Op-Ed: We can eat better by working together to strengthen local agriculture

Daily Hampshire Gazette
October 24, 2013
Opinion Piece by Margaret Christie and Philip Korman

Do you ever wonder how much Pioneer Valley residents’ support for local farms and food businesses impacts the local economy? It’s easy to see how buying local benefits your family (it tastes good!). Likewise, if you’re a loyal farm customer, you can guess that your purchases benefit your favorite farm’s bottom line.

But what’s the cumulative effect of our collective support for local farm businesses? Today is the third-annual Food Day, giving us a chance to tally up our joint successes — and to prepare for challenges ahead.

In honor of Food Day, CISA launched a new Local Foods Calculator, which you can access here. It can help you figure out what percent of your food budget is local — and inspire you to do more by showing the impact of increasing local purchases.

For example, if you shift just $5 per week to local fruits and vegetables, it contributes almost twice as much income to the local economy as purchasing non-local fruits and vegetables. If every household in Franklin, Hampden, and Hampshire County made this shift, we would see an increase of 516 jobs and add $24 million per year to the local economy.

As a region, we can generate this economic activity by working together. For a generation now, CISA has collaborated with farmers, individuals and organizations to strengthen local farms. Our successes are many — and yet, the challenges ahead are sobering.

In the past 12 months, we’ve seen commitment to local ownership and control realized through the conversion of three local businesses to cooperatives — Real Pickles and Artisan Beverage Cooperative in Greenfield and the Old Creamery Co-op in Cummington. Other local endeavors include plans for the expansion of the North Quabbin Community Co-op into a storefront in Orange and in Springfield, community activism has created the real possibility of a full-line supermarket opening in Mason Square.

These business successes build on other positive trends related to local food. From 2008-2013, the number of farmers’ markets in our region grew 74 percent to 47 (including seven winter markets), while CSA farms grew 145 percent to 49 farms feeding approximately 40,000 people.

Local beer, brewed with local ingredients, is now created, consumed and celebrated at The People’s Pint and Northampton Brewery. Local wineries are producing more wines with local grapes. Local hard cider has experienced an amazing renaissance. And a new whole animal butcher shop, sourcing from local farmers, will open in 2014 in Northampton. We can measure the impact of our local purchases in dollars, in jobs, in businesses and in beer!

Together, we’ve begun to shift our food economy closer to home to benefit our communities. A number of factors, however, threaten our work. First, we must ensure that all residents of our region can benefit. As income inequality grows, the federal SNAP (food stamps) program is an important source of food for 15 percent of Americans, but Congressional inaction and antipathy threaten this program. Sixty percent of the farmers’ markets in the Pioneer Valley accept SNAP, and SNAP dollars used at farmers’ markets increased 41 percent from 2011 to 2012, making it a growing source of income for farmers. You can help by reminding your representatives that you support SNAP benefits and that USDA programs have helped more farmers’ markets accept SNAP and you can generously give when your farmers’ market asks for funds to match SNAP dollars.

While the debacle of the recent government shutdown reminds us why we value local action, we can’t ignore the power of the federal government to be a positive or negative force for local farmers. Decades of federal farm policies favoring the largest farms mean that in 2007, less than 2 percent of farms accounted for 50 percent of total sales of farm products (GAO Report, Concentration in Agriculture, 2009). The last five-year Farm Bill funded many innovative programs benefitting local, organic and beginning farmers, but since it expired a year ago Congress has been unable to pass a new Farm Bill. We need a new Farm Bill, and we need a better Farm Bill.

The impact of the federal government is also visible in the proposed Food Safety Modernization Act regulations. Although these regulations were created in response to food safety problems in the industrial food system, the proposed regulations would disproportionately increase costs for small, diverse farms. The result — we will lose a good number of small farms due to the high costs to comply. Comments on these rules are due Nov. 15 — learn more and take action here.

On Food Day, raise a local libation to our joint successes. Pledge to increase your local buying, and to take action to ensure that government policies benefit our farms and our neighbors. The next step for change involves not only what is on our plate and who is sitting at our table, but what are the rules that we eat by. Together, we can make sure our farms can feed us all.

Margaret Christie is special projects director and Philip Korman is executive director of Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture (CISA).