The Geography of Local



The following is excerpted from Rebuilding the Foodshed: How to Create Local, Sustainable, and Secure Food Systems, published by Chelsea Green.

 

Everywhere is walking distance if you have the time. —Steven Wright

 

Before we even delve into the dilemmas associated with defining “local,” we first need to consider whether “local” is simply about location and distance—in other words, the tensions between the point of origin and the point of consumption. Is “local” just about physical geography?

You’ve probably already guessed that the answer to this question is a firm and fast no. The potential for a whole variety of answers is likely to keep a slew of geographers employed with tenure for the next decade or so. In fact, it is these geographers, multidisciplinary thinkers working in an underappreciated modern academic discipline, who have had some of the most helpful insights into the current local food frenzy. After all, “place” matters most to people who derive not only their income but also their intellectual fulfillment from studying what “where” means.

We humans have a particular penchant for layering words with meaning, which provides for rich expression but potentially diverse interpretations. And the marketplace requires us to create distinctive niches for our products, especially when we are the underdogs (as tends to be the case with the homegrown spirit of so many local foods). So we use “local” not just to describe, but also to justify. Later in this book, we will examine the “drivers” of local foods, different factors that can inform and shape what a community-based food system might look like. But it’s important to begin here by considering the different ways in which we relate “local food” to place.

In essence, when the local food discussion is at its best, the conversation is an expression of caring. We care about our local landscape, the ecological impacts of distance, our sense of place, the people in our communities, and the manifestations of various economic relationships. It’s worth thinking in more detail about the place-based presumptions that shadow the local food debate, as well as some of the dilemmas we face in justifying and building community-focused food systems.

Landscape

If the first association that comes to mind with the phrase “local food” is a bountiful stand at a farmers’ market, the second association may well have something to do with the regional surroundings, whether it’s the bucolic scenery, the conversion of a suburban lawn into an edible landscape, or the modern-day phoenix vision of a community garden arising from urban rubble. Most of us see buying local food as first and foremost an investment in the gardens and farms that, in many ways, frame our local communities—and also in the farmers who feed us.

The local agricultural landscape—when not dominated by agricultural monocultures and monopolies—offers us numerous values, ranging from wildlife habitat to links to the region’s cultural past. If we’re wise, we realize that the conservation of prime agricultural soils, as well as farm infrastructure and layout, is key to ensuring future local food security. And these soils are certainly central to what some particularly allegiant local food and food justice advocates call “food sovereignty.”

In our disregard for the gradual dismantling of our local food systems, we have created virtually irreversible changes to the landscape. It’s a fact that the lands of highest agricultural value—fertile fields of prime agricultural soils in central locations—often tend to be prime sites for development. We have allowed the development of those areas thanks to our shortsighted notion that food can still be grown somewhere else, perhaps even more efficiently than it can be grown close to home. It is this passive shrug of our collective shoulders that has devastated the agricultural base of many communities.

Many people not active in farming—and that’s more than 98 percent of the U.S. population at this point—do not realize that when the domino effect of farm sell-offs and subsequent residential and commercial development begins in a community, farmers lose more than just arable land. Suddenly, there’s not enough demand for people and companies providing agricultural supplies and services.

As an example, a John Deere equipment dealer less than ten miles from me recently was cut off by the John Deere company because its sales did not meet the company’s ever-increasing sales benchmark. Perhaps the decision was directly linked to the declining number of farmers in the area, but it was probably also tied to the region’s economic downturn. Regardless, farmers now have to travel much farther for equipment, service, and parts. Quite a lot of infrastructure is needed to maintain a thriving local agricultural sector: feed stores, seed and equipment suppliers, slaughterhouses, large animal veterinarians, farm-savvy accountants, cold storage facilities, cooperative warehouses and distribution centers, milk haulers, and artificial inseminator technicians, among others. All of these critical services quickly evaporate as the farms themselves disappear from the landscape.

