Can local food save us?

Local food, at least in the sense of it being a subculture, is a healthy one in Brunswick/Topsham. All a person needs to do to take the pulse of the two communities relative to the importance of local food is to pay a visit to Crystal Spring Farm on Woodside Road on a Saturday morning between May and October. That’s where one of Maine’s most vibrant farmers’ markets takes place.

First, there are the numerous local farmers that come from a 25-30 mile radius of Brunswick, bringing a variety of locally-grown and produced foods. You can find vegetables, fruit, meat and poultry, even seafood, as well as value-added items like cheese, bread, all produced locally. Then, there’s the section of the 300 acre Crystal Spring property serving as a parking lot, packed with automobiles and even a few bicycles.

Perhaps all you need to know about the health of the local food community is this; Ben Hewitt, writer of local food fame, Vermont farmer, and the author of The Town That Food Saved: How One Community Found Vitality In Local Food was in Brunswick on a Thursday night in late September and pulled a crowd close to 300 people. If you think that’s no big deal, try getting 100 people to show up for anything approaching important and get back to me on that.

We have multiple systemic problems (crises?) facing our country. Two politicians are currently tilting at taxes, arguing back and forth about how little the wealthy should pay, debating foreign policy, and spending millions working the national bait and switch that is what presidential politics has become. There is no mention of food.

Food is our human fuel. Maybe the current industrial model, one that depletes our soil, makes us fat, keeps us addicted to pills and beholden to corporations is what Romney/Obama should be focused on. Or, maybe as Ben Hewitt mentioned during his 75 minute presentation, “our nation’s soil is reflective of its general health.”

Here are just a few problems with our current industrial model of food production; or better, while it’s “working” (and this is debatable), it certainly won’t forever. It’s also very vulnerable for a variety of reasons, possibly the most obvious for some, but not most—it’s entirely based upon petroleum for its continuance. Because of this, industrial Ag isn’t sustainable, or as Hewitt says he prefers, “restorative.” I actually like his semantic alteration. If we really want to “restore America,” focusing on ways to introduce restorative, local food systems on a regional basis might be our best plan of action.

Once again, neither one of the presidential candidates has mentioned this in the last six weeks, to my knowledge at least. Instead, we’re treated to a daily campaign litany of nonsense that’s echoed and magnified by the chattering classes.

Interestingly, knowing that Hewitt was coming to Brunswick (after seeing a poster about it in Bath, at Reny’s), three local news stories dovetailed perfectly with his topic, “The Future’s In the Dirt.”

On Wednesday, Avery Yale Kamila had an article in the Portland Press Herald about a documentary that interestingly was screening on the very same night that Hewitt was in Brunswick, at the Camden International Film Festival.

The documentary, “Betting the Farm,” details the struggles, hard-work, and challenges facing local dairy farmers in Maine. The film, produced by Maine filmmakers Cecily Pingree and her brother-in-law Jason Mann of Pull-Start Pictures, chronicles three farm families in Aroostook County and Downeast Maine as they and seven other farms strike out on their own to create Maine’s Own Organic Milk Co., better known as MOO Milk.

Just as Hewitt thoroughly detailed in TTTFS, the industrial Ag paradigm, built on a model representing $ 1 trillion (that’s $1,000,000,000,000—lots of zeros!) is the Goliath that Davids like Moo Milk and countless other local producers, no matter how valiant, often can’t overcome.

Then there was this news story that I caught on WCSH-6 during their nightly news, again, related to local milk producers struggling to stay afloat after a spike in grain prices, given the restrictions they are allowed to charge for milk, with minimum prices set by the USDA. Compounding the issue are high fuel prices, which is a double-whammy unlike anything that farmers like John Hemond, who’s been farming for 50 years, has encountered over his farming lifetime.

Lastly, there was this article that I happened to catch about a farm in Bowdoinham, Fishbowl Farm that Mary and I have bought produce from over the past two years at the Brunswick Farmers’ Market, looking to get out of retail farming, because of how damn hard he and his wife have had to work and how those hours aren’t conducive to raising a young family.

