I’ve often wondered what it would look and feel like to have an entirely local food economy. What would happen if Wal-Mart and Family Dollar shut down? If corn and soybean fields instead grew a diversity of crops? If international trade came to a stop?
I imagine grocery stores filled with seasonal produce from the region. There are apples in the fall, greens in the spring, locally made salsas and sausages all year, and fresh produce grown in greenhouses during the winter. Consumers preserve fresh fruits and vegetables when the harvest is plentiful. Families grow their own food in home gardens. People enjoy robust immune systems from working in the soil and the sunshine and feeding themselves nutritious foods. Small businesses exist for generations. Food exchanges hands between people who know each other by name.
You can find arguments aplenty that prop up industrial agriculture. Many say we cannot feed the world with small farms. Sustainable farming cannot yield enough to satisfy the market. The system is too big to change. Then a microscopic virus comes along and just like that, the food system has been flipped on its head. Alexander Sammon from The American Prospect writes:
“Now, America’s food systems have begun to falter, resulting in the twin curses of scarcity and excess. In the early days of the shutdown, pictures circulated of barren shelves at supermarkets (much of it wrongfully blamed on binge purchasing). Now, however, the most objectionable food news comes in the form of crop dumping. All over the country, America’s producers have begun destroying excess, perishable crops that they can’t bring to market.”
It feels like a cruel joke when big producers are plowing crops under ground at the same time food banks are struggling to feed hungry people. As Sammon puts it, “Setting up a large-scale delivery procedure conveying excess food to needy food banks takes time, money, and manpower, all of which are already in short supply at financially strained farms.” Large-scale systems are difficult to move.
When the 1970s rolled around and major agribusinesses began to take over food production, the Secretary of Agriculture, Earl Butz, told farmers to “get big or get out.” His message was effective in pushing farmers to expand their fields, plant subsidized monocrops for export, and drive out small, diversified farmers. As we face this watershed moment and we realize the need for more farmers revitalizing rural life, let’s instead say, “get small and invite ‘em all.” Because the more farmers we have stewarding small plots of land, the more local produce is available to Ohioans and the healthier our soils become.
“Most estimates say we purchase about 3% of our food locally,” says Director of Sustainable Agriculture Tom Redfern, “think of the resilience we’d have if we got to 10%.”
I am looking to places like the Chesterhill Produce Auction (CPA) that are set up for this — farmers markets and CSAs and businesses owned by members of the community. These small-scale systems require little transition. Demand for local produce is surging. I take hope in the small farmers who are experiencing floods of new customers and sold out items. I take hope in knowing that America was once full of family farms growing food for their communities.
Here at the CPA, we are seeing familiar faces and newcomers gather in support of one another. Customers have rallied to support a friend’s small bakery, driving to her house to buy all of her baked goods when they could not be sold at our first canceled auction. Now that we are up and running, customers have adjusted to the new protocols quickly and willingly, wearing face masks and bringing lawn chairs and umbrellas to sit under while bidding in the sunny or rainy parking lot where they now must stand. Growers for the auction have adjusted quickly to the loss of big buyers, like Ohio University and restaurants, by packaging more produce into small shares for individual households.
People are working together. I’m afraid that message isn’t coming through on many news platforms, but I’m seeing it all around me.
We are witnessing a reality that has always been true but has now been laid bare — small farmers and tight-knit communities are the keys to resiliency. My hope is that we, as a collective, will hold on to this lesson even after this public health crisis is a distant memory. Let’s get small and invite ‘em all to create a resilient local food economy.
Molly Sowash is a national service AmeriCorps member with Rural Action‘s Sustainable Agriculture team. You’ll find her at the Chesterhill Produce Auction loading produce, checking customers out, or making friends with the livestock. She studied Creative Writing at Macalester College in St. Paul, MN and lived in Minneapolis for three years before returning to her roots in Ohio.