It's a hot August afternoon and I'm working from home or trying to work anyway. Two old casement windows are cranked open and I'm distracted by the sound of many, many bumblebees swarming over a stand of Jerusalem artichoke aka Dump Daisies that are putting on their annual explosion of yellow.
These bumblebees, I reflect, are not the only ones flocking to enjoy the extravagant bounty of what has been a memorably good growing season in southeastern Vermont. Many, many people, all of a sudden, want local produce.
Every Saturday this summer there has been a long line of cars waiting to get into the local Farmer's Market parking lot, tying up traffic in both directions. Restaurants now announce with pride what's local on their menu. The Food Coop recently put on a dinner to showcase local food and farmers and there was standing room only inside and out on the lawn with a line of hungry folks winding back down the street. And Localvore [as in omnivore/carnivore] Chapters are growing like cucumbers after a good rain.
Here are some of the reasons eating local food is catching on.
- Local produce is fresh and thus more nutritious. It is harvested at a peak of ripeness and flavor rather than early in anticipation of a delay in getting to market.
- There's often more variety, such as knobby nearly black tomatoes and very fresh very spicy Poblano peppers that I haven't seen since I left New Mexico.
- Buying local supports community farmers. In addition to giving moral support, buying local eliminates the middle man, providing more profit and thus economic stability. And that's important. Economically healthy farms help keep fields and pastures open, and they insulate a community from any disruptions to transportation or large scale production far away.
- It benefits the local economy. The money stays in the community rather than moving to corporate financial centers.
- Buying local means you know where your food comes from and how it's produced
- And shopping at the Farmers Market is fun. You see old friends, hear funky music, and eat exotic food [made with local ingredients of course.]
So if that's the view from the trenches or more specifically from the local farm stand, here's the view from 30,000 ft.
- Local agriculture generally produces less CO2 because there are shorter distances involved in getting produce to market. Bill McKibben writes about food miles at length in his newest book, Deep Economy, The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future. In Iowa, he explains, the typical carrot has traveled 1,600 miles from California, a potato 1,200 miles from Idaho and a chuck roast 600 miles from Colorado. "Seventy-five percent of the apples sold in New York City come from the West Coast or overseas even though the state produces far more apples than city residents consume." For an opposing view, you might want to read Food that Travels Well, an August 6th New York Times Op-Ed piece about why the conservation-minded English consumer should be eating New Zealand lamb rather than what's grown locally. Even more interesting are the letters that followed.
- Local agriculture is often low input meaning it uses less energy and chemicals and is therefore more sustainable. Local farmers are also more likely to use such practices as intercropping and crop rotation that leave the soil healthy.
- Local agriculture produces more output per acre than commercial farming although it is more labor intensive. According to McKibben, "you get more food per acre with small farms, more food per dollar with big ones." He says that's because in the recent past, we have substituted oil for people, but that may be about to change in ways that are still being explored.
So, right now, this all seem like a great idea. But it's August when the definition of a friend is someone who will take another baseball-bat-size zucchini. What do we eat in the January?
Probably not arugula or even zucchini. However, one town is researching building a winter greenhouse that would be heated by oil from locally grown sunflower seeds. And another is building a community root cellar. Turnips, parsnips, potatoes of all kinds, onions, leeks, carrots -- that would work for me if I had some frozen cilantro or dried rosemary.
At our headquarters in Charlestown, we've already had one delicious Localvore lunch with hopes of making this a regular potluck event. We'll let you know what we find to eat as the seasons change.
If you have suggestions or recipes to share with us, please let us know. BTW, just to set the record straight, I am NOT giving up coffee.