Tilling our own soil: Preparing a surge capacity for food
"What percentage of the food we eat in the Rogue Valley is grown here?" I asked a local farmer for his best estimate while handing him a $500 check last spring for a season's worth of produce in weekly boxes big enough to feed four. When you sign up for community-supported agriculture (CSA) or graze tables covered with produce at a growers market, it's easy to overestimate how much food is grown locally. The farmer's reply startled me. "The figure could be as high," he replied, pausing, "as high as one percent." Nobody knows for sure.
The number of individuals and families participating in CSA programs is small, but it is increasing. Last year, for example, Fry Family Farm in Talent supplied 95 weekly CSA boxes; this year it hopes to supply 125 boxes. Despite the fact that there are a number of good local suppliers, it would be surprising if in 2006 more than a thousand local people got their produce from CSA. Given that the population of Jackson County is at almost 200,000, the numbers are still a fraction of what they could be. Of course, farmers in our region also sell at open-air markets and roadside stands, to local restaurants and those grocery stores willing to stock locally grown produce. With regard to the percentage of food eaten in the valley that's grown here, whatever the exact percentage is, the figure is tiny.
The system of getting nearly all our food from industrial agriculture located elsewhere works as long as petrochemicals are cheap, as they have been (with brief interruptions) for many decades. Natural gas fuels some of the electricity used for refrigeration and it does serve an integral role in the manufacture of nitrogen fertilizer, the process invented in 1908 by German chemist and Nobel Laureate Fritz Haber. Just a century ago, farmers depended mainly on nitrogen-fixing cover crops, manure, and bird guano for fertilizer. Crude oil serves as the feedstock for pesticides and herbicides, as well as for packaging, and as fuel for farm equipment and long-distance trucks. Without cheap petrochemicals, the system of industrial agriculture would falter.
But why worry? Perhaps because U.S. oil production has been declining since around 1970, the main foreign sources are in politically volatile areas, and some suppliers claim dubious reserves. Matt Simmons, a veteran oil industry analyst, recently published a book on OPEC's biggest single supplier under the title Twilight in the Desert: The Coming Saudi Oil Shock and the World Economy (Wiley & Sons, 2005). After examining 200 technical papers, Simmons argues that the Saudis, like others, have exaggerated the size of their reserves.
If the world soon reaches the "peak" of petroleum (and later of natural gas) production, the price of food would most certainly increase. We wouldn't be out of petrochemicals, but we would be dependent on oil that is much harder to find and bring to the surface and thus more costly. With regard to food, the economic advantage would tip back toward harvesting from fields closer to consumers, and toward growing produce by organic methods, with as little dependence as possible on gas and oil.
Preparing for an Uncertain Future
How ready are we for this scenario? Short answer: we're not ready now, but the transition could be accomplished, especially if we start preparing. The percentage of food produced locally would have to rise from 1 to closer to 100. This can be done not only by an expansion of local farming, but also by a rapid growth in urban horticulture. During both world wars, government in the U.S. sponsored a social invention called "victory gardens." 20 million Americans responded to the call from the Department of Agriculture which made pleas to Americans to grow their own food. Gardens in yards, vacant lots, and parks supplied up to 40% of the produce eaten in the U.S. (Full disclosure: my own earliest memory was of crawling under tomato plants in a wartime garden.)
When the USSR was about to collapse in the late 1980s, some became concerned that its collective agriculture might soon do an even worse job than it had already done in providing food to its citizens. A project in decentralized urban farming was begun. On all-Soviet television a foreign visitor from a non-governmental organization made the point that in order to get vegetables you don't have to wait for a government bureaucracy; you can dig the soil (even next to a housing project), plant seeds, and then water the row.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia was no longer able to subsidize Cuban sugar and send cheap oil or agricultural chemicals. Out of necessity, the Castro regime supported extensive organic truck farming and urban horticulture in the city of Havana and other urban areas. During the so-called "special period," Cubans got more exercise, ate fresher food, and lost an average of 20 pounds each.
In the U.S., it is hard to imagine having to pay a much larger fraction of our income for food, not to mention facing shortages like those faced by the Soviets and the Cubans. But the supply of foreign oil is uncertain and competition for it is growing as the Chinese and Indian markets join the West in demanding more. Alternatives are problematic. Nuclear power takes a long time to build, and nobody has figured out how to effectively and safely handle the radioactive waste. Coal contributes heavily to global climate change. Wind power and solar panels are less energy-intensive than oil but, like nuclear and raw coal, can't fuel our present vehicle fleet. Coal liquefaction is environmentally challenging. Ethanol from corn, according to some studies, takes about as much energy to produce as it yields. It also removes some food from the market.
