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Wednesday, April 30, 2014
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The ‘Foodshed’ and the Common Interest: Powell’s Vision Revisited

By Guest Author, Avana Andrade, Yale F&ES '15

John Wesley Powell’s 1878 Report on the Lands of the Arid Region set out his master plan for water management, land tenure, and settlement across the western United States. Even from his mid-nineteenth-century perspective, Powell could see the water wars coming. In his plan, Powell recommended that settlements and agriculture be organized around the natural flow of water over the landscape, according to a region’s given watershed. He envisioned water managed not through large diversions, transfers, or dams but through small dams and canals, with the water never leaving its watershed.

In this model, Powell foresaw farmers and communities with more power over their region’s water management. His vision, as utopian as it may strike us now, never came to pass, but his foresight still holds relevance today. The idea of organizing resource management according to natural features of the landscape is reflected in the growing national interest to orient food production and consumption to local or regional capacities. As more local and regional food systems emerge nationwide, they may not be aligning themselves with watersheds as Powell hoped, but they are responses to particular local needs and regional trends, and place more control over food production in the communities’ hands. With the help of the federal government, these networks may be creating something more akin to “foodsheds” instead.

In her April 16th presentation, “2014 Farm Bill: What’s in in for Sustainable Food Systems?” Ariane Lotti gave listeners a brief overview of the congressional lead-up to the current bill and provided a more detailed look into the nuts and bolts of the farm bill programs and subsidies. The portion of the bill that addresses sustainable agriculture is one small segment of the entire bill, but it focuses attention on local and regional food systems, the next generation of farmers and ranchers, research and extension, and farm subsidy reform. In looking closer at this one facet of this bill, and local and regional systems of agriculture, it quickly becomes clear that various realms of the farm bill overlap significantly, and likely by design. The purposes of micro-loan or crop-insurance programs, for example, bolster the up-and-coming farmers who no longer see their predecessors’ large corn or soybean fields as economically or environmentally viable.

Take, for instance, John D. Jackson’s family farm in southern Illinois, in the heart of the Corn Belt, which has grown corn for ethanol and cattle feed for decades. Recently, however, Mr. Jackson has begun to convert a portion of the farm into fruits and vegetables. He is among a growing number of Midwestern farmers responding to the economic advantage in diversifying the family farm. Apparently, the financial gain from a transition, even a partial one, can be significant. According to a February, 2014 New York Times article, “The Seeds of a New Generation,” (which cites Iowa State University crop analysts), a farmer can expect on average $284 from an acre of corn, while a one-acre apple orchard could bring in $2,000 or more. This shift in economics is due, in large part, to strengthened regional food systems. The story of one farmer’s son returning to the family corn operation and bringing with him apple trees, blackberry bushes, and rows of vegetables is striking because the more common picture is of the corn farmer’s children running far and wide, never to return.  Accordingly, this blog is devoted to highlighting a few towns and regions where a more localized and diverse approach to agriculture has already caught its trade winds or where recent federal funding has pushed another proverbial ship to sea.

What is “local food?” What is “regional food?” Is there a difference between the two? What do we mean when we say “food system” anyway? While the terms may seem self-evident to some, it is worth pointing out where the terms overlap and diverge. A food system refers to the multitude of processes through which food is grown, distributed and consumed. Put simply, a food system is “a process that includes the production of agricultural goods, purchasing and processing of those goods, distribution and marketing of value added products, end-user preparation and consumption, and waste disposal.” Local and regional food systems both encompass farmers markets, community-supported agriculture (CSA), food hubs, roadside stands, and u-pick operations. These elements refer to the type of market structures available to farmers in a certain locale; however, there is no universal definition for either “local” or “regional.” A “local food system” generally refers to the processes of growing and selling the food close to the consumer. A close proximity could mean within state lines or, according to the New Oxford American Dictionary, within a 100-mile radius of a given location. While economists might define local and regional food systems according to marketing methods (i.e. direct-to-consumer markets), the general public often brings a more nuanced definition. Consumers may emphasize “small-scale (and attractive) farms, locally value-added products, and the choice of non-commodity foods,” as key traits of a local and regional food system.

A “regional food system” may be a term used to reference the importance of local agriculture to “scale up to be sustainable or self-reliant.” Regional boundaries tend to be larger but are never set, remaining flexible according to social and economic demands. However a regional food system can be useful in articulating not just a particular agricultural network, but the social, geographic, economic, and climatic traits of a certain area. Advocates of regional food systems approach see local farms as one part of a more comprehensive, if spatially bounded, and self-reliant agricultural system. This view of a multi-faceted and dynamic regional food network envisions a “nested” food system that could infuse a fragile mono-crop economy with resiliency. For a much fuller discussion of how local and regional food systems are defined and who defines them check out the USDA report, “Local Food Systems: Concepts, Impacts, and Issues” (May 2010).

