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The Local Food Revolution


By

A local food revolution is quietly unfolding in our midst right here in Boulder County. It’s a revolution aimed at rebuilding this region’s capacity to feed its own people, to ensure food security and food sovereignty for all.

Anyone living in the area could scarcely have escaped noticing some of the obvious first signs of this revolution: Farmers’ markets are popping up around the county, along with roadside farmstands. More restaurants are sourcing their ingredients from local farmers and ranchers. Municipalities have been compelled to change laws to accommodate the rapidly rising citizen demand to raise chickens, goats and bees in residential backyards.

Backyard and frontyard gardens seem to be proliferating everywhere, and local fresh produce is now even being offered in many Boulder County school lunchrooms. Dozens of family farms are now offering CSAs (community supported agriculture), and plastic-covered “hoop houses” are springing up on farms and in yards as gardeners struggle to meet the challenge of extending the Front Range’s famously short growing season.

But some of the signs of this revolution are far less visible. For instance, hundreds of people have been signing up for “reskilling” classes on forest gardening, food canning and preservation, composting, vermiculture, seed-saving, food fermentation, greenhouse construction, aquaponics, along with rainwater harvesting. Even more have been taking instruction in seasonal eating and cooking, as well as basic nutrition.

In addition, over the past four years more than 300 people in the area have graduated from an intense 72-hour permaculture design certification course, and about 50 have gone on to become certified permaculture instructors.

Nonprofit organizations — including Everybody Eats!, Growing Gardens, and Transition Louisville — have been working to stimulate demand for local food, as well as increasing local food production capacity. In 2007, Transition Colorado launched an ongoing countywide EAT LOCAL! Campaign, which now includes a 10 percent Local Food Shift Challenge and Pledge. The organization also publishes Boulder County’s EAT LOCAL! Resource Guide & Directory, and has hosted numerous films and high-profile speakers, conferences and an EAT LOCAL! Week.

County government is also involved. In 2008, the Boulder County Commissioners formed a Food & Agriculture Policy Council, with a mandate to convert 10 percent of the 17,000 acres of county-owned open space agricultural land to food production for local consumption by 2012.

Why local food?

Why the growing interest in local food? The answers lie in understanding our “food predicament,” particularly our dependence on a fragile and increasingly unwieldy global food system.

For perspective, it’s useful to know that the latest USDA data shows that Boulder County residents spent $947 million on food in 2010 (up from $662 million in 2007). But how much of this goes to Boulder County producers?

Not much. While definitive numbers are still unavailable, it’s safe to say that no more than 1 to 2 percent of the food we consume in Boulder County is produced within the county. For an agricultural county with more than 137,000 acres of productive agricultural land, that’s surprising. This situation is roughly in line with the state as a whole — Colorado residents spend $12 billion annually on food, 97 percent of which is imported from outside the state.

As in most places, since World War II agriculture has become primarily focused on producing exports. Conventional farmers have been told that their mission is “to feed the world.” Thus, 95 percent of all agricultural production in the county is exported.

At the heart of the local food revolution is the realization that our ability to meet our basic food needs locally has been thoroughly undermined by big agribusiness, including the “value-added” food processors whose products have added considerable heft to our waistlines and contributed directly to a national health crisis of obesity, Type II diabetes and a host of food-related diseases. The real cost of this arrangement has been very high.

Local food advocates are also acutely aware that the globalized food system is highly dependent on fossil fuels for inputs (synthetic fertilizers and pesticides), processing, storage, cooling and transportation. They see increasing signs that dependence on foreign oil — inevitably increasing in price as global oil production peaks — puts big agribusiness and “conventional” agriculture in a no-win situation, and that the misnamed “Green Revolution” (it was a coup!) is exhibiting signs of failure in the face of already devastating impacts of climate change.

They also claim that widespread application of synthetic chemicals is jeopardizing long-term soil fertility.

“The soil is a living thing, and we are murdering it,” says Carlo Petrini, founder of the Slow Food movement. “Industrial agriculture has embraced the idea of farming without farmers, but at this rate one day we’ll be forced to farm without land.”

