Today we attended a meeting of the Illinois Stewardship Alliance, which is a really amazing group. They promote sustainable agriculture and family farms here in central Illinois. The meeting was actually a workshop or discussion. There were a couple of guys, one a chef from Chicago with a zero-waste kitchen and an interest in local food, the other the head of Fresh Picks, delivering to your home fresh organic produce in the Chicago area. They were talking about how they view the local foods market, and what they see the role of sustainable small farmers to be. It got some discussion started, especially with some of the more outspoken members of ISA (and good they are to have around, eh!).
Next up on a panel discussion were three local hopeful outlets for local farm food: the food buyer for UIS, the local university; the produce buyer from County Market (grocery store); and the owner and operator of Roberts Sysco, which is one of the biggest food distributors to hotels, restaurants, etc., in central Illinois. They told what they were looking for, what is important to them, and what they see the role for farmers in their piece of the food market. Again, some discussion began, and really it was a dialogue, figuring out the common ground and market potential, trying to see needs to fill on both sides.
The guys from Chicago say you can make $12-14,000 PER ACRE of organic veg in the Chicago market. Astounding! And I bet it's a lot lower for farmers in the economically depressed downstate area. The farmers were talking about how they go from market gardening, where they can handle the labor themselves, then to needing to go big to compete, buying a single-row green bean picker for $25,000, for a crop that doesn't make much of a profit margin to begin with. And also that local area people are not interested in hand-picking the food that many crops require (strawberries and tomatoes at the very least). Migrant labor now handles this task on agrindustrial farms, and increasingly on area farms.
And there's the weird issue with people needing food year-round, and the growing season locally not matching up to this ideal. And the fact that schools, which require a lot of food, run while the growing season is just revving up or down. And the fact that restaurants in Chicago are looking for local produce at California agindustrial migrant labor farm prices.
Farmers around here are looking for markets for their produce. And yet, if we really look deeply into the issue, we see that farmers would have a hard time keeping up with demand, if everyone started buying locally. It's a problem with a good ending in mind, but getting from here to there is the issue. We've spent the last many decades making our trade circles larger and requiring more petroleum inputs--fertilizers, pesticides, mechanical equipment, trucking to distribution centers and Wal-Mart grocery stores nationwide. It takes 10-15 calories of energy to produce every calorie of energy we consume for food. This is incredible!
It's as much a habit and convenience on our parts as anything else. And now we are thinking about using less finite resources, thinking about what it has meant to lose so much--our healthy air, healthy oceans (Dead Zone), drinkable water, food with taste and nutrition, affection for our land, vibrant rural culture. We think about how important these things are to us and humanity, and we look for a path from here to there.
It was a good parley. Farmers learned that there are consumers who are in demand of their produce. The Chicago guys and the local distributors repeated that they have customers who are looking for produce with a story. Their customers are looking for tasty nutritious food to feed their children and themselves, and they are looking for some kind of connection to the rural land of stewardship that has been lost to pavement, suburban housing and strip malls with Wal-Marts. They are willing to pay more (at least in affluent Chicago-land) in order to buy the story that comes with the produce. Lawd knows there are plenty of stories here, people hanging onto their family farms by whatever means they can. The guys in button-down shirts learned that farmers who grow tasty and nutritious food are doing their best to navigate this industrial ag world, and what specifically they can do help out farmers.
Although I do not think I will ever be in the wholesale local foods business, nor will I ever have a need to purchase a semi full of organic tomatoes, I really enjoyed being a witness to this beautiful thing, people coming together to talk, to plan, to dream, to organize, to network, to change our agindustrial food prison into something quite more beautiful and healthy for all of us involved in living a life of peace.
And on tonight's menu for us? Besides the gentle prairie summer thunderstorm, we had goat steaks from our friend Shannon's goats, corn on the cob, green beans (some from our garden & some from market) flavored with onions and garlic and pine nuts, and home-brewed strawberry wine. Only the butter, pine nuts, and salt were not local (although the butter was from Wisconsin and the salt from Utah). It was an excellent dinner, and I should be so lucky as to eat locally every day of my life.