While some small-farm advocates may celebrate the absence of medium- and large-scale farm operations—and the reduced competition that it implies—the reality is that small-scale farmers often have access to top-notch tractor sales and service operations, slaughterhouses, and agricultural supply stores only because larger operations are keeping them in business. (Although it should also be noted that when extremely large agricultural operations move in, they sometimes bring their own infrastructure with them, displacing locally based agricultural service providers or, alternatively, shifting the way that these service providers do business so that the big operations receive preferential or even exclusive service.)

There’s strength in diversity even at the local level—and when one sector of the agricultural economy gets hit, virtually everyone involved in agriculture takes some punches. When one farm goes on the block for sale, it’s often part of a cascade, with property values and taxes on other farms going up because of their “development potential.”

There are linkages and layers in our local landscapes that we do not always consider. Rebuilding locally focused food systems is seldom about saving one farm or one reclaimed vacant lot, although such places can be keystones in galvanizing support for community-based initiatives. Not only does the full vista of an agricultural landscape help bring us closer to our traditional views of the local economy, but these “undeveloped” farmlands can provide a diversity of habitats that serve a variety of important ecological functions.

The ecological integrity of these landscapes is important, and so are the aesthetics of it all. An agricultural landscape conveys meaning and purpose, as well as shared heritage. These aesthetics often inspire a spirit of regional pride and local affinity. At its best, an appreciation of beauty can inspire a sense of belonging. “Rootedness,” that elusive American icon, seems possible in places where we have to wait a season for vegetables, years for fruits, and decades for nuts and timber. We can become local in our long and patient waiting.

Sense of Place

Philosophers, geographers, and psychologists have all pursued the haunting but somewhat ethereal “sense of place” that we humans seem to share in the deeper reaches of our minds. The culmination of sensory experience, memory, and terrain, a sense of place is perhaps most easily conveyed through and contained in the combination of taste and smell, our broadest avenue to a storehouse of memories.

Local food marketers and advocates constantly appeal to our sense of place in order to generate both buying and buy-in. They work hard to convince us that the place in which we live is special and meaningful, and therefore worth investing in. They tantalize and taunt us with the possibility that we can never truly experience a place until we taste a particular fruit, a time-honored dish, a unique spirit, any of which may be replicated elsewhere but diminishes in authenticity with every mile it travels beyond a given boundary. These local specialties convince us that local foods are therapy for our culture’s chronic transience.

When we become disillusioned with that transience and try to assess its negative impacts on our psyches, our local communities, and our cherished landscapes, we start to gather around the power of place. It appeals to those of us with long-term associations with a particular place, as well as those of us longing for belonging. Rootedness again takes hold—and supporting our local agricultural economy and caring for the well-being of our community seem to be the perfect manifestation of anchoring ourselves and building a home around the table.

Not only does a sense of place give us a certain comfort in the past and a confidence in the future, it can also serve as a foil against the economic and cultural homogenization so many of us feel in an increasingly globalized world—a world in which our most common links to food simply strengthen highly homogenized chain stores and food-chain clusters.1

Philosopher ?E. S. Casey calls the erosion of our sense of place the “thinning of the life world,” meaning that our connections and commitment to our immediate surroundings are diminished due to our transience and geographical obliviousness.2 Geographer Robert Feagan goes so far as to call it the “annihilation of place.”3

Despite the difficulty in fully assessing or definitively naming this modern-day malady, one self-prescribed response seems to be a healthy dose of local foods, an antidote to the anonymity of mass consumerism. Some empiricists undoubtedly shudder at the thought of basing any actions on a concept so amorphous as “sense of place,” but there is clearly a cultural malady in need of a prescription here, and local foods might be just what any good doctor would order.