To complicate matters, as author Anna Lappé concludes in Diet for a Hot Planet: The Climate Crisis at the End of Your Fork and What You Can Do About It, the way we currently grow, process, ship, market and cook our food may be contributing more than 30 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions.

All these factors have combined to make food one of the most unsustainable spheres of human activity.

Feed the world, or feed our own?

Meanwhile, the world population is apparently on the way to 9 billion people by mid-century, necessitating at least a doubling of current food production — at a time when a global food crisis looms on the horizon.

While big agribusiness insists that the only way to continue to feed the world is to greatly increase the efficiency of industrialized agriculture (and towards that end to genetically engineer virtually all crops), a growing number of people are seeing this technological approach as not only unsustainable but a clear threat to human freedom and sovereignty.

With the likely total deregulation of genetically modified organisms and the absence of appropriate food labeling, consumers and growers alike feel that their ability to exercise choice has been taken away. Meanwhile, even “natural” grocers like Vitamin Cottage admit that the majority of the products on their shelves probably contain GMOs. While GMO labeling is mandated in most EU nations, industry has mobilized to successfully prevent such practices in the United States.

A U.N. report released in early March claims that support of small-scale farming using “agro-ecological” methods — i.e., mostly local and organic — could easily double food production in 10 years in critical regions. This study confirms what local food advocates have known for years, that we must begin making the shift to growing most of our own food locally, with bio-intensive methods that restore soil, rekindle connection with the land and rebuild community.

Recent studies indicate that the benefits of food localization can be far-reaching. Returning to a fresh, seasonal, mostly organic local diet will significantly improve the health of our communities, especially our children, and dramatically reduce health care costs. Shrinking our foodshed will not only reduce food-miles, but bio-intensive cultivation methods will also sequester carbon in the soil, making food localization one of the most effective approaches to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Surprisingly, rebuilding our local food system might also be the most important thing we can do to strengthen our local economies — to create new jobs and stem the leakage of dollars. Economist and food system researcher Michael Shuman recently completed a study for the greater Cleveland area that shows that moving to 25 percent food localization in that area by 2020 could produce 27,000 new jobs, generate $4.2 billion of economic activity each year, and produce $126 million in new local and state tax revenues.

Shuman, who is director of research and economic development for BALLE (Business Alliance for Local Living Economies), is now conducting a similar study to quantify the potential economic upside for food localization in the Boulder County area.

Commissioned by Transition Colorado, the study will identify gaps, challenges and opportunities, and will map the business initiatives, public policy shifts, and nonprofit programs to make 25 percent food localization achievable by 2020.

Financing the revolution

"Jos. Wolff's Orchard-Grove Fruit Farm, North Boulder, Colo." circa 1890-1899 (Carnegie Library)

One of the impacts of the globalization of food has been the gradual erosion of the network of enterprises that once supported a robust local food and farming economy. According to retired Boulder attorney and former Food & Agriculture Policy Council member-at-large Jim England, at the turn of the 20th century Boulder County had six flour mills (three of them in or near the Boulder city limits), canning factories and other processing plants, commercially successful berry and small fruit operations, and thousands of fruit trees (Boulder’s Grove Street is named after the commercial apple and other fruit groves that grew there). There were butchers on Pearl Street, malt houses, a cheese factory in Hygiene and a number of working dairies. “A hundred years ago this was something of a locavore’s paradise,” says England. “And if it once was thus, my hope is it can again be that.”

Sanitarium Dairy, circa 1930 (Carnegie Library)

But crucial to achieving any significant level of food localization will be the rebuilding of Boulder County’s local food infrastructure — production, processing, distribution and storage — which will require an infusion of financial investments to underwrite the entrepreneurs and farmers who wish to be part of the local food revolution.

In an era of shrinking budgets, where will that money come from? Woody Tasch, a frequent visitor to Boulder County, has an answer: “Slow Money,” which Entrepreneur Magazine dubbed “one of the top five trends in finance for 2011.”

