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A Year-End Wrap Up for the Local Food Movement to Consider

Introduction by Tracey Ryder, Co-founder & CEO, Edible Communities, Op-Ed by Gary Nabhan, who was recently named by Utne reader as one of 25 visionaries changing the world in 2011.

This coming March, Edible Ojai, the very first Edible magazine ever published, will celebrate its tenth anniversary issue — a milestone not only in print publishing, but also a significant milestone for Edible Communities, which currently includes 69 other Edible magazines in addition to Edible Ojai.
As the editorial team responsible for the 10th anniversary issue met and planned the stories it would contain, we quickly settled on the fact that we would use “ten” as the theme. The issue would contain ten of our favorite recipes from the past decade, ten of our favorite food finds, ten chefs, ten things not to miss from the Ojai food community, and so on. The primary focus of the editorial features, however, would be profiles of ten local farmers whose hard work and heroic efforts have shaped the Ojai Valley food community, quite literally, from the ground up.

While reflecting on the past decade of publishing local food magazines, I was quickly reminded of the core purpose we settled on during an editorial meeting just over ten years ago: Edible magazines would champion and celebrate farmers and ranchers. At face value, the statement seems simple and straightforward, yet as you read the following Op-Ed piece by Gary Nabhan, you’ll see that it’s time we took another look at the role of farmers and ranchers in each of our local food communities. The challenges they face are becoming more complicated and costly with each passing season.

The old joke everyone used to say about farming was that it was the only profession where you bought retail and sold wholesale. These days, that equation is even more complicated.

During this holidays season, as many of us consider the resolutions we’ll make for the coming year, I encourage us all to think about both ends of the spectrum in terms of food insecurity and that we resolve to not only to support the efforts of our farmers by eating locally as much as possible, but that we also give some serious consideration to the larger question Gary poses below: “how offer a commensurate amount of moral and financial support for beleaguered farmers.”

Affordable Food for the Poor Versus Food Justice for Disaster-Stricken Farmers: Helping the Marginalized at Both Ends of the Food Chain — Gary Nabhan

In the midst of a debate raging about how to bring affordable food to an unprecedented number of poor, hungry and food-insecure families in North America, only one thing has become clear: Food prices will sadly rise out of reach of many more U.S. and Mexican families this next year.

The immediate driver of these rising prices will not necessarily be the insidious financial speculation by multinational corporations that has plagued global food commodity markets for a full decade, but something far closer to home. Since last April, catastrophic weather events have devastated farmers and ranchers all across North America, with the 98 federal disaster declarations made in 2011 achieving the highest number in American history.

In 2011, more North American farmers and ranchers suffered crop and livestock losses from drought, heat spells, hurricanes, tornados and floods than ever before. Some climatologists suggest these events may be the harbingers of what will regularly face with future climate instability. Whatever the cause, disastrous weather is already disrupting our capacity to bring affordable nutritious foods to the poorest of the poor in the U.S. and in Mexico.

The larger question—and perhaps a new one for the food justice community—is how to offer a commensurate amount of moral and financial support for beleaguered farmers, ranchers and food transporters in North America, rather than assuming that food justice is only about aiding and empowering low income consumers. If food production costs have risen twenty to forty percent for many grains, vegetables, fruits and meats over the last year, who should shoulder the costs — the producers, or the so-called “end-users” of the food system?

Consider the magnitude of the disasters, which plagued North America’s bread baskets, winter vegetable production areas and ranchlands over the last 15 months. More than five hundred counties in the Southwestern and Midwestern states suffered from droughts and heat spells so severe that they qualified for receiving federal disaster relief. In Texas alone, farmers and ranchers suffered more than $5.2 billion dollars in crop losses and stock reductions. At least 600,000 head of livestock were prematurely sold out of 213 Texas counties for the lack of natural forage on the range, and supplemental hay prices quadrupled since last spring.

But south of the Texas border, Mexican ranchers fared far worse, having virtually no supplemental feed. At least 1.7 million head of livestock died in northern Mexico, during the worst drought since 1941. Corn farmers there lost their entire crops, or harvested only a tenth of their normal maize yields. In Chihuahua alone, 120,000 rural families are already out maize for tortillas, tamales and posole, their staple foods.

While Texas governor Rick Perry was among the first to request drought relief for his fellow Texans even as he denied the very existence of climate change, farmers in New Mexico, Colorado, Oklahoma, Missouri, Kansas, Arkansas and Illinois were also devastated. Their disaster relief took until November or December to make it through the federal bureaucracy, but will hardly reduce the economic losses suffered by farmers. In Missouri alone, grain farmers lost $320 million, with the corn crop coming in with 24 million bushels less than in an average year. Since government-subsidized corn prices had spiked because of 40% of the national maize harvest being shunted into government-subsidized ethanol production, there is less food and feed corn available than at any time since the turn of the millennium. That will inevitably mean that corn meal, corn syrup and meat prices will continue to climb over the next year.

If that were not enough of an impact on food prices, at least 100 counties on the East Coast suffered from damages to fruit and vegetable crops due to the rains and floods that followed in the wake of Hurricane Irene in late August. Ironically, New Orleans area chefs and farmers volunteered to assist Vermont farmers and chefs with their mop-up after Irene, to thank them for the help they had offered after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

While Slow Food USA and other food justice groups were focused this fall on efforts to get American consumers to eat $5 meals as a way of demonstrating that healthy, nutritious foods can indeed be affordable for the poor, most American farmers and ranchers had no choice but to raise the prices they were seeking for their harvests.

It has become painfully obvious that setting a single price point like $5 across the country as an ideal goal for affordable meals has its limitations. In may not offer devastated farmers and ranchers enough for what they have invested in this year’s meager harvests, and certainly does not help them recover from their longer-term economic losses from this year’s disasters. But it may offer us a new paradigm for food justice: a fair, equitable food system must be as concerned with the economic well-being of food producers as it is food consumers.

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