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Issues Concerning Us All

Sustainable Agriculture
Sustainability is a structural concept based on a holistic approach that considers both present and future needs. Sustainable activities must prevent or mitigate future negative environmental, social and economic impact. “Sustainable agriculture is defined as agriculture that is profitable, environmentally sound, and beneficial to the community.” it must be capable of providing current needs (for food and fiber) without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs. This requires that production, marketing and distribution must be energy efficient and flexible to accommodate regional differences related to crop, environment and social institutions. It must also be able to accommodate change as scientific knowledge and social institutions evolve.

Sustainable agriculture does not advocate one cropping system to the exclusion of all others, because in reality there is no one system that meets all of the elements of sustainability. Vegetables grown “organically” in California using organically approved pesticides, plastic and flaming for weed control and then shipped 2,000 miles are not environmentally sustainable, nor would they contribute to sustainable local community development.

Sustainability cannot be prescriptive. It establishes goals for selecting the best management practices in a particular situation. To sustain community development, local production and marketing systems would provide a sustainable advantage over highly centralized systems. Also, highly centralized systems are difficult to sustain (environmentally because of pollution issues and the high consumption of non-renewable) resources required for transportation to remote markets. Food safety and food security are major issues. Economics of scale give centralized systems an economic advantage in a global economy only when social and environmental issues are not considered.

Capitalism is driven by industrialization, which focuses on short-term profits. This puts emphasis on production with little incentive to promote natural resources stewardship and community vitality. Globalization accelerates industrialized agriculture, especially for commodity crops (corn, wheat, cotton, soybeans, etc.), as well as meat products and less perishable processed milk, fruit and vegetable items.

Food products that meet USDA organic standards are being industrialized and grown in third world countries where corporations can take advantage of cheap labor. Buying organic is no longer synonymous with supporting local agriculture or small family farms. Without country of origin labeling, you might not even know if you are supporting American agriculture!

Industrialization of organic agriculture has revealed that organic products are not inherently more sustainable, of better quality, taste better and are more nutritional. Organic production systems contribute to sustainability by protecting soil and water quality. Other qualities often associated with organic are not exclusively linked to a particular growing method.

Sustainability, quality, flavor and nutritional value are attributes of locally grown fruits and vegetables that are harvested when fully mature and consumed immediately after harvest. In contrast, fruits and vegetables grown elsewhere, shipped great distances, warehoused and distributed to local stores, are generally harvested before optimum quality, flavor and nutritional value has been achieved. This would be true whether grown conventionally or organically. Growers for the industrial system are limited to variety choices that can withstand the rigors of handling and packaging for long-distance transportation and maintain a long shelf life. Local growers can select cultivars for quality, flavor and nutritional value.

To maximize the sustainability of agriculture, you should purchase food products that are locally grown; and encourage and support infrastructure for the processing and distribution of regionally produced foods. By doing so, you will be supporting family farmers and rural community development, safeguarding the environment and conserving non-renewable resources. In the process, you will be rewarded by the quality, flavor and nutritional value associated with locally produced foods.
Eating for Health
Our bodies are like the cars we drive. Both require energy and lubrication. We would not consider putting contaminated or low octane fuel in our vehicles or forget to change oil on a regular basis. We know that the consequences would be disastrous, and that we would be contributing to a huge auto repair industry! We understand that high quality fuel and routine maintenance is the key to long and dependable service from our vehicles. Consequently, we support a much smaller auto maintenance industry that concentrates on preventing problems, rather than fixing them.

Why then don’t we put the same emphasis on maintaining our bodies? The answer, of course, is complicated by social, economic and industrial factors that need to be addressed. According to Dr. Arthur Caplan, Director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of PA, in our health system “the economic rewards are in repairing problems, not preventing them.” Historically, neither government nor insurance programs paid FOR health, they paid for disease treatment. The “sickness” industry is one of the largest industries in this country and is set up to profit from sickness, not prevention. In 2000, we spent more per person for health care than anybody in the world (about 1/3 more than for food), but our health care system ranked 37th among 191 industrialized nations surveyed by the World Health Organization.

Our industrialized food supply system brags about supplying the cheapest food in the world based on net average disposable income. This is true based on what we pay at the supermarket, but according to Jules Pretty, director of the Center for the Environment and Society at the University of Essex, cheap food is actually very expensive. “We end up paying for it three times—once at the market, a second time via taxes for subsidies, and a third time to clean up the environmental and health mess.”

