Government subsidies are what keep these farmers afloat, hut a change in the American consciousness in which consumers seek out local food, could seriously alter the need for farmers to submit themselves to giant agribusiness.
And the farmer's market is increasingly becoming a way of life for consumers across the country. According to the 2004 National Farmers Market Directory, there were 3,706 farmer's markets on record in 2004, twice as many as a decade before.
Maiser of Eatlocalchallenge.com (which challenges participants to eat almost entirely locally grown food for a month) admits that California's climate makes the challenge a little easier. But her online blog brought participants from across the U.S. and internationally, proving that eating local is possible anywhere.
Fifty people participated the first year (2005), and 60 the second, posting their experiences online and joining over 700 non-blogging locavores. For September of this year, the group anticipates more than 1,000 participants.
Maiser belongs to a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) group, in which participants buy shares in a farm and receive regular deliveries of produce. "The farmers get steady injections of cash... which really helps farmers grow a lot of different kinds of crops," she says.
But more traditional farmer's markets are flourishing, too, and not only for the fresh, seasonal produce. As consumers begin to visit these local establishments they learn that food has a history and a taste, and that there are other members of their communities, from amateur growers to professional farmers, who are eager to talk about the food on display. "I like everything about farmers markets," says Madison. "The chaotic quality, the social quality. It's vital, it's alive, it's the best-tasting food. I feel lost in a supermarket."
Small farmers may not subject themselves to the lengthy process of certifying organic that larger farms are forced to, but the inherent trust that's bred over local farm stands makes such certifying seem inconsequential.
Once organic went big, in the form of Earthbound Farm and its 25,000 organic acres in California, shipping baby field greens in ready-to-eat pre-washed plastic cartons across the country, it lost something of its "all natural" allure, even while meeting the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) organic standards.
When major retailers like Wal-Mart sell organic, it requires the very same industrial model of farming, albeit with more Earth-friendly measures of pest control. But the need for long-distance shipping remains the same, and the overall impact on the Earth is not substantially improved once that lettuce leaves the fields.
According to Cornell ecologist David Pimentel, growing, chilling, washing, packaging and transporting that box of organic salad to a plate on the East Coast takes more than 4,600 calories of fossil fuel energy, or 57 calories of fossil fuel for every calorie of food.
Overall, as Peter Singer and Jim Mason point out in their book, The Way We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter, "Food production, processing, manufacturing, distribution and preparation consumes somewhere between 12 and 20 percent of the U.S. energy supply." Much of that is due to transporting food via planes, which doubles the amount of energy needed to ship food via truck.And as transcontinental lettuce has become the supermarket norm, more freight-only, and food-only, aircraft flights are expected. With aviation predicted to "account for 15 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions by 2050," according to The Way We Eat
The book stresses that personal decisions could have significant energy impact, too. Making fewer car trips to purchase groceries; buying in-season tomatoes as opposed to those grown in a greenhouse; reducing cooking time to minimize energy use at home.
The local eating movement is well established. What's needed now is for the government to lend its support, says Mark Ritchie, the former president of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy and now Minnesota's Secretary of State. "The procurement policies of the government and public institutions need to be directed toward the buying of local food," Ritchie says. "Prisons and schools and government agencies represent a large purchasing pool."
Halweil, too, sees the interest in buying locally in schools as the most promising trend in the local food movement, because it will help shape a new generation of eaters to eventually choose locally grown items.
"There's not a major school district that's not experimenting with local food in the cafeterias," Halweil says. "With that, we can change eating habits. It's beginning to take root." There are currently farmer-to-cafeteria programs in 400 school districts in 22 states. Major food service suppliers to colleges and universities, such as Sodexho, Aramark and Bon Appetit have gotten on board: the latter has committed to purchasing at least 25 percent of its food from within a 150-mile radius of each campus.
Proponents hope all the attention on eating local will resonate with lawmakers shaping the 2007 Farm Bill. Such environmental interest groups as Environmental Working Group and American Farmland Trust are already pushing for a greater emphasis on protecting air, soil and water quality and supporting small farmers, and many seek an end to subsidies (totaling $9.7 billion to corn farmers in 2005) which artificially inflate markets and feed the cheap-commodity-producing machine.
"The past farm bill had provisions for farmers who practice soil and water conservation," says Pirog at the Leopold Center, "but these have been pilot programs. The new farm bill should expand the programs so farmers are well regarded for being good stewards of the soil and water resources. There are also opportunities to increase locally grown produce in schools, among seniors and lower-income individuals."If eating locally captures the national attention the way eating organic has, than the movement is poised to reinvent the model of industrial farming the way organic never could. And that would mean more money supporting local economies, more fresh produce in the high-fat American diet and a wider appreciation for the natural cycles of the Earth.
"We consume as if a great food-producing machine were just over the horizon," writes Gussow. When face-to-face with tanners instead of shrink-wrapped produce, and with the taste of a just-picked strawberry in hand, it's possible that even the world's most ceaseless consumers might take pause.
CONTACT: Eat Local Challenge, www.eatlocalchallenge.com; National Fanners Market Directory, www.ams.usda.gov/farmersmarkets/map.htm; Leo-pold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, (515)294-3711, www.leopold.iastate.edu; 2007 Farm Bill, www.usda.gov/farmbill.