One regional food system that has received attention in recent years is in the Hadwick region of Vermont’s “Northeast Kingdom.” The area has been a leader in establishing its food system through the Northeast Kingdom Food Systems Strategic Plan (NEKFSP). The regional planning commission initiated the plan in 2010 to engage in a more thorough analysis of the region’s food systems and economic development. The planning commission selected the Center for an Agricultural Economy (CAE) to draft a plan that would create a “conceptual working model to assess and plan for the regional food system.” This planning process involved a broad-based assessment of the stakeholders and potential participants in the food system through a committee composed of community members from every aspect of the production, distribution, marketing and consumption facets of the food system. CAE also conducted interviews throughout the region with farmers, value-added producers, seed company owners, and retail distributors (to name a few) and, after public review sessions, CAE issued its plan, the NEKFSP, along with a set of goals, targets, and measures as the plan was implemented. The goals address a wide range of agricultural, social, economic, and educational realms of development in the Hadwick region and are each paired with recommendations. A few of these goals and select recommendations are listed below. Not only does the plan align with Vermont’s Farm to Plate plan, which is a state-wide effort to boost Vermont’s farming and food sector, but the NEKFSP establishes “a set of food systems performance measures and a plan for how to track them over time.” Another strength of the plan is a governance network map of primary actors in the food system and their roles and responsibilities in the plan’s implementation, a feature that helps administrators manage wide-ranging action items. For more information about this approach and the plan itself, consult the June 2011 “Full Report” by the Center for an Agricultural Economy and the Northeastern Vermont Development Association.

Select goals and recommendations for the Northeast Kingdom Food Systems Strategic Plan:

Goal 1: The Northeast Kingdom will have increasingly localized, affordable, and sustainable farming and production inputs including energy, fertilizer, seeds, forage, and feed.

Recommendation 1.1: Invest in renewable energy for food production and energy efficiency programs, and increase the amount of on-farm power generation.

Goal 2: More food will be produced in the Northeast Kingdom for local and regional markets; production will continue to diversify, and farmers and food producers will be able to be profitable

Recommendation 2.1: Study the challenges, activities, and profitability of diversified farms and assist farms transitioning to diversified farming

Recommendation 2.2: Promote the production of niche markets (e.g. aquaculture, dairy, beef, hogs, etc) if there is evidence of demand.

Goal 8: Agricultural land will remain open and available to future generations of farmers and the food system will have increasingly positive impacts on environmental quality.

Recommendation 8.1: Develop new and support existing programs to increase access to farm land

Recommendation 8.2: Encourage sustainable production and waste management methods that reduce negative environmental impact.

 

In southeastern Ohio, another regional food system is gaining momentum, largely because of recent farm bill funding. On March 20, 2014, the USDA announced its grant to support the Ohio food hub. The nearly $200,000 grant will assist the Rural Action and the Southeast Ohio Food Hub Network in broadening the local food network by providing “business support, technical assistance and shared infrastructure support for the region’s local agricultural economy.” The grant, in particular, aims to increase rural Ohio community access to economic and job opportunities generated by local agriculture, which, in turn, may serve to make nutritious foods more available. Rural Action, a nonprofit organization that assists the new food hubs claims that the grant could help the organization maintain 275 existing food-sector jobs, and create another 65.

Ohio’s regional food systems are increasingly centered on the concept of a “food hub.” Food hubs, according to the USDA, are “businesses or organizations that connect producers with buyers by offering a suite of production, distribution, and marketing services.” In other words, these are simply marketing venues for farmers looking to reach local consumers. Ohio food hubs include the Appalachian Center for Economic Networks, Local Matters, and the West Side Market.”

In yet another context, the San Mateo Food System Alliance (SMFSA) is one example of a regional food system but in a more urban setting.  Upon its 2006 establishment SMFSA was the first Food System Alliance in California. The group works to bring this California county’s food system into a unified and robust food economy and grew out of a realization that San Mateo County’s own residents did not have access to the region’s own rich agricultural bounty. In response to this disjuncture, SMFSA creates garden recognition programs, supports public schools, hospitals and government buildings in serving county-sourced food, and helps incoming farmers find land. Among its 2011 projects, SMFSA continues to identify mechanisms to distribute the counties produce in its local institutions, to support school garden programs, and assist urban youth education projects.

Regional and local food systems may not abide by the defined boundaries of their watersheds but they can enhance the ability of farmers and community members to use resources more efficiently, while improving their food stability and economic opportunities. Powell would likely heartily endorse these attributes of these emerging food systems, even if they are enabled by a water system propped up by behemoth water works that we can’t easily change the course of now. In her April 16th presentation, Ariane Lotti pointed out the ways in which the 2014 Farm Bill is reaching out to new farmers and, in some ways, endeavoring to encourage and support more environmentally responsible farming practices. These efforts are seen by many individuals as among the first of many in a long and labored journey toward a sustainable American food system. As the cases in Vermont, Ohio, and California indicate, local farming systems are one component in bringing this transformation about.

For a recording of Lotti’s talk please see this link: https://vimeo.com/92902443.

Avana Andrade is a first year Master of Environmental Management candidate at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. She earned her B.A. in International Studies and Western European History at Colorado State University in 2010. Before returning to school, she worked as a public historian and backcountry ranger with the Student Conservation Association and the National Park Service in both Northern Arizona and Southern Utah. Her work has focused on the history of grazing and cultural resource management in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and Canyonlands National Park. Work and recreation on the Colorado Plateau motivates her primary interest in grad school, environmental conflict mediation. Avana is a Colorado native and an avid backpacker and gardener.

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