A 100-MILE THANKSGIVING:ARE YOU READY TO BUY LOCAL?By Neal PeirceThis November, celebrate a 100-mile Thanksgiving. Prepare a feast of turkey or choice meat, vegetables and ingredients, all raised within 100 miles of your dinner table..That’s the message from a coalition of “eat local,” sustainable agriculture groups including 100MileDiet.org, Local Harvest and EatLocalChallenge.com. And they have an attractive pitch. It’s that a Thanksgiving of local ingredients will put fresher and healthier food on your table than lots of industrial-scale, long-distance produce. The local food will also, claim these groups, support nearby, small farm operations most likely to -- * Pay their workers a living wage, * Grow a diversity of crops, often without pesticides, * Slaughter their animals in a humane fashion, and * Sell only locally, recycling dollars into the economy of your own region, restoring some measure of the direct, city-country relationships that are so often lost in today’s overwhelmingly conglomeratized, globalized food manufacture and distribution system.The 100-mile pitch is parallel to an early October column I wrote using the spinach e-coli scare to ask why we ship -- on big trucks spewing greenhouse gases -- fresh produce that could be grown almost anywhere as much as 3,500 miles, destroying markets for local farmers.Not everyone, in turns out, agrees. My (e-)mailbag was soon flooded with messages from friends and strangers alike, proposing I eat crow because global efficiency and vagaries of local markets doom close-to-home agriculture anyway. Why? Customers, they note, go first for the low prices that the familiar chains -- Safeway to Wal-Mart -- deliver best. Who wants a winter of canned and frozen vegetables and fruits, when California, year-round warm and supported by government-subsidized irrigation, can keep fulfilling our desires, from lettuce to grapes to kiwis? Local produce isn’t always better tasting. Anyway, my critics said, sprawl has eaten up the choicest farm land around cities -- do we really believe, for example, that New Jersey is still the “Garden State”?Are some of these arguments correct? Yes. It’s unrealistic to expect resurgent local farming to make a big dent fast against today’s super-efficient agribusiness/mass food marketing machine. And there’ll always be exceptions: Who’d want to give up cranberries for Thanksgiving?But that’s not to say agriculture that’s scaled more thoughtfully, more to the states and metro regions where we live, can’t have a strong future. Not at all. First, consumers want choice. And increasingly, they value health. Many of the freshest (and most vitamin-packed) tastes are local -- qualities easily lost in long-distance transportation. Think heirloom tomatoes, sweet corn and fresh berries.Many of us will select (and pay additionally) for meats and poultry raised in normal local farm conditions rather in than agribusiness’ brutally packed body-to-body animal production facilities.Second, economics: Local agriculture creates jobs and recycles dollars in a home region, rather than shipping them out to distant suppliers. Check a recent report by the Michigan Land Use Institute and Michigan State University’s C.S. Mott Group for Sustainable Food Systems, for example. It found that $1.9 billion of higher-value fresh fruits and vegetables consumed in Michigan comes from other states and countries -- even while 74 percent of Michigan fruits and 44 percent of its vegetables are sold at relatively low prices for canned, frozen or dried products.Third, there’s also a strong social side: direct farmer-to-buyer ties strengthen cohesion and civic capital across a metropolitan region. And finally, the environment: viable farms preserve relished greenspace.The real challenge isn’t total system change; instead it’s finding a balance, a start to moving the needle back a few notches, to regionally diverse agriculture and food distribution.One solution: a proposed $9.5 million state government investment starting with intense marketing of fresh Michigan foods to Michiganders. Other suggested steps: start up a state farmers’ market association, increase food stamp use by farmers’ markets, offer low- interest loans for cooling, storage and packing equipment, and move aggressively to get state and local government agencies to expand local food choice by school cafeterias, child care centers, universities and prisons. With such steps, it was argued, net farm income in Michigan could be boosted $164 million, spurring at least 1,889 new jobs -- and possibly many more -- as new profitability draws entrepreneurs and stimulates innovation. Parallel efforts in the other 49 states could trigger a major rebalancing of American food policy, complementing urgent national needs from farm and land conservation to healthier eating habits and less obesity. Not a bad bargain!Additionally, the fast-growing national trend to organic foods may give new vigor to local farming. (Organics reportedly require 2.5 times more labor than conventional farming, and reap 10 times the profit.) True, several big grocery chains are muscling into the previously limited organic market. But gourmet chefs and others willing to pay organics’ substantial extra cost are likely candidates for selecting the freshest, locally grown products.Mechanized, long-distance, shrink-wrapped agriculture still rules the roost in America. But we can all be rebels. Think about it as you plan your Thanksgiving Dinner.------------Note: In last week’s column on election day initiative votes, the Maine vote rejecting the “Tabor” amendment was shown as 54-36 percent; the correct figure is 54-46 percent. .
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