Outlook 2023: Celebrating 30 years of ‘Buy Local Food’
Published February 22, 2023 in the Springfield Republican’s “Outlook” special feature
Celebrating 30 years of ‘Buy Local Food’
By Claire Morenon
The new year is an opportunity to reflect on the challenges, lessons and growth of the past year, and to prepare ourselves for and dream about what’s to come. For local farmers, that’s doubly true: most of them have put their fields to rest and they are budgeting, hiring, and making the crop plans for the growing season to come.
And at Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture (CISA), it’s triply true: we’re heading into our 30th anniversary year of supporting local farms and building connections between local farmers and their communities. This landmark year is an opportunity for reflection, dreaming and action on a vast, long-term scale.
Local farms, like many small businesses, have been on a roller coaster for the last three years, and 2023 brings many of the same uncertainties. While COVID is still a serious issue, especially for high-risk folks, the urgent response demanded of businesses in the early days of the pandemic have receded. But the many social and financial harms stemming from the pandemic continue to stress businesses of all sorts.
The most visible of these harms, to many of us, is inflation. Farms – along with restaurants, grocery stores and all the other businesses that make up our local food system – are dealing with a massive surge in input costs. For farmers, this is complicated by the seasonal nature of their businesses, where many expenses accrue in the winter months and aren’t recouped until the harvest begins in the summer. Then, because most of their products are highly perishable, they need to compete on price with products from around the globe with very different economics. This makes it extremely difficult to plan, to set prices, and to enter into contracts with any sense of comfort.
The difficulties of the current inflation cycle are connected to and compounded by the supply chain issues and labor shortages that have dogged businesses for the last year or more.
Climate change, and the increasingly extreme and unpredictable weather it brings, is another huge challenge for local farms. While farmers in the northeast are accustomed to variable weather, climate scientists predict a range of interconnected changes to come to the northeast. This includes rising temperatures, including more heatwaves, which stress humans, livestock, and many crops.
We’ll see more precipitation, including more extreme rainfall events, resulting in fields that can’t be worked, more localized flooding, more pests, more weed pressure, and more plant disease and rot. The last two years have brought first record-setting rains, and then months of drought. As one farmer shared with us, after 40 years of farming, “I now have no idea what I will plant, how much, or where, with the changing weather.”
This picture looks dire, and indeed the last several years have been uniquely challenging. Many small business owners are just exhausted, and we know that the years to come will bring new and serious difficulties. And still, 30 years into working to build a stronger local food system, we at CISA can see that this is not the whole story.
The first piece of good news is that local farmers are experts at resilience. They have ridden the waves caused by COVID, figuring out how to safely provide food to our communities during the darkest days of the pandemic and continually changing circumstances ever since.
They have jumped in as partners in the fight against hunger, which has only grown more urgent throughout the pandemic. And they are making changes to their crop plans, growing practices, and business plans so they can be more resilient in the face of a changing climate.
The second piece of good news is that they are not alone. There’s a web of support for local farms, including the state, local nonprofits, and the thousands of consumers who choose local. CISA works every day to strengthen the threads of that web by helping farmers secure grants and providing them with expert advice, building relationships between local businesses, and helping shoppers connect to local farms. Our work happens alongside, and often in partnership with, efforts that are focused on land preservation, fighting hunger, environmental action, and food justice.
Local farms are at the center of a healthy local food system, and a big part of why many of us love to call this place home. CISA is committed to supporting them, and we hope you’ll join us! Learn more about local farms and where you can find them, advocacy efforts, and more, at buylocalfood.org.
Claire Morenon is communications manager at CISA.