The Places that Food Saves: Evaluating Local Food Infrastructures

Part I : Defining a functional local food system

We got a supermarket in the springtime, and much has been made of that in my area. Many of the area's people rhapsodized about it - one woman told me she'd been waiting 15 years. It is about 8 miles from my house (compared to 13 to the nearest one before), in a town that is making the shift from rural to bedroom suburb, in an area that isn't quite ready for outer bedroom suburbs.

Before the store opened there was much talk about how our area had been and would no longer be a "food desert." This term means an area where there simply isn't good local access to food. And in some measure, there was some truth there - the long distances that one had to drive to get to Cobleskill or Guilderland or Rotterdam (all about equidistant) were tough on the elderly, the disabled and the deeply time pressed. At the same time, I found it frustrating to hear the rhetoric "food deserts" applied to one of the richest food landscapes I've ever encountered. Others who were bothered by this framing also came together, and we began to talk about how it would be smart to evaluate our local food resources more thoroughly, to be able to speak honestly about my area's capacity for self-provisioning. The very fact that our area looks like a desert to some of its residents seems telling, and troubling.

When this came up, I went back to a book I'd read this winter. I did Ben Hewitt a disservice - he sent me a copy of _The Town that Food Saved_ and I meant to write a review and didn't. That wasn't because I didn't like the book - I loved it. I'd initially approached it unenthusiastically, assuming that this would be just another piece of rhapsodizing about some local food system. I'd read some of the press about Hardwick, and my thoughts were "well, that's great, but that kind of thing is happening a lot of places, if not quite so coherently, and I'd bet it is more complicated than that, just as it is here."

Hewitt's observation is that it is indeed, more complicated - and that those complications are a central part of the story. Hewitt's book is not a rhapsody, but something else - it is the first really popular (ie, not produced as a white paper, transition document, etc... but as a book people would read for pleasure) serious assessment of the virtues and resilience of a local food system. The book is honest, smart and thoughtful - and provides a way of applying Hewitt's analysis to other places.

From one thing and another, I never wrote a review. But my attempt to see my local food system as a whole brought me back to it recently, and I found in the book a useful frame for my own analysis of my region. I'm going to put it up in several posts over the next week or two. I'm fortunate - I get to see a lot of local food infrastructures - this is what I like to do best when I travel to do talks. Sometimes I get deep tours, sometimes I see only one or two places, but wherever I go, this is what I want to see - where does the food come from? Who eats it? Where and how do they enjoy it? They are simple questions, but complicated ones too - and what I love about Hewitt's writing is that he truly grasps the complications. They are complications that apply deeply to my place - and I suspect, everywhere.

Hewitt sets up a series of parameters for what would constitute a successful and functional local food system in _the Town that Food Saved_, and I think the requirements are good ones. I'd like to amend them slightly, however, from my own perspective, while also giving him full credit for honestly quantifying a measure of success. The list goes like this:

1. It must offer economic viability to small-scale local producers

That is, you have to be able to support yourself by this kind of farming. This, of course is a tough nut to crack and an important one - and it creates a deep incongruity. Most small farmers, in order to stay alive in this economy must appeal to comparatively affluent consumers by producing either value-added (ie, cheese, yogurt, jam, etc...) foods or by producing foods of unique quality and appealing to those who will pay more (grassfed meat, organic produce, etc...). Even then, agricultural margins are tight. And there are several problems with this - if we become poorer as a society, the market for goat cheese gets smaller, because most people don't have to eat Chevre. Potatoes and bread, however, become a bigger deal - but these are precisely the things it doesn't pay to grow. Hewitt edges at this point, but I'd make it slightly more explicit - it has to economically viable *and* offer up ways for transitions to be made to new realities. Farmers have to be able to make money now, and also shift to producing different things in different economies and realities.

