by Dan Armstrong, Mud City Press
The world currently faces unprecedented challenges due to long-term resource mismanagement and environmental degradation. This is particularly evident in the realm of agriculture where monoculture and industrial farming techniques have proven to be unsustainable. Topsoil loss, water shortages, and petrochemical dependency are stressing global grain production and impacting the price of all food products worldwide. In the last five years, food security has progressed from an issue generally associated with developing nations to a concern for all nations, including the United States. Recent studies report that 2.5 percent of the U.S. population is undernourished. Oregon ranks in the ten worst states with 4 percent of its populace undernourished. Even closer to home, one in five families in Lane County relies on Food for Lane County for assistance, and almost a third of the county’s children ate from an emergency food box at least once during this last year. With increasing concerns for an extended economic recession, growing unemployment, peaking oil production, the uncertainties of climate change, and renewed awareness for toxin tainted food products, food security should become part of all immediate and future planning in Lane County.
Food Security: Food security is more than meeting the caloric needs of the less fortunate. Food security also includes ensuring the safety and nutritional value of the food that is available, having adequate stores of food on hand during times of emergency, using sustainable agricultural practices for the production of food, and having some significant level of regional self-reliance in the production, processing, distribution, storage, and sales of the region’s food.
Food System: A food system is the full array of farm operations and infrastructure involved in the production of food and getting that food to the populace. A food system begins with arable land, farmers, farm machinery, and the farm labor necessary to grow and harvest all types of food. The food that is not sold directly as fresh produce must then be freighted to processors, processed, packaged, distributed, stored, and sold. This involves processing plants, distribution warehouses, storage facilities, freight by truck, rail, sea, or air, and markets. The entire network of these pieces and parts is the food system.
Economic Conditions: The world economy is currently amid radical contraction. A horribly mismanaged financial system and unrealistic expectations from free market dynamics have caused a wholesale re-evaluation of all business planning and financial philosophy. The outlook speaks to indefinite recessionary economic conditions, increasing unemployment, and large-scale government intervention in anticipation of recession proceeding into depression. The numbers of homeless and hungry will increase worldwide, in the United States, and most assuredly in Oregon and Lane County.
Peak Oil: Oil production has or will soon peak. This means the cost of all petroleum products are on the rise and will continue to rise in fits and starts for the foreseeable future. This will severely impact our fossil fuel-based agricultural combine and its global food system. Over the last fifty years our methods of growing and distributing food have become more and more dependent on hydrocarbon products. Soil nitrogen levels are maintained by fertilizers made from hydrocarbon gases. Pests are fought with petroleum-based pesticides. Weeds are eliminated by petroleum-based herbicides. Fields are cultivated and harvested by machinery powered by petroleum-based fuels. Food products are transported by trucks or trains or airplanes powered by fossil fuels or their derivatives. Foods are processed with machines run by electricity generated by fossil fuels. Foods are packages in plastics made from petrochemical products. We refrigerate with fossil fuels, and we cook with fossil fuels. From field to distributor to store to kitchen cabinet to stove, our entire food system flows upon a stream of petroleum and fossil fuel derivatives. This system has evolved and grown through a period when petroleum and natural gas was irrationally cheap. This is no longer the case and has already made a significant impact on the agriculture industry with climbing prices for chemical fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, farm machinery fuel, food processing, product packaging, and transportation. The entire food system must be remodeled to diminish petroleum inputs as much as possible.
Climate Change: The unknown potentials of climate change make all planning for the future extremely difficult. Extreme weather events, diminished snowpack, seasonal rainfall pattern changes, water shortages in general, and localized population increases or decreases due to large scale migration must be considered in any emergency food security strategies and long-term regional agricultural practices.
Environmental Degradation: Humans have overworked the planet. Along with concerns for resource depletion and the effects of green house gases, the earth suffers from a variety of general and specific environmental insults. Excessive aquifer pumping, soil loss, toxins in the watershed and the living biota, accelerated species loss, air pollution, the continuing trade off of cropland and forests for urban expansion, plus a litany of other factors have cut into the vitality of life on the planet, the overall health of the land, and our ability to produce sustained and adequate quantities of food.
