The foundation of any community is its local food system. A region’s capacity to produce, process, and distribute some significant portion of its own food has always been a measure of social and economic stability, but as we face the unknowns of peak oil and climate change, securing local food resources will be one of our highest priorities.

Over the last twenty-five years, the globalization of the market place has expanded trade with a rich and diverse new array of products and product sources; however, it has been at the cost of regional economic balance, especially at the local level and especially for local food systems. Communities are actually losing the ability to feed themselves from local sources by relying too heavily on distance markets for their food.

Oregon’s Willamette Valley makes an interesting case-study both for detailing the situation and articulating the strategy of relocalization as a way to alleviate the problems.

The word relocalization suggests that what was once local is no longer and that it should be. Nothing could be more apt than applying this concept to agriculture in the Willamette Valley. Regarding food sales and production, the net effect of globalization has been to take the local out of what we eat. Give or take a percent or two, only about five percent of what the Willamette Valley populace eats today comes from within 100 miles–or by definition is locally grown–meaning ninety-five percent of the valley’s food must be shipped in from long distances. These numbers apply across the board to just about any region the United States, but with particular poignancy for the Willamette River basin.

Image Removed The bioregion defined by the Willamette River watershed is one of the most bountiful in the United States. The Willamette Valley is a hundred mile long, two-million acre stretch of prime cropland bordered by a dense, eco-rich coniferous forest. The climate is mild; wet in the winter, dry in the summer. It is excellent for raising livestock and farming, with soil particularly suited for many types of grasses and legumes. There is tremendous flexibility in what can be grown and the way that the various field crops can be rotated for the health of the land.

Home to a variety of fish and other wildlife, the Willamette River basin is essentially a garden valley, Oregon’s own little piece of Eden.

Not that long ago, in the 1950s and 60s, Willamette Valley agriculture exemplified this, producing a wide array of grains, fruits, and vegetables. Wheat once represented almost a third of what was harvested. Barley, oats, snap peas, and sweet corn were also significant crops. Tomatoes, broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, potatoes, onions, cucumbers, peaches, raspberries, strawberries, hazelnuts, and squash fill out the mix. Fifty years ago, Willamette Valley farmers were providing about half of what the valley residents were eating. Though certainly there were items which did not grow in the valley and the population was about half of what it is today, the region did have the capacity to feed itself.

This agricultural picture of the Willamette Valley, however, has been turned inside out in the last twenty-five years. The dynamics of the global market place have centralized food distribution into large storage, processing, and transport conglomerates while delocalizing regional food systems throughout the world. Nearly everything we eat comes from some place else–often from over fifteen hundred miles away. Oregon farmers, like most farmers, tend to follow market lines.

In the globalized economy, this means moving away from diversify and catering to specialized markets. In Iowa, for example, where there is the potential to grow all kinds of food products, corn and pork production dominates the large and mid-size farms and very little of what they produce stays home for Iowans. This may be the best way to chase profit, but it tends away from local agricultural balance and, in a world where the price of fuel will only increase, away from economic stability and local food security. In any kind of big picture perspective, this is nonsense if not suicide.

The dynamics of this local/global reversal are well documented. The expansion of world markets, the liberalization of trade agreements, and the general globalization of the international economy have changed the way we buy and sell all things, but with no greater impact than the way we buy and sell food. Labor costs, regional agricultural niches, and comparative advantage have turned states and small nations into one-dimensional economies. Whether it is coffee from Columbia, palm oil from Malaysia, or corn and pork from Iowa, the trend is to less regional diversification and more chasing of special markets. Over the short run, this has resulted in higher profits. In the long run, however, lack of diversity in regional economies works against stability–and through the lens of sustainability and concern for peak oil is entirely untenable. Image Removed

The graph above, “Willamette Valley Crop Trends 1”, tracks all significant crops grown in the Willamette Valley by acreage over the last thirty years. On one hand this graph shows the incredible diversity of crops that can be grown in the Willamette Valley and the quantity that they, at times, have been grown. On the other hand, it also clearly reveals the effect of the globalized market on Oregon agriculture. Beginning about 1983, as wheat prices eased off record highs, Willamette Valley farmers began a steady trade-off of wheat acreage for ornamental grasses, that is, grass grown to produce grass seed which is then shipped all over the world for suburban lawns and golf courses. Grass seed is now the valley’s cash crop. Sixty percent of all the acreage that was harvested in the Willamette Valley in 2006 was for grass seed. That was over 500,000 acres. At the same time, less than 50,000 acres of wheat were harvested in the valley.

In other words, more than half of this prime Oregon farmland is being used to grow a non-edible luxury item instead of food. “Willamette Valley Crop Trends 2” shows this graphically by combining all food crop acreage (fruits, vegetables, and grains) and mapping it against grass seed acreage. The divergence is hard to miss. Globalization has enabled specialized and long distant markets while at the same time diminishing food crop quantity and diversity at home. Common sense and concerns for food security would argue against this trend. Image Removed

One reasonable response to this is relocalization. Though a current buzz word that suffers somewhat from being a buzz word, relocalization is a management strategy designed to alleviate the impact of peak oil and climate change. It is based on the premise that condensing or localizing communities can minimize fossil fuel usage for transportation and thus carbon emissions. This strategy emphasizes buying locally grown food with the idea that simulating local farm production and markets reduces the need for long distance food transport.