In other words, even setting aside all the other effects of more expensive oil, it's worth imagining how to adapt to a future with much higher food costs. So far, it is the Pentagon that has done much of the "contingency planning" in our society. Most of these plans are never used, but a few turn out to be crucial. In a similar spirit, can we civilians plan for events that may never happen but that would be much worse unless we know what to do and start preparing?
Getting the Beds Ready for Planting
Hospitals build in a "surge capacity," defined by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality as "a health care system's ability to rapidly expand beyond normal services to meet the increased demand for qualified personnel, medical care, and public health." Meaning they can handle many more patients in an emergency than in normal times, a capacity needed if there is an epidemic, large accident, or other disaster. In terms of a potential shortage of affordable and healthy food supply, can we also design a surge capacity?
Thanks to English horticulturist Alan Chadwick, attaining a surge capacity for food may be less difficult than it once was. In the 1960s, Chadwick went to Santa Cruz, California, and created a large vegetable garden, pioneering what was called "bio-intensive" horticulture. His students and colleagues have fanned out over the past 40 years, some of them toward the State of Jefferson. The best known is John Jeavons, author of How to Grow More Vegetables: And Fruits, Nuts, Berries, Grains, and Other Crops Than You Ever Thought Possible on Less Land Than You Can Imagine (Ten Speed Press, 2006), now in its 7th edition. Jeavons lives and teaches in Willits, California. According to Jeavons, depending on local climate, soil quality, and the skill of the grower, a bio-intensive garden as small as 800 square feet can provide a family of four with fresh vegetables year round. That's only 20 x 40 feet.
Another person whose life was touched by Chadwick's garden is Scott (Hawkeye) McGuire. McGuire, who attended college in Santa Cruz and now works as a landscaper in the Rogue Valley, maintains a large produce garden, and is currently writing a book, Spirituality and Sustainability. "I've heard that during the Great Depression 90 percent of Americans had some relative living on a family farm," he explains. "Today it's down to a handful." Anticipating the time when we will need to grow more of what we eat, McGuire offers workshops on horticulture, and observes that it is much easier to enlarge an existing garden than start one from scratch. Among the many factors of food production, McGuire starts with seeds, and recommends developing viable seed-bank networks. Our success in growing more of our own food, he says, will depend on the length of transition we experience. A garden takes a while to establish, even if you start in the early spring.
John Fisher-Smith, an Ashland resident, author, JPR commentator and former architect, has started at least eight large vegetable gardens. After spending his adolescence on an organic farm in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, Fisher-Smith also learned from the bio-intensive methods developed by Chadwick and, when his oldest son decided he wanted to learn vegetable gardening, took him to meet Jeavons. Through the years, Fisher-Smith did more than his share of "double-digging" and intensive soil-building, but now at the age of 80 he has become what he calls a "lazy gardener" who uses a rototiller and grows "the easy stuff" such as "corn, peas, asparagus, raspberries, winter squash, peppers, eggplant, carrots, leeks, garlic, and sweet onions." Fisher-Smith would not quarrel with my CSA supplier's estimate that our area now grows only one per cent of the food we eat locally. Nor would he be surprised if food becomes "very expensive."
Fortunately, growing food doesn't require a factory to be built, or rails to be laid. It requires sun, soil, and water, all of which we have here in the State of Jefferson. We also need good seeds, which can be harvested, along with simple tools and protective fencing. It also requires a set of skills, which many of us do not yet have, although some of us maintain gardens for purposes other than food and a smaller number already grow vegetables and fruit. To preserve the harvest for the cold half of the year, we would also need canning equipment, dehydrators, as well as cold storage.
So if we take this contingency of expensive food seriously, what is to be done? First of all, many more people would have to take advantage of the experienced gardeners, farmers and food preservers we have locally. The OSU Extension Master Gardener program offers weekly classes in urban horticulture annually beginning in January. The OSU Family Food Education Volunteers have monthly classes and offer an 8-week in food preservation class beginning in May. Other experienced growers can be found at local farmers markets.
Cultivating Idle Land
We would certainly be better prepared if our cities and towns inventoried land not being used for other purposes. During W.W.II, England passed a law that any idle land could be employed for growing food, without compensation to the owners. Gardens sprang up, there as here, in yards around houses, yes, but also in vacant lots, "undeveloped" land, parks and other city land. Just as the U.S. gave away farm land in the 19th century to those who would work it, so too could land that sits idle or not used for an activity as vital as growing food can be made available under fair and practical terms.