Globalization: Globalization, facilitated by cheap oil, has turned our food systems inside out. Over the last twenty-five years, the globalization of the market place has expanded trade with a rich and diverse new array of products and product sources; however, it has been at the cost of regional economic balance, especially at the local level and especially for local food systems. Regional agriculture has turned to monoculture for the targeting of specific global markets, diminishing diversity in what is grown for local markets and lending to the deterioration of regional food system infrastructure. Communities are actually losing the ability to feed themselves from local sources by relying too heavily on distant markets for their food. The situation in Lane County and the greater Willamette Valley is applicable.
Food Safety: Food safety is an issue. We have seen articles in the newspaper about e coli in spinach, salmonella in tomatoes, and melanine in products as far ranging as pet foods, toothpaste, and baby formula. Critical to food security is knowing where the food came from, how it was grown, and what additives have been included during its processing. The closer food is grown and processed to the place it is eaten, the more the consumer knows about that food.
Willamette Valley Agriculture through the Lens of Food Security
Setting: Though our subject is Lane County, for the purposes of this analysis, it is more appropriate to discuss the bioregion under consideration rather than the county. In this instance, the bio-region will be defined as the Willamette River watershed or the Willamette Valley. Any mention of a regional food system would then apply to the food shed defined by the Willamette Valley.
The Willamette Valley is one of the most bountiful bio-regions in the Untied States. The valley itself is a hundred mile long, two million-acre stretch of prime farmland bordered by a dense, eco-rich coniferous forest. The climate is mild; wet in the winter, dry in the summer. It is excellent for raising livestock and farming, with soil particularly suited for a wide variety of grasses and legumes. There is tremendous flexibility in what can be grown and the way that the various field crops can be rotated for the health of the land. With the potential to grow more than two hundred different food crops and being home to a variety of fish and other wildlife, the Willamette River basin is essentially a garden valley. This is a huge asset when it comes to the question of self-reliance and food security in Lane County.
Historical Perspective: In the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, Willamette Valley agriculture produced a wide array of grains, fruits, and vegetables. At times wheat represented almost a third of what was harvested. Barley, oats, snap peas, and sweet corn were also significant crops. Tomatoes, broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, potatoes, onions, cucumbers, peaches, raspberries, strawberries, hazelnuts, and squash fill out the mix. Prior to 1980, Willamette Valley farmers were providing more than half of what the valley residents were eating. Though there were consumer items which did not grow in the valley and the population was about half of what it is today, the region did have the agricultural capacity and food system infrastructure to feed itself.
Current Agriculture: Over the last twenty-five years, the dynamics of the global market place have centralized food distribution into large storage, processing, and transport conglomerates while delocalizing regional food systems throughout the world—to the extent that nearly everything Americans eat comes from someplace else—often from over fifteen hundred miles away. The Willamette Valley has not been immune to this dynamic.
The graph labeled “Willamette Valley Crop Trends 1” tracks all significant crops grown in the Willamette Valley by acreage over the last thirty years. On one hand this graph shows the incredible diversity of crops that can be grown in the Willamette Valley and the quantities of each that there is capacity to grow. On the other hand, it also very clearly reveals the effect of the global market on Oregon agriculture. Beginning about 1983, as wheat prices eased off record highs, Willamette Valley farmers began a steady trade-off of wheat acreage for ornamental or foraging grasses, that is grass grown to produce grass seed which is then shipped all over the world for seeding forage pastures or for suburban lawns and golf courses. Grass seed is now the valley’s most important cash crop. More than fifty percent of all the acreage that was harvested in the Willamette Valley in 2007 was for grass seed. That was over 400,000 acres.
The graph labeled “Willamette Valley Crop Trends 2” clarifies this by mapping all food crop acreage, not including silage for livestock feed, against grass seed acreage. The divergence is hard to miss. Globalization has enabled specialized and long distant markets while at the same time diminishing food crop diversity at home. The net effect is that the Willamette Valley populace is now eating less than five percent locally grown food. When it comes to food security, this is a glaring imbalance.
