The produce we find in the supermarket travels an average of 1,500 miles to get there. Our food industry expends 19 percent of the total fossil fuel used in the United States—about the same percent used to fuel cars. Born on large scale commercial farms, much of this produce is a product of pesticides and preservatives, frequently packaged in non-biodegradable materials, often produced by underpaid farm workers.
But, our food system is changing. The number of small organic farms practicing sustainable agriculture has grown.
Though the industrial agriculture system of today is extraordinarily productive, according to the Center for Agroecology & Sustainable Food Systems at UC Santa Cruz it is failing because of climate change, soil depletion and the waste of excess energy. Already this year, the southwest part of Central Valley has been de-irrigated due to lack of water, and statewide, our water supply is at about 60 percent of normal.
California isn’t the only locale involved. In the White House, the “Eat the View” campaign aims to get a large Victory Garden planted on the front lawn to supply the first family’s kitchen.
More than simply a water conservation effort, “sustainable agriculture” is a movement. It aims to replenish soil, forgo or reduce the use of pesticides and nonrenewable resources like fossil fuels, improve nutrition and get fair wages for farm workers. “Organic” is a term often used to describe the food it produces.
In essence, sustainable agriculture combines the original farming practices of our ancestors with modern technology, bringing the farm closer to the consumer than it has been in years.
Things are going to shift, professes agroecologist Patrick Archie from his second story office in a south bay Victorian, home to the Environmental Studies Institute at Santa Clara University.
Beneath the office window, four-inch green sprouts rising from a rich soil overlook the tear-streaked adobe buildings of the university. Miserable looking twenty-somethings trudge by in soaked sweatshirts and sloshing shoes, cursing the stormy weather, while inside, Archie blesses the much-needed rain. “Water’s going to become more expensive,” Archie says. “It’s going to get more difficult.”
As a third year of drought persists, California’s water supply has significantly shrunk. Officials from the Central Valley Project, which provides most of the water for the Central Valley, the Bay Area and much of the state of California—including 3 million acres of farmland—announced a “zero allocation” to farmers on February 20th. This means that farmers who depend on this federally-rationed supply will have to look elsewhere for water this year, unless an unusual amount of rain ups that percentage.
But, the lack of water is not quite as big a concern for farmers practicing sustainable agriculture. Small farms which grow high-valued crops like organic fruits and vegetables make enough profit to pay for conservation technology like drip line irrigation on a small scale. But on large, corporate farms, which typically lack water-absorbing nutrient rich soil and produce more than 95 percent of the United States’ food, water conservation is pricier and at times, unrealistic.
“The water use issue will become more important with global warming, with the more common droughts that we’re experiencing,” said Archie. “But, the small farm sector is growing.”
In fact, according to the United States Department of Agriculture’s 2007 census released in February of this year, the number of small farms that contribute mainly to local farmers markets and make sales of less than $1,000, jumped from 580,000 in 2002 to 700,000 in 2007.
Archie believes that the next phase in sustainable agriculture will be the provision of food for local institutions—specifically, schools. “The idea is to improve the nutrition of kids, to reconnect kids with where their food comes from, and to create markets for local farms,” Archie says of the budding Farm-to-School Program. “We’ve got direct sales, but if people could crack into institutional sales,” Archie says.
At the Mountain View Farmers Market, suburbanites bargain. Sellers weigh, package and grin. Shoppers weave between strollers and bulging reusable Trader Joe’s grocery bags to get to the blood red oranges, “2 lbs./$1.”
Shopping at local farmers markets over corporate grocery stores saves resources and contributes to the economy of local agriculture, the primary supporter of sustainable food systems.
The number of farmers markets in the United States continues to grow, reported USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) in September 2008. The 4,685 total represents a 6.8 percent increase in the number of markets since August 2006.
Even closer than farmers markets are the weekly or monthly delivered Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) boxes of fresh produce, like those delivered into downtown Santa Cruz via bicycle from Freewheelin’ Farm.
The farm is five miles north from downtown in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Farmer Amy Courtney bicycles the produce down Highway One into town twice a week during season.
Courtney, who supports herself with a side job as a masseuse, commented on the link between the economic crisis and purchasing from local farms. “I think it works well with hard times financially,” Courtney said of the CSA project specifically, “because people will eat out less, so they need more food to cook, and they want it to be good.”
On UC Santa Cruz’s 25-acre on-campus farm, students harvest food at 7 a.m. that will be served at lunchtime in their on-campus gourmet restaurant, Terra Fresca.
Meanwhile, Archie discusses his plans for the new half-acre on-campus student garden at Santa Clara University. A cover crop of legumes and grass has already been planted to treat the soil, and what once was a stone-dry field is now morphing into a nutrient-rich green pasture.
Colleges across the nation have begun to recognize this need for more “real” food—that is, local food grown sustainably and produced by workers paid fair wages. About 300 individual campuses are now part of the Real Food Challenge, which aims to get universities to switch from two percent real food of their total food output to 20 percent by 2020.
Back at Full Circle Farm, where the sun has dropped behind the Santa Cruz Mountains, Meghan Cole is still straightening rows for the orchard with a volunteer’s help. A farmhand spreads out water that has collected in a ditch from the week’s rain to keep from attracting mosquitoes. Not another soul is in sight. The three work until the sky turns pink, purple, and then a deep blue, preparing to harvest food for their local world.