This indulgence can be taken a step further, from a bioregional, ecological, or even hedonistic perspective. The oldest new kid on the block in promoting local foods and their link to our sense of place is terroir, a concept most articulately espoused—albeit with an epicurean accent—by the French foodophile. He raises his wine glass to the air, swirls with centrifugal confidence, watches the legs of the wine meander down the sweep of glass, sniffs not once but twice, utters an exclamation, sniffs again, sips, swishes, sips more confidently with an erudite grunt, and smiles slightly before twisting off a morsel of rustic bread and casually beginning to chew it with a small cube of artisan cheese that cuts the palate like the peasant’s scythe—“Aahhh . . . ça, ça c’est la Provence.” Not only does he make it clear that the three merged tastes of wine, cheese, and bread are born of his region’s sun, soil, and sweat, but he goes on to name the qualities of the hillside on which the grapes were grown, the molds inherent in the cheese, and the qualities of the local airborne yeasts that invaded the simple mixture of flour, water, sugar, and local sea salt. Then, naturellement, he tells a quick story about the artisans who crafted the foods. That’s terroir—the linking of taste, terra, and tradition. It is, as Amy Trubek calls it in the title of her seminal book on the subject, “the taste of place.”4

Just as a chef can transform a peasant’s plate into a signature dish, France has upped the ante with terroir and even taken it up to the next level: patrimonialization, a concept that merges regional authenticity and heritage with the food products themselves, thereby creating a culinary result that cannot be replicated in its truest form elsewhere. It’s a strategy of the underdogs in a globalized world. Simply put, patrimonialization creates certain boundaries of authenticity for specific foods and beverages that would otherwise be lost in the bigger mix. A wine, therefore, is not just the product of a specific variety of grape; it is also the melding of tradition, craft, and location. The local food niche just got a little tighter through the precision linking of people and place.

Relationships

Place is first and foremost the intersection between latitude and longitude, but place as it relates to local foods is also the intersection of people and their environs. And it is not just about existing relationships. In fact, one of the most compelling arguments for rebuilding community-based food systems is that it requires us to broker new relationships—relationships that help build local economies, conserve local landscapes, create entrepreneurial collaborations, enhance food security, enlighten and educate, and generate new friendships. The terms and concepts associated with the relational nature of local food systems are as prolific as summer zucchini: shortened food chains, Know Your Farmer (from the USDA, no less!), civic agriculture, community food security, community-supported agriculture, conviviality, and the list goes on.

In some ways, the emphasis on relationships inherent in the local food push is the most exciting aspect of it all: we are consciously making the choice to build new economic relationships, rekindle traditional ways of doing business, support those in need, and even invent new techology-based social networks that can, rather ironically, link neighbors. The narratives of this good work start to drive the numbers. As author and ethnobotanist Gary Paul Nabhan so eloquently puts it, we are “restorying the landscape.”5 It is through these stories that we move the local food agenda forward (although, as we’ll see later, there is risk in relying solely upon the narratives and not paying close attention to the numbers).

Geographers seem to keep bandying about the rather cumbersome word “embeddedness” to describe how the surge of interest in local foods is allowing for the possibility of enhanced relationships between consumers, farmers, and others. Two phrases I find more useful are “civic agriculture” and “community food security,” both of which highlight community transformation as well as a sense of belonging. Tom Lyson, a much-beloved and respected professor at Cornell University, described civic agriculture as being “associated with a relocalizing of production”:

From the civic perspective, agriculture and food endeavors are seen as engines of local economic development and are integrally related to the social and cultural fabric of the community. Fundamentally, civic agriculture represents a broad-based movement to democratize the agriculture and food system.6

Food systems expert Laura Delind, describing the dynamism of Lyson’s concept of civic agriculture, said, “For him, local food systems are civic in nature and, as such, are instruments of place-based negotiation, collective responsibility, and a participatory democracy.”7 Suddenly, we’re far beyond any simple notions of food miles or even much more complex concerns regarding food’s carbon footprint. We’ve not only entered an important area of social discourse, but we’re actually talking about changing the way we do business and how business involves strategic community decision making and planning.