Farming Practices: Above and beyond declining oil reserves and climbing petroleum product costs, the use of petrochemicals to enhance the productivity of all variety of food and grass seed crops in the Willamette Valley is not sustainable. It has been thoroughly documented that the long term use of petrochemical fertilizers in any situation wears out the soil. After a while, the soil is essentially dead, devoid of bacteria and microorganisms. The soil becomes little more than a medium for washing through chemical fertilizers. Even in a region as fertile as the Willamette Valley, this kind of agriculture can not endure and is essentially a dead end.
In addition to petrochemical fertilizers, other petrochemicals are used as pesticides and herbicides to protect crops from pests and weeds. Farming with these kinds of chemical inputs can be tentatively successful, but what is produced is tainted by chemical residues. Also excess chemicals are washed away by rain or irrigation and enter the groundwater and eventually the entire watershed. High levels of agricultural toxins have been found in Willamette Valley ground water and must be consider a health issue—again pointing to a dead end.
Farm Labor: Labor costs play a critical role in the economic gradient that has enabled the globalized food system. Farm labor wages are radically lower in many foreign countries than they are in the United States. This labor differential offsets freight costs and creates the situation where food products grown many thousands of miles away are cheaper than products grown at home. As fuel prices rise, freight costs are likely to minimize these kinds of labor advantages; however, at this point in time, the Willamette Valley is not in position to take advantage of this potential market change. Almost all of the farm labor in Oregon (and the rest of the United States) comes from Mexico, legally or otherwise. On top of this, the average age of a farm owner in the Willamette Valley is over fifty-five years and rising. Currently, there are simply too few young Oregonians (or Americans in general) interested in going into farming as a career. Oregon’s future farmers are Hispanic immigrants, again legal or otherwise. Farm labor demographics may be as big a problem for sustainable agricultural production in Oregon as is diesel fuel.
Other Food Security Factors
Because the Willamette Valley receives approximately ninety-five percent of its food from outside the bioregion and because much of it is already packaged, food processors, storage capacity, and local farm produce distribution hubs have all but disappeared from the region. This means the valley not only doesn’t grow its own food, but it doesn’t have the capacity to process, store, or distribute more than a small portion of what is consumed—whether it is grown locally or not.
A related problem is that local farmers markets exist only in proportion to local food sales. Even including purchases made by restaurants, institutional cafeterias, and grocery stores, the bioregion buys no more than five percent of its food from local growers. About two percent of that comes from community supported agricultural coops, direct farm sales, or local farmers markets. Even should regional farmers increase food production, there are not enough markets currently available for increased product sales.
Our food system is essentially Interstate Five and the trucks that deliver food from outside of the valley. This system is as fragile as our “just in time” inventory of diesel, the turn of the weather, or any other macro-event that prevents through traffic on Interstate Five.
Lane County Food Security Summary
The current status of food security in Lane County is poor. Agricultural practices in the Willamette Valley are heavily based on petrochemical inputs and are not sustainable. Monoculture dominates the business model and provides little balance and only a hint of the diversity that is possible in this valley. Farm labor needs are met primarily through immigration from Mexico during a period when national immigration laws are in a state of flux and turmoil. Food banks are struggling to keep up with the rising number of homeless. There is no food plan in place to deal with any kind of extended regional emergency. We are almost entirely reliant on the global food system for our food. We import approximately ninety-five percent of what we now eat and have less than optimum capacity for local food processing, distribution, or storage. Right now, today, we can not feed ourselves without the global system, and this system is based on the availability of cheap oil at a time when oil production is peaking. Essentially all the factors that lead to food security are owned and maintained by forces outside our control and are afloat on a global system deep amid economic recession. At bottom, food security calls for some measure of self-reliance, of which, we have little to none.
