Thursday, February 7, 2008

Saving Family Farms

In poor urban areas, in both the industrial and developing world, families typically have to spend more than half their income on food, since they cannot buy in bulk. And often the areas where they live are underserved. In the Anacostia section of Washington, D.C., the people were without a single supermarket for years, just fast food outlets and convenience stores. When a farmers market, with produce from urban gardens, was established it gave them their first reliable source of fresh food in years. In Havana, the U.S. embargo, followed by the Soviet collapse, forced the government to step in to help the residents, and today about 90 percent of the city's fresh produce is grown in its own urban farms and gardens.

Diet Start

Urban farms protect watersheds that supply city water and they enable people to reestablish their contact with the land as well as grow their own food. They also provide a use for food waste that would otherwise end up in landfills. And, very importantly, they provide meaningful work. Halweil describes the imaginative project of Wally Satzewich, onetime cabdriver, and his wife, Gail. Between them they manage twenty residential garden plots in Saskatoon. They either pay rent or barter a food basket in lieu of rent. They farm organically, frequently rotating crops to minimize damage by insect pests. They have built up a twenty- member CSA and they also supply some of the best known restaurants. Moreover, they make enough money to live comfortably: From one of his plots he earned $3,900 in one season. Wally is enthusiastic, sharing his project on his Web site. How hopeful it feels, thinking of all these people, all over the world, rolling up their sleeves and reconnecting with the soil. It makes me smile.


Every time we buy locally grown food we are supporting the beleaguered small family farmers, like Joel Salatin and Mike and Heidi Peroni. Each year more than 8,000 square miles of U.S. iand is swallowed up by the vast suburban sprawl of strip malls, convenience stores, and housing developments—land that is often ideal for agriculture. Farmlands that don't get developed are often taken over by large corporate farms. Conservationists worldwide are starting to believe that preserving sustainable, local farms is almost as important as protecting our wild lands.

Of course the obvious benefit of preserving family farms is that they give us access to diverse, nutritious, and regional foods. But local sustainable farms also support the healthy characteristics of our communities. In rural areas where the family farms are protected and still producing, we often find higher employment and more thriving local businesses, schools, parks, churches, and community organizations, according to the Institute for Food and Development Policy. But when there is a dearth of local farms, rural communities tend to die off or struggle to survive.

Brian Halweil, a leading voice in the local foods movement in addition to being the author of Eat Here, speaks of rural "food deserts" where isolated households have not only lost their community services, they don't even have access to grocery stores or farmers markets because corporate grocers don't find it profitable to serve these poor outposts, and local farms have been lost to industrialization. Many of these households wind up feeding their families the highly processed food at convenience stores placed beside highway gas stations.

... andjoyohoxing