The other option here is for small scale food production to become an income supplement to people who are supported in other ways - and this is something I've obviously advocated. The reality is that you will run up against limits in the ability of farmers to support themselves - but people with jobs find that they can grow vegetables, either some of their own production and sometimes more. They can raise some rabbits or other animals. This kind of agriculture, that makes it possible to live with less money, and offers a little income diversity, IMHO, may be more central to the project than actual self-supporting farmers in a local food system. It isn't as impressive looking, but where I would differ slightly from Hewitt's focus is that I'd want to look at number of vegetables gardens and home preservers, as well as the number of people eating locally and the number of farmers. Because the self-supporting farmer is only one part of the picture - the other part is the partially self-supporting person who then can allocate some of their resources by barter or money saved in self-provisioning to support those farmers.

2. It must be based on sunshine

While Hewitt doesn't demand we magically go back to the pre-fossil fuel era, he does require that we do a real accounting of inputs, and begin to substantively reduce them. He observes that the kind of agriculture we do now is too problematic - it relies too heavily on long distance transport, mining and inputs that are both energy intensive and also ecologically problematic. He says,

"A decentralized food system must, above all else, be resilient in the face of rapid, disruptive change. It must be capable of surviving a disruption in oil supplies, fertilizer availability and animal feed stocks. It should thrive in (or at least survive) periods of economic growth and contraction. It has to bend, not break at the whims of nature and climate.".

One of the things I like so much about Hewitt is that he grasps subtleties, like the fact that it is often harder for farmers to survive economic expansions than contractions! But more importantly, I think one thing we have some strong indications of is that large scale industrial, centralized agriculture is much more vulnerable than smaller scale agriculture. In one study of Cuban agriculture during the special period, the evalution, by Cuban agricultural scientists, was that the adaptive strategies used to try and keep large farms running simply didn't work. Smaller farms could go back to prior levels of production or even rise above them with the right input strategies, but larger farms simply weren't salvageable as large wholes. In Russia, the same thing emerged after the Soviet Collapse - indeed, the result was so significant that the national trend since the Soviet Collapse has been towards smaller farms - the large state-owned farms simply weren't privatizable or adaptable even when more people were brought in. The perception in Russia is that small farms are better, because they actually will keep feeding you.

There are compelling reasons to believe that the US and Russia and Cuba have substantive differences, but there are also good reasons to believe that very large farms are particularly vulnerable to shifts in input prices and access, and that it may be particularly hard to adapt to lower inputs in a very large scale. Hewitt's point that they must run on sunshine is central, but I think it is also necessary that they *be able to run on more sunshine and less of everything else* - and that means smaller, and more. and again, the system probably must include a large number of people who self-provision or produce only very slightly more than they use themselves.

3. It must feed the locals.

"...perversely, this might be the toughest edict to fulfill, because it flies in direct contradiction to rule number one: It must offer economic viability to small-scale food producers. Once again we run up against our own inflated expectations. Or, in this case, our deflated expectations. Because, for all its faults, the industrial agriculture system does one thing extraordinarily well: It fills our beliies for a fraction of what it cost our ancestors or what it costs the citizens of other nations....If you're bringing home $300 per week (as many in Hardwick do), you're not spending a heck of a lot of time thinking about the hidden toll of industrial agriculture. You're not considering the health costs or the erosion of topsoil caused by mono-cropping, or even the backward logic of a subsidy system that pays farmers not to farm (or conversely, to farm too much); you're too busy trying to find the Cocoa Puffs coupon tucked into your wallet."

This may be the single thing I like best about Hewitt's book - he's properly skeptical about food that goes out of the area, and that is too pricey to feed the locals, but he also understands why the farmers are doing this. The reality is that to pay the bills, it makes more sense to ship tofu to Boston than it does to grow potatoes and green beans for your neighbors. But this makes for a real and profound disconnect between eaters and farmers, and the local food economy often isn't truly local. Hewitt rightly recognizes that some of this is probably inevitable - and I would point back to the need for an agriculture that allows people to shift what they produce in response to economic and ecological realities.

The local food movement has always been vulnerable to charges elitism. (Usually the word "arugula" appears in discussions somewhere, which has always seemed like a mean thing to do to a green with no real position on class but a helpful habit of growing quickly and tolerating cold temperatures, but hey.) Sometimes the charges of elitism are right - in 2008, when food prices spiked, Tom Philpott rightly took Alice Waters and Michael Pollan to task for celebrating that organic and local foods were becoming cost competetive with conventional foods. While this was a victory in some ways for producers and for affluent consumers, it was disastrous for the rising number of people struggling to put food on the table.

