Food Security—No Guarantees

Late blight has come early this year, record early, due to wet, cold, spring weather. According to reports its spread is being accelerated by infected tomato seedlings sold by big box stores. This is the same blight that caused the Irish potato famine in the 1840s. The only treatment is fungicides, and the one most commonly used has been linked to kidney disease and cancer. If this threat escalates, you can be sure that the tomatoes you buy in the store will have been treated. Tomatoes and potatoes are both in the nightshade family, and so can be similarly stricken.

Organic farmers don’t use fungicides. Copper dust is acceptable, but it doesn’t do much against this form of blight that can wipe out a crop in a matter of days. Most organic farmers buy clean seed or save their own, but blight can travel for miles. I have to worry about the family down the street who bought a six pack of Big Boys at Home Depot. And if blight found my tomatoes, I would watch them rot in the field. So far, so good, but it’s been a tough year for tomatoes all around.

A word about the term “organic.” In order to use it, a farmer whose gross is more than $5,000 a year must be certified by the federal government. This is a process that many small farmers cannot afford, nor do they want to be involved with the paperwork and oversight. There are penalties for calling yourself an organic farmer, or your produce organically grown, if you are not certified, and they can be considerable.

As an alternative, many small farmers say they grow their crops “sustainably.” This generally means they use methods that would enable them to be certified organic if they so chose. If I were a consumer, I would rather buy from them than from commercial organic growers who get blanket certification for their crops. Remember that the small grower feeds his or her children and grandchildren from their gardens. Or you could rely on the collaboration of the federal government and a handful of huge corporations to keep our food safe and sound. Given recent history, this is a no-brainer.

The loss of our tomato crop would be devastating, especially because of the investment of time in producing eight varieties, including heirlooms. And then there are the potatoes. I walk between the hills each morning, filled with dread that I might find a telltale spot, but so far I’ve seen only a few Colorado potato beetles coupling in the sun. Squish. It’s a tough job, but somebody has to do it.

Many of the big California farms that supply so much of our produce are hurting, really hurting. Hard to grow vegetables without water. Fruit trees are dying, fields turning to dust. And the drought is being felt in Mexico, to which many growers, including large organic growers, are transferring a substantial percentage of their operations. This is a situation that will not improve. So, where will we get our food? From China? Wouldn’t it be preferable to support small farms around the country, and wouldn’t government at all levels better serve its citizens and taxpayers by working on the food security issue. There are really just a few basic needs. This happens to be one of them.

Generic press releases that advocate buying local, supporting ag, etc. appear with frequency, but how much is actually being done to help the small farmer—help you. A local NPR station aired a talk during which the speaker suggested that farmers be provided with health insurance. Many have to leave the farm and take low-wage jobs in cities miles from home in order to get benefits to protect their families. What a waste of good men and women. They would rather be on the farm, growing and harvesting, and personally, that’s where I would rather have them.

Subsidies and tax breaks go to agribusiness. The small farmer gets nothing or close to it. Governments should set up farm markets in parking lots, school playgrounds, and parks. The small farmer often pays hundreds of dollars each season to be part of a market because there is no free alternative. Then the markets, and the need for local food security, should be publicized until every family understands that food shortages could become a possibility. Some of the small farmers’ costs could be subsidized. They typically have modest needs, and modest means. Having a good tiller or greenhouse or irrigation system can make a huge difference in output and will more than pay for itself in available produce for the consumer in the community.

Because of the scale of the small farm, everything is expensive compared to the costs of commercial producers. Feed is bought in bags or grown and mixed on site, for example, not stored by the ton in huge warehouses. The profits are tiny, if there are any at all. And labor isn’t even counted in the calculations. There is a lot of labor.

So why does the small farmer do it? If not for money, it must be love, and it is. It is also about directly serving a person or family who appreciates his efforts. It’s for the woman who said she hadn’t eaten real free-range eggs since she was a child on the family farm in Australia. Or the customer who asked for advice on cooking a vegetable he had never before tried, one that must be grown on a small scale and carefully tended, as opposed to the standard easy-store/easy-ship varieties commercially produced. These are the people who want to savor the delicious purple tomato, the blue potato, the red kale, and the really incredible egg with the bright orange yolk. I love having them to offer.

Crops are closely watched and tended, and always with the customer in mind. Local chefs and restaurant owners come to the farm or market to buy so that they can use the finest, most healthful ingredients in their dishes. All of these customers are supporting the growers who may someday be their lifelines. With a future that could include fuel shortages or other disruptions, can we always count on trucks being able to carry commercial produce from California and Mexico and other distant regions where it is grown? That’s a long way baby.

The huge operations that grow just one type of vegetable, fruit, or grain are practicing monoculture, a system that is cost-effective and efficient for them but one in which an entire crop can be decimated in a fell swoop by an invasive organism or a weather event. Then there’s the other way, the one that is also supported by people who save and share seeds and the seed cooperatives and companies that find new sources for heirloom varieties and encourage their production. May they grow and prosper.

And may we all do whatever it takes, including putting pressure on our legislators to provide food security and safety. This is an issue about which they can do something. The question now is, will they?

Sheila Velazquez lives and writes in western Massachusetts. She can be reached at: sheilavelazquez@comcast.net.. Read other articles by Sheila, or visit Sheila's website.

3 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. David said on July 15th, 2009 at 9:07am #

    Sheila:

    Thanks very much for the excellent article. This is the sort of information that supports the relationship between local and global thinking. And it makes people think about with what and how they will feed themselves and their families.

    Perhaps the greatest motivator of non voters might be an unsafe and unreliable food supply brought to them via ConAgra and ADM.

    Buy local!

  2. Dogwood said on July 16th, 2009 at 11:06am #

    As you say in your article, solving the health care issue is essential. There is only way way to solve it – completely: Single Payer.

    Go to singlepayeraction.org for all the info regarding how and why it is the ONLY and best solution.

  3. Tinky said on July 22nd, 2009 at 11:01am #

    Well written and argued, Sheila. On the global level, let’s keep trying. On the local level, I’m keeping my fingers crossed for your crops!