Date: October 25, 2016
To: Editors, Eagle Valley Times
Regarding: Your latest round of self-congratulations on our community’s "foresight" for achieving food security before the food crises of the late 1990s.
I know you’re probably too young to remember, but the fact is that none of us here in Eagle Valley predicted the spectacular increase in food prices, the water and food shortages, and the massive unemployment of the turn of the century.
For three generations there had been a false sense of security: food was continuously available from thousands of miles away in supermarkets made convenient by reliance on automobiles. Farming was rapidly disappearing from the valley. Our valley’s location outside the city made land too "valuable" to farm.
It seemed like no one cared; after all, at that time we Americans spent on average an extraordinarily low percentage of our income on food. If the downtown business district was disappearing, and malls, franchise stores, roads, and parking lots were covering once-productive farm land, well we figured that was the price of affluence and progress.
Finally, when the last large stretch of open space was about to become yet another mall and office park with future residential subdivisions, we woke up.
Despite what writers and visitors from around the world have since said about our amazing "foresight" in taking action before the food crises hit, that wasn’t what motivated us. We simply valued and wanted to preserve what was left of our rural way of life, our community, and our own farms.
Putting Land in Trust
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Our first task was to buy the land. A local land trust was able to purchase the land with the backing of the valley’s last remaining local bank and a credit union. Both these institutions were convinced that land and resource-based enterprises were crucial to the local economy, and they agreed to provide financing to the land trust on favorable terms. With that support, plus a lot of fundraising, the land trust was able to pay for the land and offer 99-year leases – and credit as needed – to farmers.
In just a few years, about two-thirds of the trust land was being used to grow vegetables, fruit, nursery stock, dairy and livestock for community and city markets. For the first time in generations, growers were able realize a net income since the bite into sales from land payments was reduced to a small lease fee and improvements could be borrowed on and sold. People who had formerly been farm workers or unemployed, and those who were fed up with commuting to desk jobs in the city were able to start new lives as farmers.
All this was possible because of the strong community support, born out of the desire to preserve the land and local farming. Some people "bought" a square yard of land as part of fundraising efforts. Harvest festivals were held – even before there was much in the way of a harvest – to raise money and to celebrate the community.
Church groups and neighborhoods agreed to work with farmers to provide a guaranteed market for their produce at a rate that would be determined in advance. These arrangements evolved into sophisticated versions of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), which allowed people to get a major portion of their food from local farms.
A local currency was instituted that could be used only for purchases within the valley. This currency greatly helped local farmers and businesses while reducing demand for foods imported from elsewhere.
In the early stages, these developments were not completely understood, nor were they universally supported. Many people continued to feel that the convenience and variety of offerings at supermarkets were the highest priority. The valley’s water shortage, which first became apparent in 1998, was – ironically – the first of a series of events that led to a deeper commitment to finding a way to make agriculture work in the valley. For years, the aquifer upon which we’d depended had been tapped at a significantly faster rate than it was being recharged. As the seriousness of the situation became clear, the county put a moratorium on new commercial and industrial development and sharply curtailed the use of water for irrigation.
To continue to provide high yields with the limited water resources, many growers began experimenting with biointensive farming techniques and other methods that had been developed on a small scale throughout the world. These techniques used water much more effectively by building the productive capacity of the soil and its capacity to hold water, and using space more efficiently. Nonetheless, the water shortage continued to plague farmers.
A local non-profit organization responded by developing a waste treatment plant modeled after John Todd’s Living Machine. This combination of organic waste recycling, grey-water filtration, and aquaculture served to filter water through a series of lagoons until it was safe enough to drink. The water wasn’t actually used for drinking, but was used to grow fish and to irrigate crops. The cost of farming dropped, and net income rose further as purchase of fertilizers from outside became unnecessary.
Since small intensive plots growing a variety of food stuffs turned out to be more labor intensive than mono-cropping, new jobs were created. More jobs still were created when a cannery opened to preserve food for use throughout the year, and a dairy processing plant opened.
Since people working at these facilities were paid partically in local currency, they spent much of their income locally. Shopkeepers began carrying equipment needed by the new farmers and processors, and by the many backyard and community gardeners who were inspired by their example. By accepting local currency and responding to this new consumer demand, the businesses in the downtown area received yet another boost.
A Community’s Self Discovery
There was also a different feeling about the community. People were healthier – they were outside more, working with the earth and with each other. Trail systems in county and state parks were linked through farming areas, thus expanding recreational opportunities.
Many of us were eating more fresh foods. Neighbors held potlucks in which they tried to out do one another in preparing the tastiest dishes from local foods, often incorporating recipes from their diverse ethnic backgrounds. Valley artists designed a special label to distinguish food grown or processed locally. Residents talked about the value of "seeing the farmers’ face on their food" and knowing the distinct qualities of foods grown seasonally in different parts the county.
