Our food system is starting to come full circle, and it’s about time.
Since World War II, Americans have increasingly relied on Big Ag and the food-processing industry for their food. There have been giant strides in productivity and automation. Consumers have more food choices than ever before. But with that, food has moved farther away from its sources—the land, the barn, the pasture, the lake and river. It has gained all sorts of lab-tweaked ingredients to assure good “mouth feel,” the right sweetness and umami, pleasing color, quantities of manufactured vitamins and minerals, and long shelf life.
There was a backlash, starting with the natural-food, back-to-nature movement in the 1960s, but locally raised food for local kitchens didn’t keep pace until recently—often was not even grown except as a farm-stand sideline.
Fortunately, positive food trends are underway. Small farmers have returned to the fields and are growing more fresh foods every year. Consumers are responding, rewarding farmers at green markets in cities and towns and clamoring for more. Restaurants are adding farm-to-table menu items. New restaurants tend to be predominantly local- and fresh-sourced. (One local chef flies twice-weekly to Cape Cod for fish, oysters, and clams. That’s fresh-sourced.) Even supermarkets have started to feature local fruits and produce. And subscribing to CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) farm shares is becoming standard practice for many local households, which gives farmers income they can plan on.
This area of New York has been farm country since the 18th century. Its excellent growing conditions and soils have produced many generations of successful farmers. With the fading of the local dairy industry in the last quarter century, farmers and landowners have tried everything from Belted Galloway cattle to exotic salad greens. Much of the machinery-farmed land continues in production, growing field corn, hay, grains, and cover crops. But the move toward small-scale sustainable agriculture is taking hold In this area, the farm Moody Hill was a pioneer in the late 1980s, growing organic vegetables using compost from a complementary business that took in cow and horse manure from local farms and food waste from the Culinary Institute in Hyde Park, also branding and bagging it for sale in garden centers. The company now includes a commercial-scale composting operation, a thousand-acre organic farm, a year-round store, restaurant and prepared-food business, and an educational branch.
The future offers solid promise in this direction, especially at the scale of family farms and of local farming groups that pool resources, share distributors to towns and cities, and support local farmers’ markets. The Amish might have something to teach in this regard, as might other models. A meld of age-old community-farming practices, 21st century aids and tools, and government encouragement seems a viable small-farm strategy.
What’s needed is sustainable farming practices, which start with treating the soil as a renewable resource but not with chemical fertilizers: with organic matter and tilth, crop rotation to minimize insects and disease, and cover crops mixed in to restore minerals. Some historic small farms have been practicing sustainability without knowing the term; others, encouraged by county ag advisors, are making the transition without difficulty. After all, it is agribusiness that’s addicted to the spiral of monoculture—fertilizer—insecticides—government price support—consequence-free pollution. We need a huge shift in perspective, starting with a change in allocation of state and federal money from agribusiness stock appreciation to healthy food and food security for all. A good starting point, suggested Ricardo Salvador of the Union of Concerned Scientists and food authority Mark Bittman, to change the name of the $145 billion department that oversees all this, Agriculture, to the Department of Food and Well-being.
Consumers and the planet have much to thank today’s sustainable farmers for, but there is much more to do to bring our farming and food-growing full circle, back to the land.
Use your favorite search engine to learn about these food resources. Many of the farms offer products online. Before visiting a farm, it is best to call ahead.