April 19, 2009

Cooperative Food Production Could Be The Solution

by Nate Rafn

Every day, Americans are clubbed over the head by media reports about the increasing threats of global warming, violence, and financial meltdown. While theories on solutions can vary widely, many individuals and organizations in the Willamette Valley agree that food could be a major catalyst for change.

Whether it be plant or animal, wild or cultivated, wholesome foods have been intimately linked to human survival since the dawn of time. That’s a fact. What makes our current local food system different is the challenge of distribution. And when we talk distribution, we must include concerns of social justice and environmental impact as part of the debate.

First of all, there is more than enough food to go around, and plenty of space to grow more. But connecting a nutritious local food source with people who need it is not always easy, as affordability or lack of awareness keeps large portions of the population from engaging with nearby growers.

Consider your regional food bank as well, and the thousands of families that need assistance each month. Then think about how much food goes to waste in restaurants, grocery stores, school cafeterias, and on farms. Food waste is an unavoidable reality, and the web of circulation is incredibly complex- a problem too daunting for any one person or group to tackle alone.

The solution ultimately comes through a collective sense of purpose, and the choices we make every day as consumers, neighbors, and citizens. A good starting point would be to participate in actions that promote self-reliance as individuals and as a community.

Collaborative gardening is a prime example. Making the transition from lawn to garden is one of the most empowering activities for anyone to undertake. It can be done with minimal financial investment, and can yield amazing results.

This type of ultra-local food production greatly strengthens the fabric of a community by bringing neighbors together, lowering family food costs, providing education and nutrition, improving air quality, reducing crime, and increasing home values. Participants will be more prosperous, more connected, and more healthy as a consequence. Add backyard chickens to the mix, and Salem could be in the midst of a serious urban-agricultural revolution.

Another essential component to fortifying our local economy is the supporting of nearby farms. Perhaps the best way to connect with local farmers is to sign up for a Community Supported Agriculture program, or visit farmers’ markets and farm-stands on weekly shopping trips.

It’s important to remember that farms will not go out of business simply because urban gardening becomes increasingly popular. Farmers excel in their ability to adapt to changing situations. They will grow whatever there is a need for, or whatever we can’t grow for ourselves. For example, dairy cows aren’t likely to find homes in Salem’s residential areas anytime soon. So we need someone else to produce milk. That’s fine. As long as we commit to buying those products from high-quality local sources, farmers and customers alike will thrive.

Besides, many farmers are way ahead of us, as they significantly escalate production of seedlings and starts for eager gardeners this spring.

And the timing could not be better. Economic crisis and global warming force us to rethink the way we interact with the world- to choose optimism over fear, conservation over destruction, and cooperation over exclusion. This is an opportunity to say yes to local, yes to chickens, yes to composting, and yes to a more hopeful, sustainable way of life.

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