Food Security Solutions
All of the deficiencies in our current state of food security or lack thereof can be addressed through the rebuilding of our regional food system. A complete regional food system increases a region’s food self-reliance and strengthens the local economy. It shortens the distances that food must travel reducing the amount of fossil fuel needed to transport it, while at the same time diminishing related carbon emissions that contribute to climate change. A complete regional food system insures that in times of emergency adequate food stores are close by and immediately available. It also means that regional farm surpluses can be managed locally for the feeding of the needy or homeless. Additionally, a regional food system makes it possible to know the farm where the food was produced and know the way that the food was grown and/or processed, meaning some level of food safety can be gained for individual buyers—because they know where the food came from.
Thus the central focus for increased food security in Lane County and the Willamette Valley should be the steady rebuilding of the regional food system. Currently we have at best a skeletal food system here in the Willamette Valley; however, we do have the most critical ingredients for fleshing it out: plenty of fertile farmland, a reasonably mild maritime climate, and an agricultural history that includes a complete and working food system.
The following recommendations form a strategy for increasing food security in Lane County based on rebuilding the regional food system and the implementation of sustainable farming practices. Many of the recommendations apply to the bio-region that Lane County is a part of and some apply directly to Lane County. Some of the recommendations apply to policy. Some recommendations apply to the initiation of actions or projects, and some recommendations simply serve to elucidate “big picture” dynamics that state, county, or city policy makers can not directly influence, but should still be aware of for the sake of creating a consistent food security philosophy.
Projects or actions that currently exist and are already aimed at increasing Lane County food security are highlighted with italics.
The biggest part of rebuilding the food system is sustainable management of the agricultural land. There are two million acres of farmland in the Willamette Valley, roughly half is cropland. The three recommendations listed below provide a framework for increasing food production and sustainability in the bio-region defined by the Willamette River watershed. These recommendations tend to fall more into the realm of guiding philosophy than direct policy.
1. Farmland should be cultivated in such a way that topsoil and soil health/biology are maintained or increased with each succeeding season. A significant part of this strategy involves substituting organic inputs for chemical inputs whenever possible. Minimizing chemical inputs adds to overall sustainability by cutting production costs over the long-term, by increasing soil vitality, and by limiting toxins that enter the groundwater and the food shed.
Comments: Chemical inputs—fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides—can be replaced with whole system farm management that includes the integration of livestock and crop production. Whole system farms are generally smaller farms (less than 100 acres) and are more efficient ways of managing the land than are large monoculture plantations. Conservation tillage, organic practices, and permaculture techniques need to become part of our farmland management philosophy. In conjunction with this, accent should be placed on the creation of bio-fuels on the farms themselves. Partial or total independence from the global fuel market for the operation of farm machinery is an important step to long-term sustainable food production.
These kinds of changes will be difficult to implement through any kind of government actions. Aside from market forces related to safer food, healthier eating habits, and chemical input costs, changes in the way we tend the land are best achieved through education and outreach to regional farmers. State and/or county incentive programs for soil conservation are very feasible. They already exist or have existed at the national level. Current resistance to incentives to minimize chemical inputs or to grow organically is likely to change. It is also possible that rising input costs can act as an impetus for farmers to seek education in alternative practices.
2. Every effort must be made to grow more food in the Willamette Valley. Currently, grass seed production is the monolith of monoculture in the valley. With nearly five hundred thousand acres devoted to grass seed production in the Willamette Valley, it would be advisable to convert some significant portion of that acreage to food production.
Comment: Because the Willamette Valley has growing conditions especially conducive to seed production, grass seed and other seed production will always be a part of Willamette Valley agriculture. While it is likely the production of grass seed for turf, lawns or golf courses, may lose its market share as petroleum prices rise, grass seed for livestock foraging will still serve an important purpose. Similarly, the economics gradients that favor grass seed production over food production are likely to change with rising fuel prices. Government policies to promote Willamette Valley food production and stimulate the purchase of locally grown foods are also feasible.
3. Every effort must be made to increase the diversity of food crops that are grown in the Willamette Valley. More than 200 different food crops can be grown in the Willamette Valley. Along with the increased production of current food crops—fruits, nuts, and vegetables, it is also important to stimulate the local cultivation of staples, such as beans, grains, and edible seeds.