Hewitt properly argues that a successful local food system has to find ways to feed people locally, whether through subsidies like food stamps, by connections with food pantries, and also by making locally farmed food more affordable, and he eventually concludes that in some ways, Hardwick's success is part and parcel of its prior poverty. This, I think is an interesting and important point that I'm going to spend more time on in one of my later posts on this subject.

4. It must be circular.

"One of the great strengths of Hardwick's food system - indeed, one of the reasons I believe it has garnered so much attention - is the ease and clarity with which it articulates circular agriculture. Within a 10 mile radius of the town, you can find a seed producer, a composting operation, and numerous vegetable growers. These are not the only businesses participating in the region's farming circle, but they make it incredibly simple to demonstrate roundness in food: The seeds are grown and sown into vegetables. The vegetables are served, and whatever scraps remain are turned into compost. The compost fertilizes the seed and vegetable crops. And so on. Heck, even if you've never given more thought to your food other than to decide whether or not to ask for extra Special Sauce on your Big Mac, you can understand the relationship between compost, seed and vegetables."

Here is where Hewitt sees the most improvement over conventional agriculture, but also the greatest weaknesses in Hardwick's system - he observes that it is a system that works brilliantly "as long as the center holds." If the center fails, the system begins to crack. And this is a simple reality of almost all agriculture - even the better kinds are not closed circles. This is true even for my own farm, where my central premise has always been the emergence of a minimal input agriculture. What we've achieved is an unusual degree of roundness - but it isn't a circle, more of a crescent, and for most farmers, economic viability precludes pure circularness. Now some of that may change as systems change radically - but it hasn't happened yet. How we're to get there is a compelling question.

I think the requirement for roundness is absolutely essential - and unachievable in some ways. There is a gap, which all our agriculture must simply be prepared to jump, painfully, awkwardly, if there is ever sufficient need. The gap is a very difficult space to navigate - as long as the farm must be economically viable in these terms, it must depend in part on fossil fuels, because human labor, other than family labor, is too expensive, because markets aren't in the same places the farms are. At the same time, if the gap is too large, the farm won't survive. So the crescent (rather than the circle) must come as close as possible, so the gap is small. This is, I think the best we can hope for - but we must understand where the gap lies as much as possible and have strategies to make the jump possible - or we all suffer.

Part II: Looking At My Home

This post is already long, so I will begin here with an overview of my foodshed, rather than the evaluation itself. For those of you who imagine never coming up my way, you can skip this part - or do it for your own place. Asking "where are the edges, where do we start, what is my place like" is surprisingly useful even to people who have always been in the same place.

In some ways, it is less easy to decide exactly how to define my place than the defining of Hardwick and its surrounding towns seems to be. What is perhaps remarkable about Hardwick is that a single and unified center has emerged there. I don't think that's true in my area, although different people might argue with me.

I live in the Hilltowns above the Schoharie Valley, to the east of the center of my foodshed. At least, that's how I see it. My neighbors who commute in to GE in Schenectady and to the State Offices in Albany, however, would describe themselves differently, as themselves on the peripheral Western axis of an urban food system that centers around the two cities, Albany and Schenectady. My area is divided heavily between people who face east and people who face west. Despite the fact that Albany and Schenectady are small cities, with agricultural margins just outside (and sometimes inside the city) the housing boom took a shot at turning the areas near me into bedroom suburbs, and sort of succeeded. The road to my house is marked by a row of 10 McMansions, all built between 2001 and 2006, all garish, the result of a neighbor of mine's retirement from dairy farming and the attempt to convince affluent folks that they want to live out in the country.

