Leopold Center

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Generally, it is not a good idea to stray very far from the farm during the season. But this year has been unusual in many ways and it was time to leave the place in the capable hands of Louisa and the apprentices and take off for a bit.

So we did, heading north to British Columbia and Salt Spring Island to visit our former apprentices Zack Hemstreet and Molly Wilson. Zack proposed to Molly during their Persephone Farm apprenticeship two years ago and last year we attended their wedding back in North Carolina. Zack, Molly and Molly’s family recently bought a farm on Salt Spring. We could go on about those two and about their new island home–hard to beat seeing such energetic and talented people setting their own roots in such beautiful soil.  

But instead we’ll pass along this factoid from the Salt Spring Driftwood:About six percent of the food consumed by Salt Spring’s 10,000 residents is grown locally, according to the newspaper. We’re not sure who is keeping score, but if it is so, that is impressive. Around here, another farmer friend, Gerard Bentryn, who lives on Bainbridge Island and operates Bainbridge Island Vineyards and Winery, has been laboring for years to convince folks to make at least one percent of their meals from local produce.

Which brings us to the issue of food miles. Buy Local advocates often cite research that says most of the food we put on the table travels an average of 1,500 miles to get there, adding substantially to the pollution of the environment. That number comes from a 2001 study by Iowa State University’s Leopold Center a decade ago and, for us, it is probably wrong. That’s because the Iowa researchers focused their calculators on Chicago. Here in the Northwest, we’ve probably got more buyers of local produce per capita than  Chicago. Similarly, our ratio of farmers markets and other outlets for local produce is probably higher. And we’re seeing an impressive number of new young microfarming entrepreneurs like Zack and Molly in this area. (We’ll have a post on this next week)

Still, there has been a food miles argument going for the last couple of years and we’ve been itching to add our two cents. We’ll focus on the research that is often cited by critics of the food-miles thesis–“Yes, We Have No Bananas: A Critique of the ‘Food Miles’ Perspective”which was published in 2008 by the Mercatus Center of George Mason University in Virginia and written by Pierre Desrochers, a Canadian geographer, and Hiroko Shimizu, a Japanese economist. Google it and you’ll get more than 850 references, from the New York Times to Cattle Today magazine.

Desrochers and Shimizu maintain that the food-miles claim is a sham, dreamed up as a marketing ploy by Buy Local proponents and other locavores. As an environmental and economic strategy, they maintain, you’d do better buying apples flown in from New Zealand than apples picked in Yakima. Further, they maintain that specialized agriculture such as large-scale monocropping in Third World countries is more energy and labor efficient and less environmentally wasteful than locally produced food, even with long-distance shipping costs factored in.

The Mercatus study is not the first to push the economic advantages of using cheap labor, warm climates and scaled-up specialized planting to divide the world up into growers and consumers. British economist David Ricardo made that argument two hundred years ago. In 2006, New Zealand’s Lincoln University produced its own study arguing that grass fed lamb from New Zealand and sold 11,000 miles away in Britain has a carbon footprint four times smaller than homegrown grainfed British lamb. 

We’ll get to that. But before we do we ought to point out that some of George Mason U’s, and the Mercatus Center’s, biggest backers are two oil billionaires, David and Charles Koch. The Koch brothers are–or were–relatively unknown, but they gave George Mason more than $30 million between 1985 and 2002 to preach their gospel of market-based economics and far-right causes, most of which benefit their own business.

The Kochs were reluctantly thrust into the spotlight recently in an article by journalist Jane Mayer in The New Yorker magazine. Mayer documents that the Kochs have spent hundreds of millions of dollars pushing their worldview through a bunch of front groups and academic operations. They have also been major backers of  the Tea Party movement and have funded spurious attacks on President Obama and Mayer documents that they’ve also used these fronts to attack proponents of global warming.

Mayer’s reporting is her usual thorough job so there’s no need to pile on here. But we will add that Richard Fink, the Washington lobbiest for Koch Industries, was one of the Mercatus Center’s founders and David Koch sits on its board. 

As for Desrochers and Shimizu’s argument, well, we probably qualify as part of that activist locavore bunch–we grow and sell food and we are enthusiastic Buy Local proponents. You can do a lot with numbers. You can, for example, argue as Desrochers and Shimizu do that storing apples for months in a refrigerated warehouse in Yakima so they can be sold in supermarkets offseason, uses more energy than flying in fresh Granny Smiths from New Zealand in those offseason months.

But these arguments begin to crumble if you add seasonal eating to the Buy Local equation. If you crave strawberries in February, clearly those berries won’t be produced as efficiently or environmentally as they could be in the Southern hemisphere, even if you have to fly them thousands of miles to market. You could also probably grow them under heat lamps in Cleveland, for that matter, but why not wait for spring and eat them fresh from the field?

We eat peaches in September and apples in the fall, when they are ripe and ready in our orchard, not in April, after they’ve been sitting around in cold storage for months. We purchase berries off local farms in the growing season, not in the middle of winter when they have to be trucked up from Mexico.

In short, with the exception of an occasional California avocado or Florida orange–which we can’t grow locally–we mostly buy and eat fruits and vegetables that are raised right here, when they’re harvested here. We’re lucky in that regard–it would probably stretch any gourmet chef’s ingenuity and budget to buy only local produce year-round in Chicago.

(Nonetheless, another 2001 study by Iowa State’s Leopold Center measured the cost of a basket of vegetables purchased at Iowa farmers markets and found they were about 10 percent cheaper per pound than a similar basket of non-local produce from the supermaket. We also track the cost of our produce here on the farm versus the same supermarket produce and have found a similar contrast in our favor.) 

The real answer to the food-miles dilemma may be to take a new look at our collective diet. Perhaps Brits can do without New Zealand lamb and British farmers can figure out how to grow their animals without large infusions of energy consuming grain. We certainly can do without California strawberries in February. Our diets have been largely shaped by giant agribusiness companies that profit by introducing and then catering to demand for out of season and non-local produce. There is evidence that eating in synch with the seasons is healthier than the helter-skelter diet urged on us by these giant purveyers. 

This post has become awfully lengthy, and we didn’t even include any pictures. But healthy, tasty, locally grown food is what we’re about here on our farm and we think it is worth a post to remind people of that now and then.

We’ll get back to Chocolate, the horny turkey, and other topics quite soon.


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