Comment: There are a multitude of crop combinations and rotations that can be used to increase soil quality, diminish pests and weeds, and stimulate new facets of the agricultural economy. Some of these rotations are directly applicable to the production of grass seed. The introduction of beans and grains to the regular rotation of grass seed acreage can build soil fecundity, increase food production overall, and increase farmland revenues.
The work currently being done by Harry MacCormack and a few other farmers in the valley has shown that there are many varieties of high protein beans, grains, and edible seeds that are not generally grown here that can be. Introducing these staples to Willamette Valley agriculture could be a huge boon to the agricultural economy. The Southern Willamette Bean and Grain Project www.mudcitypress.com/beanandgrain.html is currently facilitating this kind of research and promoting the production of staple crops in the Willamette Valley for the express purpose of rebuilding the local food system and building knowledge about regional growing methods and crop selection.
It will be necessary to confront the farm labor situation in creative ways. Mexican farm workers should be allowed to naturalize if they like. We will need them. But more than that, we must find ways to get more young Oregonians interested in farming. At the same time, the family farm model of agriculture must be expanded. Labor concerns may necessitate the creation of cooperative farms, cooperative farming operations, or farming-based ecovillages. Current farmland zoning codes do not permit multiple family dwellings or multiple residential dwellings. These land use codes need to be revised to enable different kinds of farmland management models.
The ECOS Urban to Farm Connection Project run by Aleta Miller is a valuable model for creative cooperative food production. The Urban to Farm Connection builds teams of Eugene residents to cultivate and harvest multi-acre garden plots inside or outside the city. The teams work as cooperatives, sharing work, produce, and produce sales profits. This is an on-going project deserving of city and/or county support.
Rebuilding Food System Infrastructure
Hand in hand with the increased production and diversity of food crops in the Willamette Valley, there must be a steady rebuilding of the food system infrastructure. As revealed this last summer when there was a market-driven increase of winter wheat production in the Willamette Valley, there is little or no grain storage available in this valley at this time. The same is true of food processors, food distributors, and farmers markets.
Comment: We are currently buying less than five percent locally grown food. If that figure could reach 25 or 30 percent, it would be enough to enable the creation of a complete regional food system and the related infrastructure, while at the same time providing strength and stability to the local economy. Lane County residents will spend close to a billion dollars on food in the year 2010. Could a third or even a quarter of that be spent on locally produced or processed food, it would be a huge boon for the local economy and enable a modest decoupling from the vagaries of the global market. To do this, the rebuilding of food system infrastructure must be a high priority in all policy decisions.
The Fairgrounds Repair Project is currently working on a plan to renovate the Lane County Fairgrounds so that it can become an integral piece of infrastructure in a rebuilt regional food system. This site would then act as a south valley food hub that would include a year-round farmers market, long-term food storage, and a distribution warehouse. The Repaired Fairgrounds would also serve as an education center for classes on how to grow, prepare, and preserve food. It would include community garden space, a fruit tree nursery, a source of plant starts, compost generated soil, horticulture classes, alternative energy production demonstration, and young farmer mentoring. The creation of such a site at the Fairgrounds can only happen through a partnership with the county, the city, like-minded businesses, and private contributors/investors.
The Lotus Project is currently amid talks with the County to build a prototype mobile commercial kitchen from a retro-fitted mobile home. This could be a creative way to reconfigure the mobile home building business in Lane County and open new opportunities to a business that is sure to suffer as the price of petroleum climbs. At the same time, these mobile kitchens could increase county food production capacity and serve as a small food business incubators.
The Willamette Farm and Food Coalition has organized a task force to facilitate and promote the building of a year-round market in Eugene. This has long been a popular idea in Eugene and could be an integral part of stimulating increased local food production and the rebuilding of food system infrastructure. Like the Fairgrounds Repair Project, this endeavor begs for partnerships between the county, the city, and private investors.
Urban Food Production
Urban food production must be recognized as an integral part of the food system. As recessive economic conditions lead to more homeless or poverty stricken, the incorporation of neighborhood community gardens, neighborhood composting sites, produce trading stations, cooperative food stores, incubator/commercial kitchens, CSA distribution stations, and neighborhood storage facilities will help in creating community food security awareness, stronger community in general, and accommodating the needy.
