(no) limits to local
Most consumers believe produce comes shrouded in plastic; perfectly selected apples presented in a pristine package ready to enjoy. And while anyone eating fruits and vegetables excites me for all the obvious reasons; health and commerce related, there is one significant difference between the eater of today and that of the past. Eighty years ago most folks knew how an apple was grown, which is no longer the case.
Eighty years ago a substantial chunk of the workforce was employed in agriculture; 22% of workers representing roughly 27 of 123 million people who called the US home at the time. They farmed on small farms in all regions of the US producing mostly for their own subsistence. However, trends began to shift with electrification, mechanization, and infrastructure and transport improvements, allowing people to seek off-farm work. This is where we see the most substantial change in our food system that until recently remained unchallenged.
The change that happened over the next eight decades was one of regional production concentration: the narrowing of single farm commodity production, and the increase of importation. We find ourselves now with only 2% of the population employed in agriculture. And to further exemplify the change, we see that California produces HALF of our fruits and vegetables, with the balance made up in importation; 50% of our fruit and 20% of our vegetables come from overseas.
This current food system is now being challenged by the buy local, eat local revival that’s taken hold across the nation. From 1994-2014 the growth in local farmers markets, a key indicator in defining the traction that local produce has in the marketplace, has seen a more than steady rise, with a 300% increase in 10 short years. This growth can be attributed to many things from national level programming from the USDA and state led marketing efforts, to a new awareness on part of the biggest, most connected generation of our time, Millennials. Representing a third of the population and $200 billion in annual spending power, these internet savvy, diverse, educated, community-minded folks are different from generations past in that they want transparency, connectivity and meaning in all exchanges, including food.
However the revival is challenged as general consumers become increasingly disconnected from the realities of farming. This disconnect is best described through a visual comparison. The image the Millennial consumer conjures when thinking of a local farmer is a young-ish hipster dressed in what I’d deem farm chic hocking their wares at a downtown market. While in actuality, the average farmer is 58 years old with warn hands and a face that bears the evidence of a hard, less than stable life. This is drastically different from what our imagination or even the marketplace manufactures. Take the recent national ad campaign from the leading organic grocer featuring key producers in all their major departments. The one featuring produce highlights a young farmer in an orchard showing his bounty to the local retail buyer. This advertisement spoon feeds us the exact opposite portrayal of our current system thus perpetuating a misguided notion that there is a plethora of young farmers out there growing nutritious and delicious food for you, the consumer, to guiltlessly enjoy.
To become a farmer or make it a viable existence is an incredibly hard pursuit. The food system, as described earlier, works against local farmers, and while current consumer trends create a sense of opportunity, there are many hurdles that a farmer must overcome in order to be viable. Geographical limitations, seasonality, capital access, infrastructure restrictions and market access are just a few of the challenges facing farmers today. Luckily the resurgence in local foods gives farmers hope for overcoming what often seems insurmountable. The Central Coast, a hot bed of agriculture activity that is home to produce giants like Taylor Farms and Driscoll’s, is also home to stellar programs that aim to bolster local farmers so they can succeed. Greener Fields Together is a local organization that puts forth programming that supports farmers in their noble pursuits. Greener Fields Together is a local and sustainable produce program, supporting local farmers by providing Good Agricultural Practices training, food safety audit assistance and market access. Their aim is to help farmers bridge the gap that exists in accessing the wider marketplace. And bridging this gap also means money, in the form of grants, which help farmers make capital investments and infrastructure improvements. In 2016, Cultivating Change, a local farm grant program administered by Greener Fields Together, donated $60,000 to farmers throughout the country so that farmers could focus on farming and, for a fleeting moment, not be burdened by the weight of the food system.
To feed our country now and into the future it’s necessary to grow the local revival by supporting local producers and programs that offer a chance for the little guy to overcome the limits within the current food system. Knowing the history of food production, the current state of farming and how you, as an eater, fit into it will help us return to our foundation and prove that there are no limits to what local producers can do to thrive in a nation built on agriculture.