Environmental costs associated with the industrialized food production and distribution system are starting to make headlines. These include feedlot pollution issues, groundwater pollution due to extensive mono-cultural practices, microbal contamination (think spinach), extensive use of hydrocarbons (think global warming), etc.

Health costs associated with the industrialized food production and distribution system are slower to emerge and be publicized. They are less visible and more easily disavowed by “bad science” funded by special interests. But like the global warming issue, undeniable health issues are emerging (think trans fats). Food additives are required to make food an industrial item. Not all additives for flavor, color, texture, handling, etc., are necessarily bad for our health, but the ones that are make our food intake comparable to putting contaminated gasoline into the fuel tank of our car. There is also the issue of calorie rich but nutritionally poor foods that contribute to obesity and chronic diseases. This is comparable to using low octane fuel in our cars. It will probably run, but performance will be bad and we can anticipate premature engine failure.

Excuses aside, don’t we owe it to ourselves to take care of our bodies at least as well as we take care of our cars? We can start by taking personal responsibility for our own health by demanding foods that are healthy and nutritious. This will create demand for more locally and regionally produced (and minimally processed) food that will promote local economic development and reduce environmental impact. It would also level the economic playing field between local and industrial agriculture. Industrial agriculture will remain a dominant feature of the food-scape, but the demand for healthy and nutritious food (along with environmental accountability) will force market place pricing to more nearly reflect the true cost of food (environmental and health cost will no longer be hidden).

If people are willing to take personal responsibility for their health and demand “high quality fuel” for their bodies, the results are quite predictable. Over the long haul (a specific time frame will depend on many variables) health costs will go down and the emphasis will shift from disease treatment to health maintenance. Quality of life will significantly improve and we will be paying down our environmental debt rather than adding to it. There will be a cost that will be reflected in the marketplace.

Even though benefits will far exceed costs in the long-term, there will be a time lag between investment and payback with interest (as in any capitalistic venture). For most of us this will mean some priority changes on how we allocate disposable income, but in light of the very small portion that we currently spend on food, this should not be a real hardship. For those living on the economic fringe, any increase in marketplace food prices will be a hardship. It may be necessary (perhaps as a substitute for existing food subsidy programs) to institute a temporary social program to guarantee access to healthy, nutritional food, regardless of income restraints, until society receives payback on investment.
Eating Locally
dane buy local logoOur highly polarized food supply systems are divisive for both producers and consumers. As consumers, we must choose between the convenient, plentiful, diverse and “cheap” food available through the industrial system, and the more sustainably produced higher quality and (generally) healthier foods available through the direct marketing system. As producers we must choose between a highly mechanized capital intensive approach that forces us to purchase large amounts of unsustainable inputs to supply demand for cheap raw materials for the industrial system or we must take a labor intensive approach where we have greater involvement in a shortened food chain but have limited and intermittent sales opportunity because there is no consistent infrastructure to process, store and distribute large quantities of locally produced foods.

Mid-sized family farms, often referred to as Ag in the middle, are declining in numbers because they find it difficult to compete in either marketing system. They often do not have the resources to compete as high volume-low margin suppliers of the industrial system or they may not want to adapt the unsustainable practices that would be required to do so. They are often over capitalized and have too much debt service to compete in a direct marketing system that cannot guarantee sufficient quantity and continuity of sales. When they chose or are forced to liquidate, large farms become larger and more industrialized. These larger farms often adapt even more unsustainable practices (such as large feedlot operations, or abandon land stewardship practices not compatible with larger farm equipment.) On the other hand, mid-sized family farms that are sold near urban areas are most often sub-divided into smaller units. Some of these parcels contribute to the direct marketing system because of the close proximity to urban markets and a good labor supply, but most contribute to urban sprawl and the loss of valuable farmland and all of its associated multi-functional benefits.

If we are serious about an economically, socially and environmentally sustainable future, we must shift our emphasis away from the extremes and toward a middle ground, away from a reductionist approach and to a holistic approach.

One way to accomplish this is to support a regional marketing system that could provide consumers with a continuous consumer ready, sustainably produced, high quality, nutritionally rich food supply. Mid-sized family farms would have an alternative marketing opportunity with higher farm-gate prices and more incentive to maintain and/or increase sustainable practices.