While all of this heightened complexity may seem rather theoretical and abstract, it quickly becomes concrete when thrown into the hard realities of our very real “food deserts”—poor urban and suburban neighborhoods where convenience marts and liquor stores have replaced grocery stores—and poor rural neighborhoods where the racially diverse workers so critical to our food production system live on “subsistence wages” (hardly a fair term) that don’t allow them to adequately feed their own children.

The term “community food security,” in its earliest vestiges during the 1960s and ’70s, was developed around concerns related to world hunger. In particular, it evoked the need for impoverished communities around the world to develop and maintain their own steady and nutritious food supplies.8 The term began a slow evolution, eventually taking on clear local implications.

For many years, the phrase was most commonly associated with the activist nature of the Community Food Security Coalition (CFSC), one of the more diverse and decentralized food security advocacy groups in the United States.

Through its emphasis on community-tailored solutions, the organization has been one of the most important points of exchange for sharing and disseminating ideas on food security. (However, as I write, the CFSC has decided to cease its operations as a nonprofit coalition and pass its torch on to other nonprofits.) These other organizations have supported community-based food security programs by providing resources, networking opportunities, advocacy expertise, funding support, and even legislative initiatives, and some have been formed to keep an even keener eye on racial justice and cultural diversity (as will be discussed in later chapters). Many of these organizations share the definition put forward by community food systems specialists Michael Hamm and Anne Bellows: “Community food security is a condition in which all community residents obtain a safe, culturally appropriate, nutritionally sound diet through an economically and environmentally sustainable food system that promotes community self-reliance and social justice.”9

But just as “local” eludes clear delineations, “community” can create confusion and dissent, too. Is it geographical or cultural or economic? In some cases a neighborhood is the building block for efforts, while at other times a shared culture may be the point of commonality. Regardless, most efforts to build community food security are geared toward reducing the distance and anonymity built into our highly industrialized food system. Shortened food chains, community-supported agriculture, civic agriculture, community food security, and a host of other approaches all seem to imply or require increased participation, and not just at the consumer level. By rebuilding relationships between neighbors, consumers, suppliers, farmers, and businesses, these movements chip away at uncertainty and distrust, not only in our food systems but in our communities.

In the end, it seems that we’re searching for much more than just local food.

Distance

When we’re talking local, the issue of distance is never that far away, but by now it should be obvious that this local food thing is about much more than “food miles.” The concept of food miles has been helpful as a starting point, and the energy dedicated to transporting food from one place to another is not to be readily dismissed. All energy inputs into our food system need to be examined and minimized to the greatest extent possible. The problem with food miles is not that the figures are wildly inaccurate—getting any averages out of the immensely complex food system is extraordinarily challenging and fraught with necessary but problematic assumptions. Rather, the problem is that an exclusive or even dominant focus on food miles masks other larger energy sinks in our food system such as production, storage, and processing (more on these later). Furthermore, although it may be counterintuitive, the big trucks, ships, and trains that we envision when we hear “food miles” are almost always more efficient transporters of goods than a farmer’s pickup or a consumer’s car.

“Distance” has additional connotations and other means of measurement. Consider, for example, the correlation between proximity and familiarity. Taken a step further, the closer we are to someone geographically—a farmer in this case—the more confident we are in our own abilities to independently judge the quality and value of the products or services offered by that farmer. We can also better assess his or her contributions to things we care about—our local communities, the quality and safety of our food, the humane treatment of livestock, the treatment of farm workers, ecosystem stewardship, and so on. As the distance increases, however, we start to depend upon other means of assessment, including official certifications. Despite their shortcomings, certifications are, in essence, sanctioned brokers of our trust. They are particularly helpful when the local choice doesn’t seem to be working for one reason or another.
That’s the point at which we face the inevitable need to rank our purchasing priorities. What comes first? Local? Organic? Convenient? Grass-fed? It’s not that we have to be militant in this prioritization. Simply involving and ?educating ourselves is part of rebuilding community-scale food systems, so it’s probably wise for each of us to allow for some evolution in our own prioritizations. We’re not dealing just with moving targets but also with constantly morphing targets: the debeaked hen becomes a cage-free hen becomes a free-range hen becomes an organic pasture-raised heritage-breed hen.

