Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Building a local food system

It has been surprising to me how much local food is available, even at this time of year when food should be at it's most difficult to find.  That, all by it's self gives me hope.  BUT, it is not easy to find.  These micro-producers don't advertise.  Word of mouth is the only way to find them.  That's OK for me.  I'm finding what we need, and the information pool is growing. 

This morning I flipped on the news while the coffee was brewing (no, it's not local... it is fair trade, and I'm looking for a better local source, but I'll not give up my coffee).  The big news of the morning was Steve Jobs leaving Apple again.  Everyone thinks the company will tank again until he comes back.  My first thought was, "What a fragile company!"  Then, as my brain tends to do, my thoughts wandered into the fragility of the food system I was creating.  You see, the difference between a small (micro) farmer/food producer and a company like Apple is that even though Apple has been dependant on the inspiration and leadership of Mr. Jobs, the company will continue to exist, function, and possibly even thrive without him, while a small/micro food producer/farm usually will not survive the loss of the farmer/producer.  Often they wont even survive a year of bad weather, credit problems, sickness, etc.  Local food systems built on small producers need redundancy.  To keep all those redundant producers going requires more customers.  And then I stopped thinking...

Later in the morning (around 6:00 am) I turned on the computer to check out my virtual world.  One of the posts that popped up was about the "Transformative Power of Social Media Marketing in the Foodshed".  Eleanor made me think about my role as a producer, a consumer, and an activist in the local food movement.  It's the activist part that I shy away from.  Activist implies (in my mind at least) confronting institutions or regulations.  I have a more Akido like approach to life, bending, swaying, going around.  So, I may rant about regulations or corporations, but I rarely confront them head on.  I feel kind of guilty about that.  But, maybe this is the solution.  If I actively work on building and promoting a local food system, then I'm being and activist, and being nonconfrontational at the same time.  It is good for me and mine.  It is good for the community.  It doesn't attract too much attention from the regulators, and it makes a difference here. 

So, besides blogging (which is a very personal thing) I want to build a local producer e-network (like Local Harvest except MUCH smaller.)  ANYONE HAVE ANY IDEA HOW AN E- LUDDITE LIKE ME GOES ABOUT THAT KIND OF PROJECT?

I'm also going to get more involved in local food efforts in my community.  To start, I'll be attending a screening of FRESH tonight with a group of local producers, chefs, and concerned citizens.  More on that tomorrow.

How are you being active in building a local food system?


eatclosetohome said...

I can help you think about using tech to build your network...let's talk sometime.


Pen+Ink said...

Well, Facebook keeps telling me to help you find your friends... Perhaps you could start by connecting online with actual RP's in your community? said...

I am not sure where to leave this question, but this thread is closer than some: when you measure sustainability, how do you factor in the servicing of your mortgage? What I mean is are you trying to make a living off your land as well as feeding your family? I want to emphasize again that I am not asking this to be critical.

I have a personal theory that designer products may correlate with well being, but that buying designer products rarely causes well being. In the food world, various industries and perhaps sadly and unfortunately, especially green industries, misuse labels so that those who consume tend to do so at a premium. Too often words like range fed mean nothing. Of course, a social network as marketing does wonders for that because both sides of the equation connect so much more directly.

I have read MIchael Pollen's argument that Americans need to spend more on food. It was one of or those moments that stopped me dead. I agree that we need to reevaluate and redirect our resources (especially time and attention) to food. But just as that are so many things wrong with our factory farmed food systems, there are so many things wrong with our proposed solutions. I am certain that more money is not enough on its own to change the balance. And here, in my situation, there is no question that choosing organic, local, grass fed, or the many other labels that appear are designer labels. They are more expensive. No wonder the folks who become locavore tend to be upper middle class urban white folks and folks like yourself who are directly producing food in rural places. Further--an astonishing percentage of sustainability minded folks around Chicago make a living by converting others to the cause. I am all for someone making a living off of effort and products, but it can't work like a pyramid scheme.

So back to the money question: what I am really trying to determine is whether the high price of local and sustainable products is high in large part because it is paying a living wage to the ones who produce. It seems there are unspoken unknowns at play.

That said, I love your comment about the impulse to feed the world is part of the problem and not part of the solution. I am putting the question to you for selfish reason--I need to learn for myself. I will likely never produce the amount of food you are producing even though I am hoping to utilize my tiny plot of the city to grow. So I am asking, but know I am asking unfair questions.


eatclosetohome said...


