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Through the Lens of Local

black and white photo of foothill taken through tree branches

“through the lens of local we learn to value organic connections between the health of our bodies and the health of our farms.” ~Janie Burns, Meadowlark Farm

Driving across the Midwestern landscape, it is not difficult to discern what takes place in this region of the country. Aside from a few disruptions to the landscape, corn and soybeans are the predominate row crop. Miles turn into counties, countries turn into states, and still the view from the window changes little. It’s here, in between these narrow rows of hybridized crops we’ve taken on the challenge of feeding the world. Yet despite our efforts to feed everyone some regions of the country, apparently ungrateful for the gifts bestowed upon civilization by agribusiness, have opted to feed themselves. A recent publication from Boise State University proves that Idaho is known for more than beautiful landscapes and the potato. “Local, Simple, Fresh: Sustainable Food in the Boise Valley” is the fourth edition in a student research series at Boise State University. The publication contains student essays based on their interaction with both practitioners and public officials. The publication covers a wide range of topics and makes it apparent that the effects of monoculture and industrial agriculture extend beyond the horizon.

The publication begins with a piece entitled, “Return of the Family Farm” authored by Todd Shallat and Angie Zimmer. This piece tells the story of Janie Burns of Meadowlark Farm, an advocate for local agriculture and founding member of the Capital City Public Market. Burns begins with two questions, “Why were there so many vegetables listed in the seed catalog, yet so few vegetable choices in the supermarket? Why, in a valley so rich with farmland, was so little food locally grown?”1 Burns’s questions are applicable beyond Idaho. It’s a question that many find themselves asking across this country. It’s a seemingly rhetorical question for many of us can answer it. It’s the market, it’s the farmers, it’s federal subsidies, we have to feed the world, those crops don’t grow here. While these statements provide a simple answer to a confusing question, perhaps we don’t know anymore. It’s disturbing to think that perhaps the answer is because the infrastructure necessary to grow, process, and distribute local crops has been removed in favor of hybridized row crops. Or that the knowledge of cultivating local varieties of produce has been forgotten.

Burns is correct in her observation regarding the variety of vegetables and choices at the supermarket. A trip to many local markets reveals that there is limited selection and what is available is often grown elsewhere. It seems ironic that for a culture defined by hyper individualism that our sources of nourishment have been standardized. After all, taken as a whole we tend to define ourselves through the exclusivity of the items we purchase. For example there is the sheer variety in cell phones, automobiles, computers, and clothing, yet there is only a pittance of varieties of green bean, sweet corn, onions, or peppers at the supermarket. While we’ve been led to believe that our gadgets say something about us as individuals, apparently that logic doesn’t extend to our food. However, I would offer the idea that food and nourishment says much more about us. Our days revolve around the timing of meals, it’s a time to re-energize, discuss, reflect, visit, and reconnect in the company of family, friends, and colleagues. Although a staggering amount of profit has been made from designing, marketing, and selling the necessary dishware, pots, pans, silverware, cups, and glasses, there seems to be little interest in the food that will be prepared.

B and W photo of a crumbling barn

Yet, what is driving farmers like Burns and the Treasure Valley Food Coalition is a desire to make local food relevant. Her produce isn’t a product whose value is driven by exclusivity or a marketing campaign. According to Burns, she is “selling the values – the managing of vegetation, the integration with the whole farm”2. Values, however, don’t show up on food packaging. A trip to the supermarket reveals a different set of values, one of convenience and ease made possible by factory farms, depleted soils, and fossil fuels. While agribusiness turns the complexity of industrial agriculture into a convenient microwaveable meal, small farmers turn the complexity of a farm into a connection with the land. Local products differ from those of industrial agriculture in that they include a set of values which can’t necessarily be reflected in price but rather in the relationship between people. While many ponder how to promote the value of local foods compared to the industrial agriculture alternatives, perhaps it’s a fruitless exercise. After all agribusiness is judging food quality by a set of standards many find unacceptable. The local food movement has an agenda that extends beyond advocating for the positive ecological and nutritional benefits. It’s about building communities. According to Burns “local food is about stewardship of local resources and building a community that’s prosperous and resilient”3. Thus ironically communities are turning to the local food movement to deliver what’s been promised by agribusiness for decades, prosperity. Prosperity however isn’t a turn key operation. The infrastructure that allowed local produce to be grown, harvested, and prepared locally has decayed or fallen into disrepair. Beyond that, much of what had been common knowledge has been lost. In Idaho Burns notes that “the packing houses, the processing facilities for meat, vegetables, storing those things, the canneries, the flour mills, all those things that used to support our economy and feed ourselves have vanished”4. It’s an observation that’s applicable to many rural places and draws attention to the fact that it will require a concerted effort to reconnect communities with working lands.

From Idaho to Illinois it’s becoming apparent that some of us want to get our hands dirty. We want to walk in the pastures where sheep graze. We want to know who feeds the cows that become our beef and shake hands with the person who tends to the chickens that produce our eggs. And, finally, to know that someone is keeping the land fertile for our children. Whether it’s soybeans or potatoes we recognize that the land, our communities, and each other are capable of something better.

1 Shallat, Todd and Zimmer, Angie. “Return of the Family Farm”. Local, Simple, Fresh: Sustainable Food in the Boise Valley. Boise, ID: Boise University Press, 2013, p.16)2 Shallat, Todd and Zimmer, Angie. p.17)

3 Shallat, Todd and Zimmer, Angie. p.18)

4 Shallat, Todd and Zimmer, Angie. p.20)

1. Obtained through the Creative Commons via Flickr.
2. Obtained through the Creative Commons via Flickr.