We each have to prioritize according to our own values and realities, and we have to recognize the inevitability of compromises. For my family, we find the most satisfaction with the foods that we harvest ourselves. When that’s not an option, we prefer what I laughingly dub “neighborganic”—producing, purchasing, or bartering for foods produced locally and in the spirit of “organic.” In this case, I’m more interested in the spirit of the intent regarding organic than I am in the letter of the law. If I know the producer, the legalities are a moot point. If we are both producers, the exchange is all the richer, as we inevitably compare notes as we make the swap, and there is a mutual respect and appreciation that changes hands along with any currency involved. But as good as it is from a philosophical perspective, “neighborganic” isn’t always viable. Convenience, cost, and availability often enter into the equation. You’ll find me at the local food co-op and at the supermarket, too. And when I’m in my role overseeing the Sustainable Food Purchasing Initiative at Green Mountain College, I’ve learned that I have to use different lenses due to the difference in scale.

Local vs. Regional

For those with middle- and upper-class incomes, it’s generally not all that difficult to support “buy local” campaigns and personal ideals at the home level. But when we start trying to initiate changes within institutions—schools, colleges, hospitals, senior centers, the charitable food system—certain complexities appear quickly and with some frequency. The quandary boils down to scale: scale of consumption and scale of production. Here’s an example.

In September 2009, our college’s dining hall staff was preparing for a celebratory banquet following our convocation ceremony. The staff and I generally work together to ensure that the meals represent our college’s environmental mission and our commitment to supporting our local economy. The meal was being planned for six hundred people—not an enormous crowd, but fairly large by our small college’s standards. Chefs Dave and Tom—two extraordinary white-tablecloth chefs who (fortunately for us) made their way into college food service thanks to the regular hours and reasonable vacation periods—began planning for the event and ran some ideas by me for sourcing local products. We settled on a main entrée of chicken breast and targeted the one source in Vermont that we thought could provide the quantity of organic chicken breasts we needed. Chef Tom called in the order a week or so before the event, only to discover that this largest and most reliable source of organic poultry products couldn’t come close to filling the order, at least not without several weeks’ advance notice. We went to Plan B (local grass-fed beef) and Plan Sea (certified sustainably harvested seafood).

We unpacked multiple local food lessons from that one occurrence: plan and order a month out; find a way to use whole chickens or diced chicken; use the more substantial supply of naturally raised turkey we have in our southern Vermont, instead of the meager supply of organic chicken; create a database of producers of local and organic products and check on the typical quantities available at different times of the year; or just produce those products on the college farm for special events.

Those were the easy lessons, and they were all incumbent on us, the institutional consumer. But they also highlight the importance of how we employ the word “scale” as it relates to local food purchasing. We may think of “scale” in terms of “local” or “regional”—in other words, how large is our defined scope when we use those words? But “scale” can also refer to the scale of production on specific farms. Does it matter how big the farm or food enterprise is when we wrap it into our embrace of local?

And then there is the scale of consumption. Local consumption is typically much easier at the household scale than it is at the institutional level. With home gardens, community-supported agriculture (CSA), food co-ops, farmers’ markets, and emerging home delivery options, we can access a variety of local foods for home use relatively easily, albeit within seasonal constraints. But in many parts of the United States, there is a lack of significant diversified agriculture, and there isn’t always sufficient local infrastructure in place for processing, storing, distributing, and retailing agricultural goods once the farmers have supplied them. In part, we are facing the dilemmas resulting from the losses in what a group of advocates across the country have termed the “agriculture of the middle,”10 or midscale agriculture that can meet the needs of a country of citizens who eat away from home almost as much as at their kitchen tables. Many such advocates, myself included, maintain that we have to build out the number of ecologically minded midscale producers in the United States in order to meet our food production needs while not sacrificing (hopefully) the ecological integrity of their local landscapes.