The local food producers I know charge what they do to cover their costs and pay a living wage to their workers. They make use of volunteers and interns, and some offer communal housing to keep costs down. I don't know a single person getting rich off local food; mostly I know people who are charging $6/bag for frozen vegetables and not even breaking even. They pay their workers but see essentially no take-home pay for themselves - they're living off savings or a partner with an off-farm job.

One aspect I consider is this: small-scale local food isn't going to get much cheaper, because economies of scale won't really come into play...or else we're right back to local commodity crop agriculture. A tiny farm can become a small or medium farm, and more farms can be created, but they probably can't become megafarms without going back to monocropping.

On the other hand, the price of commodity crop agriculture is going to skyrocket in the coming years, largely due to the price of fuel and chemical inputs. That's when local, sustainable food will become cost-competitive.

The catch is, there have got to be local farms in existence when that happens - farms with knowledgeable farmers, good land, and distribution systems in place. If we don't pay the markup now to keep them in business, there won't BE an option when gas is $6/gallon, the water is all polluted, and our Mexican crop-picking force decides it's better to stay home than risk working in near-slavery conditions.

Alan said...

Emily, I'll talk with you next week about networking. Last night was pretty amazing (the Fresh screening, if you haven't seen it, do. It was WAY better than Food Inc. for motivating change...)

Pen+Ink, I still don't get Facebook. Maybe I should see the movie. I'm working on it, and you keep sending me potential virtual friends, but... Do miss your face.

Paul, Jumped in with both feet didn't ya. Short answer, we don't concider mortgage at this time. CC works off farm, and I try to make enough to cover opperating costs. We made $1200.00 over costs last year. Didn't pay the mortgage. We also didn't come close to feeding our selves. This year will be better. But if push comes to shove, I can cover the motgage flipping burgers at MD. It would cost us more to replace our two cars with new ones than to pay off the mortgage. We are learning...

The bigger bits of your question require more thought and space. Look for a post about the economics of sustainability soon.

Bethany said...


Don't know how I stumbled on your blog, but out in Boston there was a great couple of people who started the Boston Localvores website. They're tired and taking it down now, but through their efforts there was a website dedicated to local food sources. Recently the Urban Homesteader's League has somewhat taken over. If you're looking for examples, they're not too bad a place to start!

Hope it goes well!


Alan said...


Don't know how you stumbled on to my blog either, but glad you did. Thanks for the links. They are inspiring (at least the little bit I broused so far. I'll dig in deeper later tonight...) Glad you joined our conversation.

Eliza @ Appalachian Feet said...

Great idea! Having started some similarly themed groups myself (through much trial and error) I recommend persistence as your #1 goal. By that, I definitely don't mean confrontational activism. I mean try something and if it doesn't work -- don't quit. Observe and analyze what people didn't respond to and then adjust your attempt. Keep trying something new until it works!

Kevin Kossowan said...

I used to feel like Paul does, but now spend a lot of time debunking that theory. Local, organic foods can be available for less than at the box store, if you know how to tackle it and are willing to get your hands dirty.

Your effort towards a network of small producers is half the battle.

crazyLegobrothers said...

Oklahoma has a statewide cooperative that is pretty well thought out. They might have some ideas you could use.

Texan said...

Sounds good and I am sure as you move in this direction ways will present themselves!

On a note sort of the same but not, I have been putting thought into seed exchange through us bloggers. Some of us are already exchanging seeds. I keep thinking there has to be a way to use the blogs or maybe set up a yahoo group, a network of seed savers who would like to share seeds, not sell them..Saving everyone $$ and giving everyone a small way to help another person.

It amazes me what a package of seeds has gone to in price! I know it sounds crazy but for some its limiting. All a person needs is one or 2 seeds and then they can have seeds forever for that vegetable. At least many vegetables are very easy to save seeds from, not all... I just think what 10 free tomato seeds could produce for a family or person. Or 2 squash seeds!

Maybe a joint blog where all members can post growing related information as well? First hand how to type articles. Which would be very helpful for those just learning. I have learned so much helpful information on the net.

It starts getting a bit tricky when I start thinking okay we would all need to understand what type vegetables you can save seeds from, Heirloom etc. Not to save seeds from Hybrid vegetables since you may or may not get that vegetable again. Also how to save seeds, and then how to set this up exactly etc. at this point I usually get brain freeze and leave my thinking for a while.

This is all in the brain storm phase right now.


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