Bring back the local farm

July 17, 2008|By DAN RODRICKS

A woman pulled up in a Lexus at the farmers' market in Bel Air recently and approached the man who had sold her husband a bag of tomatoes earlier in the day. "I want my money back!" she snapped. "I don't know what my husband was thinking, paying $5 for a quart of tomatoes."

Watching and listening to this, Dene Bruce, a Harford County agriculture teacher who grows flowers and vegetables, laughed and shook her head.

"These were beautiful tomatoes, the first of the season," Bruce said. "I bought some and made the best BLT with them. They were fresh, beautiful and locally grown. I don't know what this woman was thinking."

She was probably thinking that a local farmer should charge less for his produce than the supermarkets do - and that all food, from everywhere, should be plentiful and cheap. A lot of us think that way.

Of course, the cost of fuel and fertilizer threatens that mind-set. The cost of shipping produce, fish and meat from across the country - from all around the world, for that matter - contributes in a big way to the rising price of food.

We've had it easy for a long time, sustained by subsidized, globalized agribusiness that grows, harvests, processes and ships food from distant places, so much so that most of us have lost our connection to the land that produces it. Small, local farms have disappeared, replaced by sprawling suburbs. Today in the United States, there are fewer choices when it comes to locally grown food.

I am usually reluctant to reminisce in print about my boyhood, but in this case I make an exception. When I was a kid in a small town, there were four local farmers, one of them a dairyman. They produced milk, eggs, vegetables and fruit. The dinner table in my house followed the seasons - greens and asparagus in spring; tomatoes, berries, fruit and corn in summer; potatoes, turnips, squash, apples and grapes in fall. We managed through the winter on canned or frozen vegetables, and the cycle started over again in spring.

This sounds like nostalgia.

But all this has to come back - smart people are working on it - and it is going to be revived by market forces. The question is how we achieve a green renaissance and make it last.

Community planners, capital investors, entrepreneurs, public health scientists and the agricultural education system all need to get in the same room and create a business model for it. Political leaders need to hear from consumer-citizens who demand more local farming for three primary reasons:

*Having a sustainable supply of reasonably priced organic food.

* Reducing the cost - economically and environmentally - of producing and shipping food.

* Supporting a resurgent local business and the jobs it creates.

We have a start on this - community-supported agriculture, for instance. That's where you stake a local farm a sum of cash in late winter or early spring in return for a weekly supply of vegetables and fruit through the fall or early winter. We have farmers' markets. We have some local produce sold in the supermarkets. We have roadside stands along the tourist routes.

But we don't have enough of all this, though there's growing support for it.

The preference for buying locally has shot up nearly 77 percent in the past year, according to a survey by the Schaefer Center for Public Policy at the University of Baltimore.

Last month, a team of University of North Carolina researchers received a grant to study the public health impact of expanding local food systems.

"Among the most pressing public health problems in the U.S. today are obesity, environmental degradation and health disparities," said Alice Ammerman, director of UNC's Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention. "Contributing in a big way to each of these problems is our current food system, with its heavy dependence on fossil fuels - such as fertilizers, pesticides and gasoline - for large-scale production and long-distance transportation of often high-calorie, nutrient-poor food, from farm to processing facility to table. ... The result is not only damaging to our health and the environment but also devastating to the economic base of rural communities."

So imagine this: a series of new or restored farms, under 200 acres each, sufficient in number, geographic spread, and crop and livestock choice to significantly increase the amount of Maryland-grown food on Maryland dinner tables. We'd see healthier diets, local residents reconnected to farmers and farms providing a new generation of Americans with a livelihood.

Shaun Ferris, an agriculture specialist with Baltimore-based Catholic Relief Services, listened to my ideas but wondered if the farming ethic had disappeared. "It's hard work," he said, noting that fewer young Americans are drawn to the life these days. That would make a local farming renaissance difficult, he said.

Dene Bruce has 80 students at North Harford High School in a particularly enthusiastic chapter of FFA (Future Farmers of America). Their float was named best in Bel Air's Fourth of July parade, and now they're trying to raise money to attend FFA's national convention in Indianapolis in October. Bruce thinks more kids would be attracted to farming if they believed they could earn a good living and not have to start from scratch - that is, if the new business model included existing farms and the support of consumers.

"Most of the kids have a dream to be some sort of farmer," Bruce says.

Let's find some way to give them the opportunity. They're going to be needed, in a bigger way than they now know.

dan.rodricks@baltsun.com

Dan Rodricks can be heard on "Midday," Mondays through Thursdays, noon to 2 p.m., on 88.1 WYPR-FM.

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