triage a collapsing system.
One of our better government programs (I state hesitantly as a responsible, non-dogmatic anarchist) over the years has been the Conservation Reserve Program which incentivizes farmers to rest and restore degraded land for use in times of great need. At least in our region, CRP agreements are being slowly phased out. Much of our current land here is set to expire out of the program in the next few years, and while it’s been managed with burning, planting, and reseeding, centuries of soil resources that took only decades to erode are still gone forever. For many farmers, the only way to receive income on these lands once they’re expired out of the program is to plow them under and squeeze out the fertility. Better uses for the land might include management intensive grazing, any type of silviculture, or, my favorite, both. If you’ve only got a few years left on your CRP, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with planting that walnut grove right now, but that’s not legal advice. I believe that the current CRP should be extended and improved, and not phased out.
The question I want to ask here is, how much food can X plot of land produce with limited imports and fossil fuels? Soil that’s been harmed cannot support sustained production without imports. Sometimes it cannot sustain life at all.
Then there’s distribution. Living in the rural midwest, where it’s common to see vast tracts of land devoted to producing food I’m never going to eat, the functioning of our food system is equally as obscure as in the inner city. Upon closer inspection, both here and in urban areas, there are many folks, more and more of them, who do produce significant nutrition for local consumption, but by and large, most of the food easily available for purchase in a grocery store is from “somewhere else”, like pretty much between California’s Central Valley and Argentina.
This may become more obvious a liability in the current social atmosphere of scarcity. Personally, I think being able to distribute our food locally is pretty bad ass, compared to hoarding tater tots or whatever. It’s clear to me that relying on local food networks can ease the chaos of living through an emergency, or successive emergencies, or the end times unless we decide to call it off.
Looking at our own food system here at Fox Holler, I see plenty to improve upon. About 1/3 of our marketing income is unavailable for the unstated future, due to the closing of a reliable farmer’s market. The market is 45 miles from here, and we’ve relied on it, partly, because it’s affluent, and we have some fancy foods for affluent people. I’m less altruistic when I have debt, just like anyone else. But it’s clear to me that 45 miles is too far to go, in uncertain times. Selling locally would require me to compete with local groceries, many of whom sell at nearly wholesale in our area.
Not to disparage my area, but not too many folks outside of the clustered sustainable communities movement here care about pasture-raised, organically fed, or rotationally grazed enough to pay what our food costs us to produce. I get it. A large part of why I grow food is so that I can spend as little money as possible obtaining nourishment.
The flipside, of course, are urban areas where local, sustainable food resources go for a high enough price to be exclusive to only the prosperous few. Here again, I’m not offering a solution right now, sorry. I’d just like to point out how worthy it is to consider how to re-evaluate our network of distributing food, to specifically insure that it’s equitable in every direction.
Another way in which we still fall short on resilience is our reliance on grain and feed importations. While a major part of our project encompasses providing perennial alternatives, this is a life long undertaking for us. We would likely need to radically downsize, change management, and/or plant field crops to survive into the long term, if our current feed sources dried up. In lieu of taking on more deep responsibilities, cooperation with our neighbors and an organized diversification of local land use seems a more enduring way forward. Many of our field crop farmers will also be in need of more local markets, and so the possibility of mutual collaboration may seem more practical now than ever. Looking into the future, it is not hard to imagine a day when selling commodities globally is impossible.
It seems like quite a lot of y’all may just have the time on their hands to ask similar questions, and, I don’t know, even come up a few answers. Me, I gotta go freshen the barn and watch how the rain flows. If you’re in the area, come on by for some produce. We’re all about local food, just keep a few feet away from me, please.