There may be a role for government and non-profit entities in stockpiling the seeds, watering devices, and simple tools and fencing for gardens. Ashland, for example, has a volunteer emergency service called CERT (Community Emergency Response Team), which could enlarge its range to deal not only with floods, earthquakes, and chemical spills, but also a possible shortage of affordable food.
Under the leadership of Alice Waters, founder of the renowned Bay Area restaurant Chez Panisse, the Berkeley public schools began a program of gardening, which yields produce then served in the cafeterias. As part of the educational program, this "edible schoolyard" introduces children to the skills of food growing and the delights of eating, as Waters would say, "fresh, according to the seasons," not primarily out of government surplus warehouses.
Obviously, if transportation became much more expensive, grocery stores that rely on distant suppliers would have to seek more local providers. A local non-profit, Thrive, is already working to increase the percentage of local food in grocery stores and restaurants through its Food Connection program which helps these businesses connect with each other. Food needs could be met not only by developing small-scale horticulture in and near towns, but also by enlarging the local agricultural sector. Many young people would like to get into farming, but are priced out due to the high cost of land - land that is valued for its trophy home value rather than its productive value. What provisions should society make now to get more of that land into local food production?
Chris Jagger, who with his wife Melanie Kuegler owns Blue Fox Farm, commended the ALBA program in California for "incubating" Latino farmers by giving them a small plot to work as they learn the necessary skills. After the skills are learned, they need to acquire suitable land. Jagger describes himself as "a total advocate of agro-squatting," by which he means society should find a way to get idle land under cultivation, whether through long-term and low-rent leases or by other appropriate means. With the help of relatives, Jagger and his wife were able to buy much of the land they now cultivate. Knowing that most young people can't possibly buy local land for farming, he says "hordes of lots" are potentially available locally for leasing.
Here in the Rogue Valley, a group of community food security advocates are working to launch a similar program of farmer incubation, a land lease database and farm to food pantry program. The group, including Melissa Mathewson, OSU Small Farms Agent for Douglas, Jackson, and Josephine counties, Wendy Siporen of Thrive, Tim Franklin of the Applegate Watershed Council and Phillip Yates of ACCESS also recently hosted a Community Food Assessment Training.
Small-scale horticulture takes time to get started; in this climate most kinds of food can be harvested only once a year, and seeds must be started in the spring. Farming takes even longer in that land has to be found, acquired, fenced, and prepared. The commitment is much bigger. It involves moving, more than likely accruing some debt, acquiring bigger equipment than a shovel and hose. Are we satisfied with a system that so far provides for only a tiny percentage of our food to be grown locally? Think of acquiring a surge capacity for food as a form of insurance: what are we willing to invest in order to have a less perilous supply?
With regard to many developments, our society has typically waited until challenges are undeniable before acting. But more and more situations seem to be developing in which, if we wait until they are obvious to everyone, we will have waited too long. Will you have a part in preparing a surge capacity for local food?
Craig K. Comstock is an author and former foundation director now living in Ashland, with a website www.bookcreationcoach.com
To dig deeper into local food growing that you can do, buy, support, or understand, check out some of these sources:
Food Preservation classes through OSU Extension: (Sharon Johnson 776-7371)
Jackson County Master Gardeners extension.oregonstate.edu/sorec/mg
OSU Small Farms Assistance(Melissa Matthewson 776-7371)
Ashland Food Cooperative, www.ashlandfood.coop
Medford Market, www.medfordmarket.org(not yet open)
Nightfire Natural Foods, Klamath Falls www.nightfirenaturalfoods.com
Coos Head Food Store, Coos Bay
Berryvale Natural Foods, Mt. Shasta
Jackson County Sustainability Network groups.yahoo.com/group/jcsn(Matt Sheehan, Coordinator 773-1321)
THRIVE, www.thriveoregon.org(Wendy Siporen, Coordinator)
[Jefferson Public Radio Editor's Note: This is by no means a complete list of sources in our large region. These are just a few of the many farms, retailers, and organizations that are doing their part to contribute to the food supply that is grown and available for purchase locally.]
Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America (1977), The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays (2003).
Portland Peak Oil Task Force, "Descending the Oil Peak" (January 2007)
Eliot Coleman, The New Organic Grower (1995)
Heather C. Flores, Food Not Lawns (2006)
Toby Hemenway, "Is Sustainable Agriculture an Oxymoron?" (2006)
Charles Lathrop Pack, The War Garden Victorious (1919)
Michael Pollan, Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (2006)
Rodale's All-New Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening (1997)
What do you think? Leave a comment below.
Sign up for regular Resilience bulletins direct to your email.