What if, for one day, all transportation, power, communication—all connection beyond the boundaries of Jefferson County—were suspended?
How would we do? How about for a week? A month?
For me, this experiment has its origins on the day I walked into my local Bowie (MD) Safeway after digging myself out of Snowmageddon. Walking the produce aisle, I was shocked to see the brightly lit bins stripped bare of anything remotely fresh. I left, consoled with a bag of shabby celery. It was explained to me that, for a mere three days, snow kept the supply trucks from coming in. And that was the beginning of a winding road that led me, five years hence, to purchase land in Jefferson County and enter the food “conversation.”
I would encourage you to try this thought experiment, which I believe offers profound lessons in many aspects of living—from currency to the Internet to food. For me, nothing is more taken for granted, and yet more essential, than food. I’m just old enough to remember when apples were only sold in season (there are those who don’t even realize apples have a season!). Now, experts say the average age of an apple you see on the supermarket shelf is 14 months or older. Other commodity foods, like “freshly squeezed” orange juice, are equally unfresh. The more we rely on a commoditized food system, it seems, the less like food our food ultimately becomes.
It is no surprise that farmers’ markets and CSAs have become wildly successful. It’s one of the primary ways to connect local farmers to people who want to eat real, locally grown food. A dollar spent at a farmers’ market is more likely to return to the local economy—to build infrastructure, and much more—than a dollar spent at a supermarket. How much of the latter dollar, as well as the produce, is lost along the way from distant mega-farm to warehouse to processor to transport to distribution center to the supermarket shelf? Economists claim the global commodity market is very efficient, yet it provides little in return.
Our county is filled with farmers who grow food for local consumption. Such direct local sales nationwide stand at $4.8 billion—which is infinitesimal compared to the aggregate food market, which stands at $1.229 trillion.
UW-Madison’s Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems has identified five tiers in our food distribution system, suggesting how we can do so much better: Tier 0: Education, community lots, seed libraries / Tier 1: CSA participation, farm-to-table expansion / Tiers 2-3: Aggregation, coordination, and education to bring local supply and demand together, which has led elsewhere to the astounding success of food hubs. (Food hubs are the next big thing in local agriculture.) As you can see in the graphic within the above link, Level 4 pertains to global distributors.
Farmers providing in these tiers (0–3) do more farming and less retail. To operate at higher tiers, Jefferson County would benefit from a hub to coordinate, aggregate, and market on behalf of local farmers. Moreover, in a wholesale market, handling and processing locally is advisable to maximize retained value. Aggregation may also be necessary to achieve the quantities institutions (supermarkets) require. Producer certification may also be necessary—and some type of processing facility, as well as a labor pool, will be required.
The problem is a holistic one, but I believe a cooperative regional food hub can create this infrastructure. Tom McConnell of the WVU Extension Service Small Farm Center works to connect local farmers to institutional buyers, in order to capture even a small portion of that market. He is optimistic that a food hub organized as a cooperative can connect local small farmers to institutions.
“Every day, from where I live, I see truck after truck bringing food here from out of state. It’s an $8.3 billion market,” he noted.
One very promising opportunity is West Virginia’s Farm to School program, established to address a growing and unmet need in our county schools for fresh, local produce. Food that we can grow locally—green beans, butternut squash, sweet potatoes—are staples on their menus. Each of these items have particular handling needs, and farmers interested in participating will need to scale up to service winning bids. But every step of the way—from scaling production to certification to handling—there are grants and loans and education available. We have a young and enthusiastic collective of small and mid-scale farmers, and the most arable land in the state. All we need is coordination and marketing to build the necessary infrastructure.
Derek Kilmer likewise agrees that a cooperative regional hub might be the only way to capture enough value out of a supply chain serving institutional customers. Starting with a bin of apples sold to a local school, he built Kilmer’s Farm Market into a successful regional aggregator in Berkeley County. He cautions, however, that he had the benefit of a 500-acre orchard in the family for generations. “Most farmers are working with five acres, twenty acres, and might not have the necessary knowledge, the interest in marketing, or the scale and variety to interest a school.”
Consider this: our largest orchard, in a county historically known for its orchards, is up for sale—probably to be repurposed for commodity crops, or for another housing project. Is it too late to save? Are there leasing agreements, a labor pool, expertise, new ways of marketing that might prevent the next loss to our county?
EM Forster, at the edge of the modern age, wrote: “Only connect.” So, let’s connect. Join the conversation. Let’s rebuild our food infrastructure.
— Keir is co-founder of Sacred Roots LLC, a Shepherdstown-based farm devoted to organically cultivating medicinal and culinary herbs, and providing garden-based education. Follow Sacred Roots on Facebook, as well, and contact Keir at email@example.com.