Opinion: Local Food System Resilient and Fragile

The Daily Hampshire Gazette, October 24, 2016, by Claire Morenon

One of the defining characteristics of our region is the strength of the connections between our local farms and the community as a whole, visible in the vibrant farmers’ markets, local food on menus at restaurants and retailers, and kids happily crunching on kohlrabi (well, sometimes).

But on this Monday, National Food Day, even as we join in the national celebration of local food, we find ourselves reflecting on the relative fragility of our local food system.

The big story of this summer was the sustained drought. Here, we saw resilience in the diverse crop plans of many of the farms in our region — when some crops struggle, others thrive, and farms that grow a variety of products are better prepared to absorb losses. We also saw resilience in the hustle and hard work that farmers put into juggling the regular work of planting, weeding, and harvesting with the constant need for irrigation. Even so, this was a tough year for all farms in the Northeast, and we know that yields and incomes are reduced. Increasing instability in weather patterns, caused by climate change, is a serious and growing problem for farms and other weather-dependent businesses.

September brought a major recall of beef, veal, and bison that had been processed at Adams Farm and Slaughterhouse between July 15 and Sept. 22 due to concerns about E. coli contamination. As one of only two USDA-certified slaughterhouses in the state, Adams Farm is a vital part of our agricultural infrastructure, and dozens of local farms have been affected. Locally grown meat still makes up a tiny percentage of overall meat consumption, which limits the number and scale of farms producing meat and the number of slaughter facilities that can be supported. Adams Farm has been filling this need ably for decades, but as this recent recall shows, small-scale local systems with a limited number of players meeting infrastructure needs are inherently vulnerable.

Dairy farms are, in many ways, the anchor agricultural industry in our region, but dairy farmers struggle to make ends meet under a federal pricing system which often does not cover their costs. Dairy farms steward nearly a fifth of the agricultural land in the Pioneer Valley, and when they fail, that land is vulnerable to development. Dairy farms are economic engines, helping to keep feed stores, tractor repair shops, and other vital agricultural services viable. And they produce millions of gallons of milk per year, most of which is processed and sold right here and in neighboring states. At CISA, we’ve been working to educate people about dairy farms’ contributions and challenges — come learn more at a screening and discussion of “Forgotten Farms,” a new documentary film, at Amherst Cinema on Nov. 15.

As we move through the harvest season, summer farmers’ markets are coming to a close and winter farmers’ markets will be opening in six communities. Winter markets are still a recent phenomenon — the first weekly winter market in the state opened in Northampton in the winter of 2009-2010. These winter markets, and the increasing availability of local produce at grocery stores and restaurants throughout the winter, represent significant investments on the part of farms, with costs sunk into growing more storage crops, building new storage facilities and unheated greenhouses to keep hardy greens growing, and maintaining staff to keep farms running and booths staffed through the winter months. These investments represent hope and trust that the noisy enthusiasm for local food will translate into real changes in our diets, and seven years in, there’s still a lot of room for growth at these markets.

At the same time, there’s a lot to celebrate! Farms that sell seasonal farm shares are accepting new members for their fall and winter programs and for next year’s growing season. Farms with turkeys are eagerly accepting orders for Thanksgiving birds, and there will be roasts available for holiday tables. Wool that was sheared this past spring is available as colorful yarn and soft fleeces. Orchards are fully stocked with apples and pears. Many farms and farmers’ markets are thriving, and many retailers, restaurants, specialty food producers, and institutions have solid relationships with farms, making local food increasingly ubiquitous.

And within this celebration, let’s make space for sober reflection on our fragility, and our continued commitment to growing and strengthening our local food system.

Claire Morenon is the communications manager at Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture, based in South Deerfield.