Good Reasons to Buy Locally Grown Food from www.foodroutes.org

You’ll get exceptional taste and freshness
Local food is fresher and tastes better than food shipped long distances from other states or countries. Local farmers can offer produce varieties bred for taste and freshness rather than for shipping and long shelf life.

You’ll strengthen your local economy
Buying local food keeps your dollars circulating in your community. Getting to know the farmers who grow your food builds relationships based on understanding and trust, the foundation of strong communities.

You’ll support endangered family farms
There’s never been a more critical time to support your farming neighbors. With each local food purchase, you ensure that more of your money spent on food goes to the farmer.

You’ll safeguard your family’s health
Knowing where your food comes from and how it is grown or raised enables you to choose safe food from farmers who avoid or reduce their use of chemicals, pesticides, hormones, antibiotics, or genetically modified seed in their operations. Buy food from local farmers you trust.

You’ll protect the environment
Local food doesn’t have to travel far. This reduces carbon dioxide emissions and packing materials. Buying local food also helps to make farming more profitable and selling farmland for development less attractive.
Thinking Between the Boxes by Dale D. Secher, January 2008
Along with fresh air and clean water, nutritious food is our most basic need and most critical security issue. Our modern commodities based global food system that supplies about 98% of the food we consume, is sustainably insecure in the long-term. At the other polar extreme, the values-based direct marketing food system that provides the remaining 2% is availability insecure. Each food delivery system (box) has desirable attributes that need not be mutually exclusive if we think between the boxes.

In our opinion, it is not only possible but absolutely necessary, to think between the boxes to create a sustainability and availability secure food system. This vision for long-term food security must identify with the social and environmental accountability of the direct marketing system while incorporating the structural advantages of the commodities system. The significant increases form the current 2% estimate of locally produced foods in our food supply to the 10% goal (a five-fold increase) of the buy local-buy Wisconsin initiative cannot be achieved without being able to provide institutional buyers and conventional food stores with a continuous, uniform, reliable, consumer ready product stream.

Taking Action - Establishing a Regional Alternative
A regional marketing system could address two (2) seemingly different issues. It would be the basis for a sustainable food system incorporating the essential benefits of both the commodities driven and values driven (global and direct) marketing systems. Also, it could provide additional income streams that would reverse the loss of family farms (Ag of the middle) that are so vital to rural economies and land stewardship.

What would be the specific goals?
A short supply chain which would:
a.  Maintain the nutritional qualities of locally grown and processed foods
b.  Eliminate (or reduce) the need for chemical additives
c.  Maintain accountability between producer and consumer
d.  Give producers a more equitable share of the food dollar

To keep more income flow in the local economy
a. Stimulate local economies (provide jobs, capital investment, need for services)
b. Increase the multiplier effect of the food dollar within the community

Reduce environmental impact
a. Lower greenhouse emissions associated with transportation
b. Lower point source pollution associated with processing, etc.

What would be the characteristics?
1. Be able to handle significant amounts of agricultural products in an economically efficient manner.
2. Encompass an area demographically large enough to have a consumer base that would support investment in infrastructure.
3. Be geographically large and diverse enough to support production needs for the entire spectrum of agricultural products.
4. Be geographically small enough to maintain a sense of local identity and to minimize the environmental impact of distribution.
5. Some processing could be multi-regional to have economic efficiency and supply product to more than one region and still meet the general criteria outlined above.

How would it benefit Ag in the middle?
Mid-sized family farms continue to decline due to economic uncertainty and over-dependence on farm subsidies. Recent short-term increases in commodity prices due in part to federal subsidies for ethanol production, will provide little long-term benefit to Ag in the middle producers if history repeats itself. Most of the increased long-term profits (if they are sustained) will go to a few large corporations that supply seed, fertilizer, pesticide, equipment and control marketing infrastructures for agricultural commodities. Bottom-up demand for more local/regionally-produced food will benefit mid-sized family farms long-term by providing a consistent and stable market with more of the profits remaining in rural communities and at the farm-gate. Mid-sized family farms have the resources, dedication and potential management skills to support an alternative local/regional marketing system. They would not have to invest in major start-up costs, could continue current farming practices as desired and access additional income flow with minimal additional investment.

What are the challenges?
There are three major components. The first is supply. Supply could be provided by tapping into the resources and management skills of Ag in the middle in addition to those direct marketers who are capable and willing to take the next step in supplying local foods. The challenge will be to demonstrate financial sustainability, reduce risk, and provide technical support. This will require state and local resources for education, training, loans, grants, business planning and perhaps tax incentives.

