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Irene, farmers, loyalty and gratitude

Having grown up in Vermont, I have been following the post-Irene news out of the state with horror. Pictures of washed out roads (difficult for someone to understand the gravity of that when there is no concept that it may be the ONLY road in and out of a town), flooded fields, crops laid waste. What can you do to help, if you’re inclined to do so? There’s the always-welcome local Red Cross donation, a number of tshirt companies are donating proceeds from sales (check out Vermont Clothing Company and the Vermont Strong Store), and not surprisingly, a number of benefit concerts and similar events sprang up – it’s hard to keep Vermonters down for long! And I saw some truly original ideas floated by my Facebook friends: how about a produce “round-up” day at the farmers’ markets, where buyers voluntarily round every purchase up to the next $5 or $10? But isn’t there a bigger picture, one that will last beyond the news headlines and the desire to help in a time of need?

Vermont, of course, wasn’t the only state affected. Grist.org had a brief roundup of news from farmers throughout the swath cut by Irene. And if the producer end of our food system has suffered, the consumer must also pay the price – literally! And how I dread hearing (most) people complain about the price of food….

I recently watched a series of short films by Nourish, and I was once again struck by a statistic mentioned: in the last 50 years, Americans have gone from spending 18% of our national income on food to spending 9.9% on food. (In same time period, we’ve gone from spending 5% of national income on health care to spending 16% on health care.) Yes, there are those who truly cannot spend more on food, but what about the vast majority of us, who can?

As someone who tries to buy local and sustainable food whenever possible and one who is fortunate enough to be able to pay the premium often demanded by organic, this recent crop devastation, coupled with what seems to be a weird growing season nationally, has given me a lot to ponder. My first thought about the affected farmers was, “I hope the majority of them run CSAs!” Those farmers who run CSAs (community supported agriculture programs) charge a flat fee per share at the beginning of the growing season, then provide an equal amount of produce to each shareholder throughout the harvest season. If the farm does well and the harvest is good, the consumer gets a bountiful share each week. If there is bad weather or a natural disaster, then the harvest is poor or nonexistent, and the consumer supplements the share with food sourced elsewhere. So in a sense, it’s a gamble for the consumer, but how much less of a gamble for the farmer who produces our food? And in this age of disappearing small and mid-size farms, isn’t it important for those of us who can afford it to stack the deck in the farmers’ favor?

Now is the time to start thinking about next year’s crops and signing on for a CSA with a local farmer – out of loyalty, and because we can. And now is also the time to start supporting measures in upcoming Farm Bill legislation that will help small and mid-size farmers with crop insurance for situations like the one caused by Irene.

The LocalHarvest blog has a wonderful post about eating locally in a poor season that was supposed to be the height of harvest bounty. Erin Barnett concludes,

Ultimately, the thing that supports this loyalty and flexibility and acceptance is a sense of gratitude. Things change when we find the space within ourselves to feel thankful for what the land is providing, even, and perhaps especially, in challenging seasons.