Jun, 5, 2011Alert consumers committed to protecting county farms
GIGI BERARDI / COURTESY TO THE BELLINGHAM HERALD
Small- and medium-sized farms are mostly what we see in Whatcom County. They make an important contribution to both our food supply and the economy in the North Puget Sound region. Yet, our farms are threatened by a range of extreme events and by rapid economic changes.
Disturbance may come in the form of severe weather, spikes in energy prices or rapid changes in zoning practice unfavorable to farming. Such threats may jeopardize Whatcom County farms' competitive position, favoring instead farms in regions boasting more favorable climate or reliable labor supply or rational water-permitting practices. Indeed, many farms may be vulnerable, as they operate close to resilience thresholds that threaten their long-term viability.
An agricultural sector that is resilient, however, will adapt to, learn from and recover from disturbances to normal operating conditions, while continuing to provide the goods and services that support food, feed and fiber production. Enhancing farm resiliency through policy could be a key way to support the long-term economic viability of our region's small- and medium-size farms.
In a series of farm-resiliency workshops this year (funded by USDA, and with some funding now from the Whatcom Community Foundation), local growers discussed farming threats and resilience strategies.
A confusing array of overlapping regulations, reporting requirements, nuisance ordinance compliance and water use permitting challenged growers' ability to maintain profitability, especially among small-scale growers. Similarly, loss of local suppliers, loss of farmland, and negative public perceptions threatened the viability of the local agricultural sector.
To address such challenges, growers suggested strategies ranging from developing access to affordable, local credit to maintaining good relations with neighbors and consumers. Public education regarding the meaning and value of food and food production was seen as critical to building a resilient farm sector.
Despite concerns, it is clear that resilient farmers, as we see in the county, are ready to turn threats into opportunity.
As an example, threats around urban sprawl also bring the possibility of new urban markets. Threats around flooding could prompt farmers to consider a change in land use to extensive grazing systems or certain permaculture practices. Threats related to large, centralized sources of inputs could be met by diversifying sources and types of inputs. Threats involving high external energy use and extreme price spikes could prompt farmers to consider on-site energy production and more self-sufficiency through energy conservation - as we see now on a growing number of county farms.
Certainly, U.S. farmers will continue to experience threats. Reducing vulnerabilities and increasing resilience will depend upon an ability to live with change and uncertainty, to value niche diversity, and to identify a wide range of knowledge and perspectives, especially regarding land use practices. These include crop diversification, low-input pasture-based livestock systems and management of soil fertility that emphasizes reliable sources of organic matter.
Local food and farm organizations, of which there are close to 80 or more, are helping in recognizing and understanding threats to resilience. Whether branded as "sustainable," "resilient," "local" or "urban gardening," organizations' constituencies and agendas may vary, but missions are similar - creating a community of "co-producers." In the words of Slow Food icon Carlo Petrini, these alert consumers are committed to protecting farm land and other open spaces for future generations.
New ideas, new agendas, centered on real threats to farming here most certainly will advance the emerging national concern for a coherent food policy.Gigi Berardi is with the Resilient Farms Project at Huxley College 's Resilience Institute and is working on her fifth book, "Trader Joe's Nation and the Demise of Cooking." She is leading study tours in sustainable farming less and actually farming more. This work would not be possible without the collaboration of local growers. For more information got to http://www.wwu.edu/huxley/resilience/Research/FarmResilience/FarmRe.... For more on the author, go to http://resilientfarmsnourishingfoods.blogspot.com/ and Facebook.