It wasn't wholly successful - all but one of the houses has turned over at least once, and one fully four times. Several are for sale right now, one for rent, and none doing well on the market. It turns out that the sort of people who want to live in McMansions don't mostly want to live out here, far away from things like supermarkets and malls. But the population of my town and the neighboring ones rose, and things changed. Now Duanesburg, the nearest town, has shifted from primarily agricultural and west facing in culture to east, to being a suburb with some remaining agricultural character. Knox, my town (our property is on the Knox-Duanesburg line) never fully made that shift - its culture is still Hilltownish, west-facing and agricultural, but there are more commuters. When we first moved in, it was common for no cars to pass our road for an hour or more during the day and only four or five to go by during each commuting hour - now during morning and evening commutes, the road sees dozens of passing cars.

For most of the people from here, they are part of the largely agrarian culture that surrounds the Schoharie Valley, and this is true for us as well. But for many of my neighbors, it is otherwise - they think of themselves as outer citizens of the cities, and live that way. So my own view should be taken as hardly universal.

When we moved here, we planned to live in the Schoharie Valley, or along the Mohawk Plateau to the north of the valley - this house was the furthest east we even considered. So our center has always been west of us, and for our purposes, I'm going to place the center in the town of Schoharie - but it is worth noting that this is somewhat arbitrary. As Hewitt writes of Hardwick,

"Hardwick doesn't have much of a business district, it's enough to meet our needs. Maybe that's in part because we've tailored our expectations to the town's infrastructure: If we can't find it in Hardwick, the logic goes, we probably don't need it. I don't think we're the only ones who loosely follow this rule. In fact, I'm certain we're not. Sure, there are plenty of things you can't find in Hardwick - there's no movie theater, no electronics store, no pace to get a new pair of boots or a bedside table - but you could go months without needing anything more than the town can provide. In this way, I like to think that the town keeps us honest in our role as consumers. At the very least, it cuts down on my impulse purchases, as long as I restrain from picking up handguns and tractor tires on a whim."

Schoharie has two advantages over Hardwick, economically speaking - it is the county seat of Schoharie County (albeit in a county with only 35,000 permanent residents) and thus has County offices to support it, and it has a tiny tourist trade, based on a couple of oddities - a railroad museum, and an old revolutionary war fort at which nothing of import actually happened, but which looks cool. Once upon a time there was an Easter Egg museum as well, which apparently included eggs painted to look like all the presidents of the US. The area gets some peripheral tourist traffic from nearby Howe's Caverns.

Hardwick, of course, is now famous for food, but the Schoharie Valley is sort of vaguely unknown, but had tiny claims to fame before it. Still, it gets nothing like the tourism that most of Vermont gets - and in fact, that's one of its great virtues to me. I grew up in and around Salem, MA, and became early cognizant of the mixed blessings of tourism, and the cultural divide between people who live in a place and those who visit it.

Schoharie is like Hardwick for us as the limiting center of our economy - I measure these things traffic lights. Schoharie has four - which gives you a sense of its size. Schoharie is where we renew our driver's license, eat in a restaurant that isn't a diner or a pizzeria, stop at a hardware store or meet any number of needs that can't be met in the nearest one traffic light town - Duanesburg (3 pizza places, 2 diners, two convenience store/gas station, 1 dentist 1 antique shop, post office 1 tax preparation place, 1 doctor, 1 real estate agent and a few other things I'll mention later) or zero-traffic light Knox (1 presently closed general store, 1 hairdresser, 1 post office, 1 long defunct gas station). And since it is the county seat, I feel mostly ok about placing it at the center of a 15-20 mile circle that makes up our local food world.

There's a definite case to be made for other places. For those of us so far to the east, I could draw my circle around Altamont, which has several things that Schoharie doesn't - a small butcher who will process local livestock, a liquor store, a yarn shop and an Ag-Way. Or there's Cobleskill, the true physical center of Schoharie county, with SUNY Cobleskill, the agricultural college at its vital center. Or Sharon Springs, the once-affluent, decaying tourist burg that has attracted celebrity supporters. But I'm still going to use Schoharie, simply because it feels like a center to me, and I don't think it is just me.

If you hang around my area long enough, you realize that the local food economy runs pretty much the length of my area - through the hilltowns, down the valley, and back up to the foothills of the Catskills on the southwestern side, and up on the Mohawk plateau to the north. There's a lot of back and forth for those who face west - for example, the face of the new local food infrastructure in Duanesburg (about which I'll write in a later post) lives in Sharon Springs, on the far side of the valley, but her father farms in Duanesburg, and thus, to us she comes, bearing local produce from the far side.