This last item connects directly to one of the many salient points that Hewitt addressed at Bowdoin College on Thursday night, this one related to one of his four “commandments” of local food systems, this one being, “farming must offer economic viability to small-scale food producers.” The commandments are also in his book, which I’d recommend that you read immediately, or at least pick it up from your local book seller, or download it on your digital device, which I did last year when I read it in two nights.  I’ll post these commandments at the very end in bullet form.

America has developed a cultural amnesia, one that induces us to forget where our food actually comes from. By extension, because so few of us know farming firsthand, we don’t know how hard it really is to produce good, healthy food that’s not propped up by government subsidies and drenched in petroleum (figuratively, but also literally, due to pesticides and herbicides, courtesy of industrial Ag giants like Monsanto). Supporting local farming is more than plastering your Volvo with a bumper sticker that reads, “support local farms.” It’s being willing to pay more for your food, which is representative of the true costs of growing it.

There are tangible economic and societal benefits to embracing a local, restorative food model. Here are a couple of things to think about.

When you buy your food at Shaw’s, or Hannaford, only 15-20 percent of that money stays in your community. When you buy your carrots, lettuce, and other vegetables from a local farmer, 50-65 percent of that purchase price stays in the local economy, circulating through and benefiting other businesses. And of course, there is greater nutrient value, not to mention that there’s no comparison between the produce trucked across the country on subsidized roadways. Local produce tastes so good that you’ll be eating carrots out of the bag on your way home from your local CSA, or farmers’ market.

As Tom Settlemire from the Brunswick-Topsham Land Trust mentioned in his introduction of Ben Hewitt (they were one of the sponsors in bringing him to Bowdoin, where he met with students, also), a 20 percent increase in locally-produced food in Maine would pump $1 billion (that’s $1,000,000,000) into the state’s economy. That would fix a lot of pock-marked roadways and failing bridges, as well as cut some of our obesity and other attendant health problems, which also are economic liabilities to our state. This point is missed by the entire economic development community in Maine, with a few rare exceptions.

Can local farming save us from ourselves or usher in a new age of prosperity? Probably not. Hewitt did touch ever so briefly on the need to reform our economic model of consumerism. Dare I say that he said we need to “reframe our expectations” nationally? Telling Americans that they need to change never ends well. But we do need to change if we want to see another 200 years as a country

There’s a lot more I could say about Hewitt’s talk based upon my notes that I wrote down in dim lighting (he had a PowerPoint!). I’m not—read the book!

I’ll close with a personal anecdote and post Hewitt’s four commandments.

Mary and I didn’t always embrace local foods like we do now. Almost every Saturday, she’s at the farmers’ market in Brunswick. During the summer months, basically Maine’s growing season, 20-30 percent of our food budget is allotted to purchasing food locally. We’d like it to be higher and we discuss ways of increasing that percentage.

This evolution in how we eat has been gradual. It started with having concerns about the safety of food in our local supermarket. We started buying organic produce and other items, thinking it was superior, and over time, have opted for local over organic more often than not because much of the organic industry is the other side of the industrial Ag coin.

As we’ve personally embraced local agriculture, we’ve gotten to know many of the local farmers. There is a radical transparency that takes place when you are buying food from people that you know, which is another huge benefit of supporting local farmers.

Mary and I both agree we can do better and do more; we will.

As Hewitt and others talk about, getting your hands in the dirt, growing some of your own food is important, also. I’ve been doing that for a decade, with varying results. I think there is a symbolic element to this, and writers like Wendell Berry would even go so far as to say that it’s spiritual. I wouldn’t disagree.

Ben Hewitt’s local food commandments:

  • It must offer economic viability to small-scale food producers
  • It must be based upon sunshine
  • It must feed the locals
  • It must be circular

For a better understanding of these, buy the book, turn off your television, and spend two nights educating yourself and taking charge of your food and your future.