Tuesday, June 12, 2012

A Sustainable Food Policy For Lexington?

I was recently caught by a tweet from Mary Newsom, an urban aficionado and writer from Charlotte, North Carolina, about a local government's support for local food production. Mary does not know this but she has had a great influence on what and how I write on my topics.

The link that Mary supplied led me to a new and different take on local, sustainable agricultural development. I don't understand why many other local communities are not looking at following a similar path.

To begin with, this NC county wanted to re-evaluate its economic development efforts, which it and most others have followed for years with mixed results. These efforts are usually characterized by luring (or poaching) the jobs from some other community through wage and tax incentives. It does not “grow” the local economy with new jobs without paring down some other community's economy in the process. How often will some other desperate community come along and “raise the ante” just as he “exemption” periods expire.

As an alternative, they began viewing the development of local food production for the growing farmer's market movement and an eye on making it a sustainable process.

Some of the alternative strategies to be employed included;
  • Hiring a local food system program coordinator.
  • Establishing a Food Policy Council.
  • Hiring a sustainable local economy project manager.
  • Establishing a Council for a Sustainable Local Economy.
  • Commissioning a consultant to study the local economy and recommend ways to bolster local entrepreneurship.
  • Paying to build a slaughterhouse to allow local farmers to harvest livestock close to home.
  • Starting an incubator farm to cultivate a new generation of farmers.
In a county of 178,000 people and considerable tillable land, does this sound too far fetched to work? I think not, because given time I believe that it will work and will grow. The natural foods movement, which I think that we can trace back to the '70s and probably the Foxfire book series, has started to gather a good head of steam and become a bit more mainstream of late. Farmers markets add locations and growers every year to the point that the larger agribusiness folks want a piece of the action.

But will something similar work for Lexington and surrounding counties?

Take a look at the Homegrown Kentucky project being started down in Owsley County, The county high school has an extra 10 acres of rich bottom land, much better suited to teaching sustainable agricultural practices than other education functions. When they pair the student and community gardens developed there with the relocated farmers market on the school grounds and the school cafeteria needs, it looks to be a winning situation all around.

I feel that some of the results of activities like those list above could fall in line with the motives and efforts of existing organizations such as the Fayette Alliance and the PDR program without mentioning the mayor's support of the Local First movement. Are the thoughts behind the Locust Trace AgriScience Farm, which the Fayette County Public Schools is developing, not working toward sustainable, entrepreneurial graduates to enter the local employment scene? This latter sounds like an incubator farm to me.

I have watched the growth of local food programs like the Good Foods Co-op and the various farmers markets and they seem to each have a separate, yet similar, food policy. No one is attempting to establish a coordinated policy for our city or region, even as a guard against an economic disaster. If the ongoing debate and wrangling on the subject of food trucks is any indication, I am not sure that our current council could come up with a valid local food policy in less than the time it would take to starve to death.

The attraction of high paying jobs and the expansion of local organic farming are topics which the media seems to trumpet from time to time but we must not lose sight of those on the other end of the economic spectrum. All cannot make it to a farmers market on a regular basis, either on a scheduled day or due to distance/transportation issues. Some families cannot get to a grocery nor afford the meals which use ingredients on minimum processing. What if there was a coordinated way of guaranteeing access to some community farm/garden plots for anyone who wished to participate? Not someone to do it for them, but access or transportation to the plot.

From what I understand, most residents of Lexington do not realize that we have probably the largest stockyard operation in the state if not the region. But there is no local slaughterhouse in town. We have a number of beef producers in our county who raise grass finished stock and sell to the more finicky buyers at the farmers market. The Good Foods Co-op buys whole meat carcasses and trims out cuts for their members. So, where is the closest slaughterhouse for these dedicated folks? The answer is, either in Garrard Co. or in Bardstown. This a great deal better than Chicago or elsewhere in the mid-west, but it still adds to the transportation cost of supplying it.

Do, or could, any of our myriad of new restaurants downtown plan to raise their own herbs and savories in close proximity to the kitchen? Some of them have planned for rooftop patios or could bargain for the seldom used roof space in our parking garages. It amazes me the amount of wasted solar energy that we allow to escape each and every day.

I do not think for one minute that CommerceLex will pick this up as a possible economic development tool but as I have pointed out, it seems to have a decent foothold in Cabarrus Co. in North Carolina. At least some people are looking toward food sustainability and somehow a balance can be struck. The above ideas may be well worth trying and Charlotte is not that far to go to check it out.


Alison said...

FoodChain is planning to grow greens at the Breadbox. I've heard there will eventually be a greenhouse on the roof of the building.


Streetsweeper said...

Alison, Of course FoodChain and the whole Breadbox concept is one way of leading by example but it is not a complete food policy. I also know of several restaurants, mostly in surrounding counties, which have land associated with them where they do grow their own herbs and such. Their downtown counterparts may not have the land but there are ways but suitable measures may be taken to get around that if we look.

"Ahavah" Gayle Bourne said...

It's difficult to get policymakers to understand that this is not a fru-fru environmental thing, but a need for planning food security in a future that is approaching rapidly. The IMF, World Bank, US Government & Military, German Military, various policy thinktanks such as the Brookings Institute, and many other organizations have all put out reports recognizing that in spite of media-touted "new" oil production discoveries, the cost of transporting food long distances is going to skyrocket soon. Demand in developing countries for petroleum products is increasing exponentially every year now. America has been a petroleum hog, but the rest of the world is starting to demand their fair share. The recent IMF report predicts prices of gasoline will double by 2020 - that's only 7.5 years from now. That will make regular gasoline somewhere in the neighborhood of $7-$8 a gallon and diesel around $10-$11 a gallon. At that level, the prices of food that is hauled long distances will careen out of control (not to mention price even parts of the middle class out of the private automobile market).

But Lexington is uniquely suited to be able to respond to this unavoidable problem because we have a lot of farmland close by - the problem is that we're not focused on sustainable (that is, petroleum product free, reasonable transportation distances) agriculture, greenhouses, hydroponics, local egg & cheese production, etc. that would provide residents of central Kentucky with fresh fruits and veggies year round, along with poultry & fresh dairy products (and as you mentioned, fresh meat). Instead we focus on the equine industry and those few farms that grow useless commodity crops that are sent out of state for commercial agriprocessing, such as GMO soy and GMO corn made into fast food and convenience foods. These commodity crops require huge petroleum inputs both to grow and to harvest - their cost will be prohibitive in just a few years. And they're entirely useless as ordinary food.

So will Lexington adopt a food policy that encourages local organic production, urban farming, greenhouses and other technical innovations, and sustainable family farms to replace the far-flung inter-continental food imports that we have become dependent upon? I'm not holding my breath.

Farms take a few years to get up and running efficiently. The local government, however, will wait until it's too late to put these initiatives in place. The results will not be pretty. If there were an oil shock today, there would be no food in Fayette County in a week or less. Once upon a time somebody thought this was not a problem, but now policy-makers ought to know better.

Aaron German said...

Timely post, Sweeper. I'd like to further the discussion by pointing readers to two recent North of Center pieces. Keep up the good work.