The second is the need for infrastructure and/or strategic partnerships (sometimes referred to as value chains) for processing, storage and distribution. This will be required to supply a continuous, uniform, reliable, consumer ready product stream that will meet consumer, institutional and wholesale demand. This is the most challenging component. It will require an in-depth analysis to determine specific needs encompassing the entire spectrum of agricultural products. There may be a need for incentives to expand existing facilities and create new ventures. Financing and management could be accomplished in different ways. Private entrepreneurship should be encouraged, producer cooperatives may be a good option and even quasi-public ownership is a possibility. Start-up risks may have to be underwritten by public entities.

The third component is to assure consumer demand for the amount of local/regionally produced foods that this system could provide. The latent desire for an economically, environmentally and socially sustainable food system is virtually untapped. The challenge will be to educate the buying public about the many social and environmental benefits of purchasing local agricultural products. When people fully understand the true cost of food in terms of health, social justice and environment, demand could easily support what a local/regional marketing system could provide even with a price premium to offset the short-term economic benefits of scale enjoyed by the industrialized system. State and local agencies and non-governmental organizations will play an important role in education and outreach.

What could be the effect on land-use?
Adding diversity to supply a regional food system would allow Ag in the middle producers the economic freedom to practice better land stewardship. Concern for the environment is irrevocably linked to family farm values, but economic necessity in our commodities based system has forced them to adapt mono-cultural and other environmentally unsustainable practices.

A diverse agriculture emphasizes stewardship, provides quality wildlife habitat, environmental cleansing, resource recycling, scenic vistas and recreational opportunities in addition to the production of food, fiber and renewable energy. There is no admittance fee for these public benefits that add quality to our lives, but it is obvious these services have value.

Placing monetary value on these amenities would encourage diversity and help keep small to medium-sized family farms competitive. If developers had to pay for the loss of these amenities in addition to the productive capabilities or rural lands, there would by economic incentive to make better land use decisions and reduce urban sprawl.
Planning for a Sustainable Future
At Carandale, we are optimists and realists.  Optimistically we believe humankind can overcome challenges of the future, but realistically humankind must plan to do so. This will involve a paradigm shift in attitude and a willingness to compromise our feeling of entitlement. 
Planning for the future, of course, assumes that 1) we believe there will be a future and, 2) we are willing to live within an environmental budget.  We am dismayed to discover that there are those who don't subscribe to one or both of these assumptions. 
In retrospect, perhaps it's not surprising that declining natural resources, global warming, drought and threat of nuclear devastation, might cause some to despair about the future, but by taking no action they are contributing to a self fulfilling prophecy.  On the other hand, those who think that there is no need to budget for the future because they believe advances in science and technology will provide a “silver bullet” do not understand the limitations.  At best, science and technology are wonderful tools for allocating and utilizing existing resources more efficiently, but they do not increase the resource base.  At worst it instills a sense of false security that takes resources away from achieving a sustainable environmental budget. 
An environmental budget for a sustainable future is not unlike an economic budget.  In either case, if we spend more than we earn, we can borrow on our fixed assets for while, but, eventually we incur a long-term debt that we must either repay or go into default and pass it on to someone else (future generations).
Credit cards can be a good tool for managing financial resources, but using them as a financial resource can be devastating. Likewise, technology can be a great management tool, but when used as a substitute for good management the results can be devastating. 
Sustainability simply means living within a budget.  The theory applies equally to economics, the environment and society.  The three are interrelated and provide support for the three-legged stool that supports a stable world. 
Reallocation of resources to pay down environmental debt (reduction in greenhouse gases, restoring organic matter in soils, reducing environmental pollutants, etc.) will most likely require short term sacrifices to reap long-term benefits, but this may be largely off-set by technology and management that increase efficiency.  Resource recycling, conservation, supporting renewable energy, shortening and reinvigorating (food) supply chains, and patronizing local merchants are ways we can all contribute. 
Our personal efforts at Carandale Farm, are to contribute knowledge about new perennial fruit crops and intensive cropping systems that could provide large amounts of nutrient rich foods from a smaller land base while maintaining and improving soil quality. The ultimate objective is to establish economic justification for a regional food systems infrastructure that would supply healthy food and contribute to local economies and institutions.

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