And in a sense, it is all part of a much larger infrastructure. You begin to bang up against each other. Someone recently asked me if I was Shannon Hayes, the author of _Radical Homemakers_ simply because it seemed so odd that there could be two women who write about food, domesticity and women's issues in so very small a space - and yet, we both live and farm here. The local economy demands that most people living on their production embrace a still larger area - at the Schenectady Greenmarket we see the farms we visit often, and the friends we know, and then, on a visit to Cooperstown or up to Saratoga, again, you see the familiar faces. It is the reality of the local economy that to sell your cheese or herbs or vegetables, you must often reach wide.

Indeed, it goes further than that - many of our local producers reach further out. The Carrot Barn sells its carrots to be fed to New York City schoolchildren. One farmer I know drives his green and blue Aracauna eggs down to the city greenmarket where they sell for the astonishing price of $7 dozen. The cheesemakers send their cheese east to Boston. The circle is without end, if you draw it carefully enough.

Yet I would argue that despite these larger, surrounding circles, there's an inner one - a circle that takes in all those who face the Schoharie Valley and the Mohawk River as their locus points - we go to Schenectady, but we are not from there. The terroir, to be pretentious about the food my family and other people produce, is from here. And to the extent that's possible, it is about the place and people.

In a way, even my identification with this place is slightly false. My husband teaches in Albany, passing three grocery stores and a farmstand on his way to and from work. We attend synagogue in Schenectady. We can have the best of both worlds, if we want - buying boots and endtables galore. That we don't engage in commerce on the sabbath is a pretense. That Eric carpools and doesn't stop at the stores most of the time is a pretense. We could face east - but we choose not to.

There's something strange about that too, because one of the questions I have about our region - and perhaps about Hewitt's as well - is whether in a decline, we will in fact, mostly feed ourselves. While economic and energy and environmental crises may be difficult in Albany and New York City, I think it isn't unlikely that the famed purchasing power of city dwellers over rural ones may continue, and the Mohawk and Hudson around me suggest ways of making food go there.

Indeed, I live not fifteen miles from the Erie Canal, on which mules once helped the barges go upriver. Will my food stay local in hard times? Will we feed our community? Or will the bind that farmers live in - the need to feed the more affluent - continue to constrict my community. This is something I simply do not know. I tend to think, however, that the degree to which the community can support and build a network of intertwined food systems, and intertwined people, will in some measure define this.

More to come,



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The small farmers are indeed in a bind, in that they must simultaneously prepare for the input restricted type of agriculture to come while living in the economic reality of today. Doing either is difficult enough, doing both is nigh onto impossible, and involves compromises that reduce the efficiency of both cropping systems. Producing high value specialty foods and value added products that appeal to affluent consumers may be a currently viable business strategy - indeed, it may be the only viable strategy - but this won't last. Eventually there will be no market for luxury goods. What it comes down to is how to prepare for a far less mobile & affluent future while still managing to pay the property taxes. The present reality is that doing so necessitates subsidizing the farm with outside employment. Losing the day job probably means losing the farm.

By darwinsdog (not verified) on 19 Oct 2010 #permalink

I'm reminded of a quote from the Seven Samurai:

"What do you think of farmers? You think they're saints? Hah! They're foxy beasts! They say, "We've got no rice, we've no wheat. We've got nothing!" But they have! They have everything! Dig under the floors! Or search the barns! You'll find plenty! Beans, salt, rice, sake! Look in the valleys, they've got hidden warehouses!"

In hard times, the urban centers will still draw on the outlying areas for resources - they'll send tax collectors even if they have to collect payments in potatoes and ride out on horseback to do so. And the justification will be simple - the hungry masses in the center who threaten to implode without a ration of bread. Or if the center doesn't hold, your local warlord will collect taxes to feed his or her little army. So you pay your taxes, hopefully not too burdensome - and, since no one's a saint, you'll probably skim a little cream off the top for yourself.