Weaving economic savvy with a poet’s penchant for language, Tasch explains that Slow Money represents “the creation of new forms of intermediation that catalyze the transition from a commerce of extraction and consumption to a commerce of preservation and restoration.” It’s a reversal of dependence on Wall Street markets and traditional investment vehicles, which parallels the shift from big agribusiness to local food economies.

Tasch says that the recent economic crisis is exactly what one can expect when the relationships between money, community and the land are broken. The most appropriate way to begin building a restorative economy, he says, is to invest locally in sustainable, small-scale food enterprises. The Slow Money approach aims to bring together key stakeholders, investors and entrepreneurs, along with leaders in local food and progressive finance.

Slow Money is just now beginning to take hold in Boulder County, with a commitment of $1.5 million from an anonymous donor to seed what promises to become a critical source of capital for local food and farming enterprises. That fund is currently under the stewardship of Transition Colorado, but will soon be established as an independent Slow Money entity.

Catalyzing a local network

Rebuilding production capacity and increasing consumer demand simultaneously is something of a chicken-and-egg challenge. Some farmers remain skeptical that the demand for locally produced food will continue to follow a supposed hockey-stick trajectory. They wonder: “If we are able to dramatically ramp up production, where will the infrastructure come from that can get our products processed and onto the tables of consumers?” One bright spot may be the recent emergence of a “foodshed alliance” known as the Boulder County Local Food Network, conceived as a cooperative membership organization joining farmers, food and agricultural leaders, local businesses, local governments and community residents in a united effort to stimulate and support the local food economy and to foster increasing localization of the regional food system. The group’s informal motto is “thinking like a foodshed.”

Organized as a member of the national Business Alliance for Local Living Economies, the Local Food Network was first announced on Feb. 27 at the “Our Local Economy in Transition” conference, and the group is now recruiting charter members. Founding members include Everybody Eats!, Ollin Farms, Center for ReSource Conservation and Transition Colorado.

The group hopes to grow to 200 members over the next two years, including farmers, ranchers, restaurants, retailers, food processors, distributors, food-related businesses, nonprofit and community organizations, county and municipal governments, as well as other local businesses that support the goals and values of the network.

Making the transition to local food and farming

In 2006, a food working group calculated that the then-current state of agriculture in Boulder County could only feed about 20,000 — less than 7 percent of the total population of 300,000. They then looked at the upside, estimating that with greatly expanded individual and community garden plots, greatly increased farming for food using bio-intensive methods, with reduced calorie intake and a simplified diet, this maybe could be increased to about 185,000 people — a daunting realization, but a useful benchmark of our vulnerability here. The group also learned that there were already about 34,000 food-insecure people — those without secure, reliable access to food — in Boulder County, and those numbers have been increasing dramatically with the recent economic turmoil.

Boulder County is proud of its farmers’ markets, and more of them are coming up every year. Boulder’s own market is widely regarded as one of the top 10 in the country, and an estimated 14,000 people show up at the Boulder market on a Saturday. Yet, an entire season’s sales at the Boulder County Farmers’ Markets — Boulder and Longmont together — would meet Boulder County’s food needs for less than a day and a half.

Given all this, it’s clear that one of the most important things we can all do together is to completely rebuild our local foodshed — from multiplying backyard and frontyard gardens, to raising chickens and keeping bees, to committing to only buying food that is local and organic, to converting our local agricultural lands to growing food for local consumption, to rebuilding local food storage and distribution systems, to demanding that our supermarkets stop importing food we could produce here ourselves, to training young people to learn farming as a wise and essential — and even sustainable — career choice.

Of course, the transition to a re-localized, non-fossil-fuel food and farming system will take some time — because nearly every aspect of the process by which we feed ourselves must be redesigned and rebuilt. But if we do this right, we have an opportunity to build a localized food and farming system that is economically robust, environmentally sustainable, resilient and self-reliant, one that ensures food security and sovereignty for all, one that contributes to the health and happiness of our citizens, and that revitalizes our communities.

If we do this right, not only can we reverse the destruction that industrial agriculture causes, but we can replace it with something far better, a way of growing and preparing food that heals our connection with the land and with each other. In the process, we may also find that we’re restoring the kind of democracy envisioned by Thomas Jefferson for his fledgling nation.

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