Normally fumble-fingered, I have developed a passion for knitting. My motivation to learn owes largely to my membership in local shepherd Barbara Clark’s knitting CSA (Community Supported Agriculture). Each spring and fall, I am invited to the sheering and a hearty lunch. I regularly receive skeins of yarn and patterns. Now, I’m knitting a cardigan from Darwin, a friendly, chocolate brown sheep. I know where and how he lives. When the cold comes again, I will wear wool I witnessed him happy to be rid of. The whole process irrevocably connects me both to him, Barbara and her farm, a rich piece of Kaw Valley bottomland.
We’ve heard the phrase “supporting local agriculture” so much, that it has become almost hackneyed, so much so that all of us need these occasional reminders of the reasons it remains a vital and important action.
Food safety. One of the best ways to ensure the quality of your agricultural products — that they haven’t been sprayed with chemicals, aren’t contaminated with E. coli, or that animals were not abused or dosed with hormones and antibiotics — is to know the farmer who produced them.
Food security. Supporting local agriculture now represents an investment in a healthy food and fiber economy that will sustain Douglas County despite the vagaries of the future: scarcity of oil, animal and plant diseases, soil depletion and climate shifts.
Building community. A healthy local agricultural economy both builds and requires healthy relationships. “One of the biggest tragedies of the recent economic downturn was that these connections between people were missing,” Clark says. “Lenders didn’t have to know the people they affected. Community can’t be quantified, but when people need help, they need faces and names. In the future, that will become increasingly true when it comes to food.”
Flavor and nutrition. Though living in the last half of the 20th century trained many of us to eat whatever food we want whenever we want it —watermelon in winter, fresh broccoli all year — eating seasonally and preserving what you can is a much more old-fashioned, sustainable way to eat. Though some people complain about how quickly local food spoils, says The Merc’s local produce buyer, Susanne Stover, this is a sign that it is, in a real sense, still alive. “When your food breaks down quickly, it reveals the presence of beneficial enzymes and microbes in the food that assist in digestion when you eat it. If produce sits in your refrigerator for weeks and doesn’t rot, that means it’s a pretty sterile, less nutritious food.”
Biodiversity. Small, diverse farms change the industrial paradigm of monoculture. As Clark says, “If I planted only one type of tomato and it didn’t produce, I’d have a crop failure. But because I also grew other types that weren’t vulnerable to the same things, I still had a crop. I’m small enough to adapt.” The reason industrial farming has to rely on large-scale pesticide and fertilizer application is because monocultures require them. Insects can’t take as strong a hold in diverse plantings, and planting a rotation of crops doesn’t deplete the soil of any one particular nutrient. Rather than depending on petro-chemical-based fertilizer applications, diverse farms can produce their own fertilizer in the form of manure, cover crops, crop rotation, and compost.
Social and environmental justice. Because of its enormous scale and exacting profit margins, industrial farming often leads to the abuse of both humans and animals caught within it. Because they value their land, local producers consider what is best for it and the plants, animals, and humans it sustains. This explains the higher price tag attached to local food. The integrity and time it takes to provide living wages and to support the vitality of surrounding soils, woods, streams, and meadows and the creatures that inhabit them increases the price. “But, at The Merc,” Stover says, “I’m seeing more and more consumers making that choice, which keeps farmers on their land and people employed. In response, we’re seeing many farmers scaling up to provide more products and extending the growing season with things like high tunnels.”
In his essay “The Whole Horse,” farmer and writer Wendell Berry reminds readers of just this vital connection between city and countryside, “They [local economists] are learning to see the city, not just as a built and paved municipality … but rather as a part of a local community which includes also the city’s rural neighbors, its surrounding landscape and its watershed, on which it might depend for at least some of its necessities, and for the health of which it might exercise a competent concern and responsibility.”