So I don't know if it is so much a question of whether urban areas will retain greater affluence but rather from what source is regional security being provided and how is that resource being paid for - I suppose I have a simplistic binary view, you either are a warlord or you pay taxes to one. After all, is the affluence of the urban core real or merely part of the perception necessary for the flow of resources from the wide base to the top of the pyramid? There is no natural law demanding the payment of property taxes or mortgages - but then you'd better have at least a few samurai on your payroll when the sheriff shows up with an eviction notice.

Thanks Sharon for a thoughtful post. I'm looking forward to the continuation.
Here in eastern Kansas, there is a vast quantity of food produced, and nearly all of it becomes input for the industrial food economy. Only a tiny trickle shows up at the local farmer's market or bakery or brewery. Maybe that is normal in this country, but I still marvel at those grain trucks carrying more calories than I will eat for the rest of my life. For which the farmer is lucky to come out a few hundred dollars above even. I think that is a good way of illustrating that it is really easy to grow food, and really hard to grow money. I am confident that I can grow enough food to supply a modest, bland diet, but I can't see any way that I could grow even a tenth of the cash I get from my little job in town.
So if we are talking about a national shift to a subsistence & surplus food economy driven mostly by contemporary sunlight, we are talking about a massive revolution in this country to reclaim our sustenance from the monetary economy. Given the power of the vested interests, and our consumer culture, I expect it will only happen because there is no other choice. That is to say that I am confident that it will happen, and cannot even imagine the trouble that will come along with it.

By Eric in Kansas (not verified) on 19 Oct 2010 #permalink

The thing about the local food system I have noticed is how little the farms around me produce for themselves! I expected that they would all have some chickens and veges but this is not hte case, it seems that growing your own food is seen as a bit of a waste of time, maybe they really dont have the time, I don't know yet. However there seems to be a lot of time for mucking around with tractors, bulldozers, chainsaws etc - all pretty macho stuff - fascinating, I have a lot to learn here about what makes the locals tick.
I have observed that they have noted me out in my vege garden and seem to think I'm a little odd - but hey I am a city slicker so they are probably right!

By kookaburra (not verified) on 19 Oct 2010 #permalink

Kookaburro: Most farmers do specialize in producing 1 or just a few products. As this blog has pointed out, there are problems with monoculture. However, specialization does have economic benefits. I wonder if what you call mucking around is really drudge work to the farmers? Riding a tractor all day (which has no suspension system) always leaves me aching. Cutting wood is a very tiring exercise, though necessary for maintaining fields and for heating (if they heat by wood which seems to be more popular with farmers than non farmers).

I don't think the US will ever transition to a local based food structure. The urban density prevents this from occurring. There is simply not enough nearby, productive farm land to provide the calories and protein for most if not all urban centers. Increasing urban density increases energy efficiency that more than offsets transportation costs, particularly food that is transported by rail and water. I suppose this depends upon the definition of local (I just assume a reasonable definition would be 100 miles but my assumption may be way off).

I don't think the US will ever transition to a local based food structure. The urban density prevents this from occurring.

Fossil fuel, potash & rock phosphate depletion are very real issues that will eventually preclude industrial scale agriculture and long distance commodity transport. Yet you are correct in stating that urban population densities preclude food self-sufficiency. Quite a conundrum. The logical outcome is obvious. Denial runs deep. Desperate people grasp at straws. Come up with an implausible scenario by which the obvious may appear to be circumvented and people will pay you to hear about it. They won't pay you to hear the obvious reiterated. This I've learned.

By darwinsdog (not verified) on 20 Oct 2010 #permalink

I think that when people are hungry they can get very inventive about food. I know there are rooftop gardens in Manhattan with bees as well as vege. There is a possibility for chickens or rabbits in many more places than they are now. Yes, even more people will be hungry than are now. Yes, there will be malnutrition, especially with the transition to having to procure your own food. Can it be done? I think a lot more food can be produced in urban areas than is being produced now. I think perhaps the smaller urban centers might even be a smarter place to be than the country in many places. I am now in the process of learning how to eat from my urban area. I teach where people are willing to listen.