What’s for dinner?

PINCHING OFF THE WITHERED, yellow branches of our tomato plants this week reminded me what it means to exist at the far end of the food chain, completely dependent on what’s for sale instead of what’s growing, grazing or swimming nearby. It hardly matters whether the tomatoes are suffering from the heat, late blight or my clueless neglect. If I had to survive on what I could grow, my genes and I would have exited the pool a long time ago.

This is still farm country, but not long ago the trends were troubling. In Columbia County the number of farms was dwindling, while factory farming in other states–dairy herds of 6,000 cows–promised cheap produce with the manufactured consistency that many Americans have come to accept as quality food.

That’s why two recent reports and this week’s annual Taste of Columbia County Bounty gathering held out some hope that both public attitudes and economic realities might actually be undergoing a change for the better. The statistics tell part of the story.

This county has supported farming since European settlers took possession of the land three centuries ago, and possibly before that. Since then agricultural boom and bust cycles have played out here, with sheep farming and growing wheat just two of many early examples. Over the last couple of decades a combination of low dairy prices and development pressures hit dairy farmers hard; between 1999 and 2005 the total number of farms in the county dropped 15%, to 475. And then something quite unexpected happened.

A recent study by the Farmscape Ecology Program at Hawthorne Valley called the Food Resource Mapping Project reports that the number of farms has begun to grow again, so that today the county has about the same number of farms it had in 1999. That growth has been accompanied by the appearance of new farm markets and farm stands. The markets and stands, along with community supported agriculture (CSA) cooperatives, sidestep the industrial infrastructure that delivers the processed “fresh” produce that greets shoppers at the door of most supermarkets.

The new markets also go hand-in-hand with the term “locavore,” which defines someone who eats locally grown foods, something that’s now possible to do around here for much of the year. But the progress toward a more rational food production and distribution system remains spotty. One big challenge is how to change the attitudes of people too harried, too skeptical, too uninformed, too poor or too lazy to seek out seek out wholesome local food on a regular basis. It’s a problem because buying local food is the only way the farmers who grow it can thrive. So you could define one barrier to sustainable local farming as the “slack-avore” problem, exemplified by slacker shoppers like… me.

The second of the two reports mentioned above provides some data about this. Last year the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Columbia County conducted a survey that looked at the impact Columbia County Bounty’s programs have on connecting local farms with local chefs. The farmers, chefs and local restaurant patrons surveyed were all enthusiastic about the idea of the restaurants using fresh produce from local farms, but the patrons were not so eager to pay more for the privilege.

Economists and local food activists have assembled convincing evidence that all of us pay steep hidden price to support the corporate food industry, though the bills haven’t all come due yet. Take, for instance, the toll on the environment and on human health from the immense quantities of fertilizers and pesticides that pollute our water, not to mention all the costs associated with shipping fruits and vegetables across the country and around the world. Add to that the irrational system of federal farm subsidies paid for by our income taxes, and you begin to see local food not only as a healthier alternative, but probably the only one we can afford.

A sizeable crowd turned out for this year’s County Bounty tasting event at the County Fairgrounds in Chatham, where guests could choose from several dozen tables laden with local foods. The attendees were middle-aged, and we all looked and dressed like middle-class folks. It didn’t have the feel of a revolution in the making, of activists who want to change the nation, or at least the way the nation eats. But that’s what it was about. And these are just the people to do it, one meal at a time.

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