This is not new by any means. Organizations like Lane County’s Willamette Farm and Food Coalition, Food for Lane County, and the Helios Resource Network have been pushing local food buying for many years with just this intention–reversing the effects of globalization and bringing more stability to the local agricultural economy. Unfortunately, produce grown in countries where labor costs are significantly lower than in the United States can be cheaper to Oregonians than produce grown in the Willamette Valley–even with freight costs added in. This makes progress in establishing local food markets extremely difficult. In the last year or so, however, increasing awareness for peak oil has added fuel to the relocalization fire. More than just smart thinking for a balanced and diverse agricultural economy, as fuel prices rise, the labor advantage of food producers in distance countries will gradually be lost to freight costs. The buy local movement will be in the position to gather market force behind it instead of against it.

This is a start. But there is more to the story.

In addition to lost agricultural balance in the Willamette Valley, there has also been a gradual loss of food system infrastructure. Because we are receiving ninety-five percent of our food from distant places and because much of it is already packaged, grain millers, food processors, and local farm produce distribution hubs are also disappearing from the Willamette Valley, meaning not only does the region not grow its own food, but it also doesn’t have the capacity to process or distribute what is grown. At a very basic level, we are losing the ability to feed ourselves. Again, this is nonsense if not suicide.

At a deeper level, and no less important than what is grown, is how local food is grown. Large scale agriculture of the last fifty years has concentrated on production. Petrochemical fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides have been used in enormous quantities to pump and protect yields. Like petroleum in general, these carbon-based chemicals are also getting more expensive and adding to the price of food while at the same time negatively impacting the vitality of the cropland and contaminating the ground water.

This is a problem in the Willamette Valley.

Even with the valley’s natural fertility, chemical-input farming is wearing out the soil and trailing toxins through the watershed. This form of agriculture must give way to organic farming. Even should agriculture diversify, even should the local populace significantly increase locally grown food buying, if production is based on chemical additives, it can not sustain. This is another critical part in the big picture of insuring local food security.

Viewed through the lens of relocation, Willamette Valley food systems show three major weaknesses. Less than twenty percent of what is grown here is food, food processing, storage, and distribution infrastructure is declining, and the markets for selling local food are limited. Thus the solution, and the target of food related relocalization efforts in the valley, is changing how and what farmers grow–specifically transitioning to organic techniques and converting grass seed acreage to wheat or other grains and legumes, rebuilding food industry infrastructure, and creating more markets to link buyers, growers, and distributors. These same targets are probably applicable in almost any region in the United States.

The most direct way to zero in on these targets is to stimulate local food markets. As said before, this can be a slow and difficult process working against the existing market gradient, but there is reason to believe that this could change. Freight and transportation are approximately fifteen percent of the cost of food right now. As the price of petroleum rises, which is happening on a daily basis, so will that percentage. Eventually transportation costs will leverage labor. The global food network will undergo a change. Local food markets will have the opportunity to gain priority.

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In addition to the rising price of petroleum products, the grain market has also begun to change. Ethanol policy has turned great chunks of crop land into biofuel plantations, cutting into both wheat and corn-for-food harvests. Add a drought in Australia this last year and a growing middle class in India and China and the price of wheat has climbed past twelve dollars a bushel over the winter. It is true that the grain market is susceptible to fluctuations and has always been a difficult read for farmers, but grain consumption (mainly corn, wheat, barley, oats, rice) comprises about half of what humans eat–and last checked our total population was still growing.

Much like the petroleum market, there is evidence that the grain market has taken an historic turn. Peaks and valleys will occur but prices have reached a new plateau below which they are not likely to fall. This, even more than programs to promote local food buying, has already caused 2007 wheat acreage numbers in the Willamette Valley to climb and grass seed acreage to fall. Again, outside forces are pointing in the direction of more local food production.

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Still we are talking about a transition that will require several years of sustained effort, and certain parts of it must be enabled at the ground level within the region. Yes, over time it is likely that the pocket book will help individual buyers on a day to day basis choose local. Market forces may also push farmers toward more diversity with each new growing season. But the biggest and slowest moving piece of the puzzle, rebuilding infrastructure and markets, will require a commitment from the business establishment and local government leaders. As current Federal farm bill legislation continues to work in favor of large food conglomerates and against localized competition, increased grass-roots engagement will be necessary to make any of this happen.

It should be noted that a fully local food economy is not the goal. That would be impossible. But local food buying whether by individuals, food markets, restaurants, or processors needs to be stimulated beyond today’s five percent range to something more like twenty-five or thirty percent. This level of relocalized economic involvement could engender the kind of balance and stability that is needed to bring a modicum of food security to the populace and also a degree of sustainability to Willamette Valley agriculture.