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.