School and other educational programs brought young people to local farms to learn how food is produced and the importance of sustainable land management practices for conserving soil, water, and wildlife habitats. Interns and apprentices from our town and from nearby cities worked on local farms.
Our community seemed to be rediscovering itself. Local municipal and county politics even developed more humanity and purposefulness.
Perhaps the most important glue that sustained our community experiment was the fun we had working together and the beauty that surrounded us as a result of our efforts. Harvest festivals started by CSA farms for their membership became so popular that other farms initiated similar events, cookouts, storytelling, theater, exhibits of local arts and crafts, games and fundraisers for community non-profit organizations. Local papers and tourist brochures now publicize many of these events, which have created added value estimated to be in the multi-millions for the local economy.
This was where things stood when the weather catastrophes of 1999 hit. Heavy rains and hail, coupled with localized floods in the Midwest wiped out corn and soybean crops. In California, the drought of the late ’80s and early ’90s returned in force – but this time there was no new source of water to turn to for the growing population and irrigation.
Internationally, similar dynamics were at work. Crops failed in India and West Africa. China, which had been converting much of its farmland to cities and factories, had become a net importer of grain in 1995 – it now was making heavy demands on world grain markets. World grain stocks were at an all-time low due to similar, but less drastic, weather conditions the previous years. Few people now questioned whether global climate change was a reality – they simply wondered how far it would go and how it would affect the next year’s crop.
With uncertainties like these came speculation and hoarding by companies playing the volatile food commodity markets. Prices of raw and processed foodstuffs went through the ceiling. Middle class families in the US for the first time in years seriously considered whether they’d get enough to eat. There were long lines and even food riots in some cities. In extreme cases near cities, produce was stolen out of fields by armed gangs. Elsewhere in the world, open warfare was breaking out for control of productive land. All this captured far more media attention than the examples of emerging food security, as could be found in our community.
Things happened so quickly in those years. The changes that brought newspaper headlines were accompanied by changes in our community. And yet the more insecure the larger world seemed, the harder local people seemed to work to find security closer to home. Additional land trust lands were soon made available for community gardens and leased to new farmers in plots ranging from 5 acres to 40 acres. Many people dug up their lawns and planted vegetable gardens and fruit trees and raised small animals in their yards for eggs and meat. In some cases, entire families were involved in farming full time, while in other cases, one or more members of a household continued to work at an outside job. Retired farmers offered their expertise as did others who had lost their farms during the decades when family farms were displaced by agribusiness. The county extension office, Soil and Water Conservation District, and the local Grange got into the act as well.
Things were far from perfect in our valley. But we had a degree of food security that quickly became the envy of neighboring communities. There were floods of visitors, who noted the abundant crops, the fish farming, the waste and water recycling, the relatively secure supply of food, and the strong local economy that grew out of that foundation.
Other communities began to follow our example. At first, it was a garden plot in an unexpected place – an empty lot in a big city or a corner of a city park. But soon growing food became a major preoccupation. Parking lots were dug up and turned into vegetable fields. Full city blocks were converted to "Living Machines," with waste water used for intensive food production. Roof-top gardens and greenhouses began appearing everywhere. Rural farmers and urban community groups worked together in Community Supported Agriculture networks that provided food and security to consumers and a source of reliable revenue and labor to farmers.
With increasing food production at the local level, the high-consumption economies of the North began to rely less on food raised in the South. Vast areas mono-cropped for export were reapportioned to poor farmers in agrarian reform movements. Marginal land, which the poor had used for growing subsistence crops, was allowed to return to a natural state, or was used more sparsely.
The ease of connecting through telecommunications with other local producers in food systems at greater distances enabled exchange directly between farmers in tropical and temperate zones. "Sister foodsheds" programs between communities in the North and South traded food stuffs and commodities that were difficult to obtain locally. These sister-foodsheds relationships developed into sister communities, with regular exchanges, sharing of arts and culture, home stays ranging from a week to several years, and educational exchanges.
These relationships precluded basing the trade relationship purely on price, resource availability, and relative power (so called "free trade"). Instead, trade relations were modeled on the CSA approach in which a partnership of producers and consumers work jointly for relationships and trade that provide fair benefits for all. Now, after less than a generation, these relationships have evolved into confederations of local economies working together for common trade, ecological, cultural, educational sustainability and peace.
It was chaotic for awhile – so many relationships to work out, so much fear about whether there would be enough to eat. Things have settled down now. As I sit on my porch looking over the farm land in the valley below, I’m grateful to have had the chance to see this new agrarian culture take root. The landscapes of fields, orchards, pastures, forests, clean waterways, and the human and wildlife communities they sustain are a legacy we must continue to cherish and protect for future generations.
Thomas Forster has worked for years on food issues, including co-coordinating the US NGO Working Group on Sustainable Agriculture at the Earth Summit and co-editing The Organic Farmer: A Digest of Sustainable Agriculture. He currently works with the Lopez Island Community Land Trust. Sarah van Gelder is the editor of IN CONTEXT.