cows in field

Go Local & Prosper ... In More Ways Than One

Localism is becoming a strategy to save the farm and the businesses and communities that depend on it.

By Jack Bradigan Spula

Added October 1, 2009. To show how far we’ve come in a generation on matters of health, compare two slogans from popular culture. The first used to be everywhere in American media: “I’d walk a mile for a Camel,” said the ad copy from the golden, or leaden, age of cigarettes. (Even back then, many asked if the smoker would have enough breath for the journey.) The second slogan, ubiquitous on today’s real and virtual front pages, takes several forms. The website renders it comprehensively as: “Eat local, buy local, be local,” which implies that the consumer would walk two miles, round trip, for local, organic chevre or lamb.

But “localism” is about a lot more than the evolution of health awareness, the personal health of “foodies,” or new pedestrian approaches to quadrupeds. Perhaps most significantly during a Great Recession that’s predictably hurt farmers and rural economies – and stunted the recent growth spurt of organic agriculture, which only last year promised salvation for struggling small farmers – localism is becoming a strategy to save the farm and the businesses and communities that depend on it.

Take what’s happening right now in the state of Maine. As reported recently in the New York Times, farmer-members of Maine Organic Milk Producers are exploring the creation of a “Maine label.” There are some legal hurdles, including assurances that dairy products so labeled are processed within the state. But clearing the hurdles could be a matter of survival. “We’re so remote, we’re high and dry otherwise… unless we find our own market,” eastern Maine dairy farmer Aaron Bell told the Times.
If small farms, organic and conventional alike, are to ride out the economic storm, they’ll need to cultivate localism for all it’s worth. This will mean more direct marketing and sales of locally-grown (and especially organic) produce, dairy products and eggs, breads, and so forth – essentially more grassroots control of the means of production, in ways that cut across old habits and fond ideologies. And putting the power back into the hands on the plough will yield benefits across the board, in areas like these:

  • Nutrition. The central problem with American diets these days is imbalance. To fight this problem, Americans will have to heed sources as diverse as the American Heart Association (“Eat a diet rich in vegetables and fruits” and “choose whole-grain, high-fiber foods”) and best-selling author Michael Pollan (“Eat mostly plants, especially leaves”). And such advice will lead shoppers increasingly to the street markets rather than the supermarket aisles.
  • Energy and transportation. A 2003 study by the Iowa-based Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture established that “food miles” (in their terms, “weighted average source distance”) for locally-sourced foods were substantially lower than for those conventionally-sourced. That is, conventional outlets in Iowa, focused on economies of scale, sell produce that travels an average 1,494 miles from grower to consumer (think broccoli from California).

    For in-state products, the average is a mere 56 miles. It’s axiomatic that something local is closer to you than something across the continent. But even adjusting for this obvious point, the differential is striking: the typical Iowa supermarket is selling out-of-state produce that travels 27 times farther than what this quintessential agricultural state can provide itself.
  • Support for other communities and institutions, and the accumulation of “social capital.” Over the last century or more, and especially during the last 30 years, we’ve seen a forced migration from rural areas to cities and a drastic reduction in the number of farmers. Market fundamentalists rationalize this as the development of higher “efficiencies,” that is, more production with fewer, and less well paid hands. But the localism movement gives new opportunities to farmers – including a new generation drawn to farming as other career paths wind up as dead ends – to stay on the land, meeting a new demand for “real food” and creating truer, more humane efficiencies of scale. And this is not pie in the sky: the true efficiencies come from local linkages between farmers and school lunch programs, hospital food services, and the like. And the “profit” from these connections is found in things that usually get left out of the calculations – like lower contributions to destructive climate change. For example, the National Sustainability Research Service says one university study found that “replacing a year’s supply of conventionally sourced hamburgers and French fries with local ingredients saved 43,000 gallons of fuel [plus] the associated greenhouse gases.”

The free marketers, though, are not sitting back and letting common sense prevail. Rightwing libertarians, for example, have mounted an attack on the concept of food miles, buttressed by a simple belief that, in a formulation that appeared in Reason Magazine online, “Food should be grown where it is most economically advantageous to do so.” Those who buy this argument are really saying it’s best on balance to exploit dirt-cheap labor in developing countries, never mind the costs of transportation and other “inputs.” In fact, the market logic twists this exploitation into a supposed virtue: One backgrounder from the World Resources Institute cites (unnamed) “development oriented organizations” as contending that “public concerns over food miles could have serious consequences for poorer nations” like Burundi, Ghana, Malawi, and others, whose “food exports make up more than 75 percent of their overall merchandise exports.”

Talk about turning reality upside down. The problem of food insecurity in these very countries is rooted in the decline of small, sustainable subsistence farming to meet local food needs – and the concomitant concentration of land holdings into agribusinesses that produce crops (many of them non-nutritive) for export to the wealthy abroad. In other words, what’s happening to small farmers – and contributing to hunger and deprivation - in the developing world is what happened to many North American farmers and communities long ago. The National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service notes that in 1870, 100 percent of the apples consumed in Iowa were produced in that state. By 1999, though, that proportion had declined to a mere 15 percent. This shows just one way in which Iowa, a state known for “corn, corn, and more corn,” has lost a healthy diversity in its agriculture – the kind of diversity of production that can ride out the type of financial storms that are inevitable in a globalized economy with unpredictable ups and downs in ag commodity prices. You might say that diversity in production coupled with the building of a loyal local customer base ultimately prevents the “export” of farmers from the land.

Yes, the economic logic of the traditional small farm – multiple crops and rotations on healthy soil with sustainable practices – is hard to refute when you look at all the relevant factors. And it’s no exaggeration to say that, as proverbially with politics, all farming needs to be local.