An element of realism confronts us, then, as we look at current local food capacity and actual levels of demand. The current marketplace and paradigm have us constrained, and some compromises are necessary. One compromise that often makes sense is to look beyond the fuzzy border of “local” and assess the possibilities available “regionally,” yet another concept with soft edges but a more expansive and potentially resilient core.

A common justification for putting so much effort into re-envisioning local food systems is to build “resilient” communities—communities that can withstand unexpected blows from both Mother Nature’s and Adam Smith’s invisible hands in the short term, and cope with the uncertainties of climate change and peak oil over the longer term. Ensuring that basic local needs can be met despite the threats of the unforeseen means reducing vulnerability, diversifying resources, and even encouraging some redundancy. Therefore, it probably makes more sense to develop regional food security strategies—complemented by and linked to community-based local food systems—than it does to assume that a lonesome local strategy will get us where we want to go.

I realize that such a suggestion does not always sit well among all locavores with strong purist streaks. But when we start discussing accessibility, affordability, and resilience, our perspectives must broaden. We have to begin thinking about complex questions like “How far is too far?” with regard to the particular challenges of different geographical areas. Across the United States, ecological, demographic, and economic constraints arise in different combinations. For example, the sparse population densities and lack of agricultural diversity in areas such as the prairie states create market-based challenges for tightly defined local food markets. The southwestern states face serious obstacles to diverse agricultural production due to heat, soils, and water. Increasing the year-round production of a variety of products in close proximity to the dense urban and suburban populations in the cold and damp northern-tier states raises a whole different array of issues. In all cases, we also have to think about what people can pay for items for which there is a limited supply—with the frequent and frustrating result often being higher prices for local products than for the same products sourced from elsewhere.

And then we have to think again about resilience. What happens when disaster strikes and a local community or a whole food-producing region is devastated by floods (Hurricane Katrina in 2005), drought (southern United States in 2011 and two-thirds of the United States in 2012), long-term droughts (Horn of Africa in 2011), an oil spill (Gulf Coast states in 2010), or even radioactive contamination (Fukushima in 2011)? Strong community food systems are the foundation of food security, but it is wise to remember that well-managed regional, national, and international food systems currently contribute to a diverse food security portfolio for all global citizens.

 

Notes

1.    For more information on food chain clusters, see the various works by William D. Heffernan, available on the website of the Food Circles Networking Project at http://www.foodcircles.missouri.edu/consol.htm.
2.    Edward S. Casey, “Between Geography and Philosophy: What Does It Mean to Be in the Place-World?” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 91, no. 4 (2001): 684.
3.    Robert Feagan, “The Place of Food: Mapping Out the ‘Local’ in Local Food Systems,” Progress in Human Geography 31, no. 1 (2007): 33.
4.    Amy Trubek, The Taste of Place: A Cultural Journey into Terroir (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008).
5.    Gary Paul Nabhan, interview by the author, September 15, 2007.
6.    C. Clare Hinrichs and Tom Lyson, eds., Remaking the North American Food System: Strategies for Sustainability (Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska, 2007), 19.
7.    Laura B. DeLind, “Are Local Food and the Local Food Movement Taking Us Where We Want to Go? Or Are We Hitching Our Wagons to the Wrong Stars?” Agriculture and Human Values 28, no. 2 (June 2011): 274.
8.    Feagan, “The Place of Food,” 27–28.
9.    Michael W. Hamm and Anne Bellows, “Community Food Security: Background and Future Directions,” Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior 35, no. 1 (2003).
10.    For more discussion about the agriculture of the middle, visit the website of the national Agriculture of the Middle initiative at http://www.agofthemiddle.org/.