Charlotte Anthony spent the last year running the Victory Gardens for All program. She enabled the creation of more than 300 residential vegetable gardens in Eugene. This program is on-going through the winter and merits consideration for city support.
While market forces will have to provide the primary impetus to increased food production and the rebuilding the regional food system, state, county, and city government policy can play a part in all the topics mentioned above. In general everything must be done at the policy level to stimulate our agricultural economy, as in the long run it will repay us by recycling more of our food dollars into the local economy and provide some insulation from the vagaries of the global market. A few specific suggestions follow:
There is need for a Lane County food system assessment and other related food system research.
Low interest loans or grants could be made available to entrepreneurs wanting to build food processing plants or storage facilities.
Partnerships between the state, county, city, and/or private investors could be facilitated for the creation of indoor and/or year-round farmers markets.
City and County operations can help stimulate local food production through purchasing policies that prioritize the use of locally grown products in public institution cafeterias and schools. Particularly in the schools, it is important to move away from institutional style meals and into working commercial kitchens that prepare food right there at the school.
Education about food security can be promoted in the schools. County schools can add home gardening, food preservation, food preparation, and nutrition classes to the curriculum. In conjunction with this, schools can use these classes to maintain gardens and fruit trees at the schools. These gardens would be used for teaching, but they could also contribute fresh produce, particularly year-round greens, to the cafeteria menus.
Farmland zoning laws need to be reassessed. Farm labor concerns must be addressed in creative ways including zoning laws that allow ecovillages on farmland or cooperative work and living situations.
Neighborhood food systems are essentially the last line of defense in food security and could be radically enhanced by city support. The creation of neighborhood green teams is one possibility. Teams of youths supervised by master gardener/recyclers and assigned to each neighborhood could assist neighborhoods year-round in the maintenance of community gardens, home gardens for the elderly or incapacitated, composting sites, recycling of all variety of materials, fruit tree gleaning, and general neighborhood cohesion. Grants for the purpose of creating neighborhood food cooperatives, community gardens, or other neighborhood food projects would be advisable.
Currently, Lane County is using the Oregon Solutions process to investigate the possibility of creating a local food buying program for county institutions—schools, hospitals, other public cafeterias. This could provide an important economic stepping stone for increased local food production.
The Lane County Food Policy Council is currently amid the process of creating a food system assessment for Lane County. This is a well-advised first step toward the rebuilding of the regional food system. A detailed survey of our current food system infrastructure is the best way to understand what capacities exist now and what we need to address in the future. Providing funds for a complete food assessment in Lane County is highly recommended.
Protecting farmland is another important part of farmland management and is particularly applicable to policy. The Lane County Farmland Preservation Society is currently preparing a GIS survey of soils in the lower Willamette River basin. This soil map can become an important tool for state, county, or city planners in assessing urban boundary growth. It is particularly important to protect class one and two soil types when considering future city development. This project could benefit greatly from state, county, or city support.
There are several educational food programs in existence in Lane County:
Jared Pruch runs the School Garden Project.
Megan Kemple of the Willamette Farm and Food Coalition runs the Farm to School Project.
Deb Johnson heads the Community and Schools Together Program (CAST) in the Bethel area of Eugene.
Laurie Triger manages the Lane Coalition for Healthy Youth which focuses heavily on nutritional and eating habits.
The OSU Extension Service runs the Nutritional Education Program.
Mel Bankoff has created the Institute for Sustainability, Education, and Ecology, a program for creating green teams in the schools.
All of these programs could be expanded or given additional support.
We are currently living in rapidly changing times. Humans all over the world must reassess the way they live and the way they treat the land and other living things. Central to this is food production and distribution. While many of the problems that we will face in the coming years are difficult for a county or even a region to impact, food security is different. It can be confronted at a local level. The rebuilding of the regional food systems is a difficult but very feasible response to these changing times. Increased food sustainability and security can be achieved in Lane County through policies and community action directed at rebuilding our regional food system.