Archive for September, 2009

If you’ve been buying tomatoes at the supermarket all summer you may not have noticed that New England’s tomato and potato crop (especially the organic portion) has been utterly decimated by a fungus known as late blight.

It’s curious how easy it is to miss this event given that late blight is the very same pest that caused over one quarter of the population of Ireland to starve to death or flee for greener shores during the Great Potato Famine of the mid-1800’s.

You may have missed it because most of food items we consume are easily exchangeable for similar items, without any effect on what we are able to buy. In other words, a tomato from Mexico is the same as a tomato from California, is the same as a tomato from the farm next door.

Nevertheless there were some of us who found it impossible to miss the ravages of late blight. Our farmers, of course. The folks who shop at the farmer’s markets, them too. They’ve been shelling out more money for the few local tomatoes available.

And, there was another group of us who noticed. We’re the ones who paid for our tomatoes last winter, along with our oil bills. We had entered into a deal with our farmers called Community Supported Agriculture (CSA).

In this unusual bargain, community members buy a share of a farm’s produce in advance of the growing season. Farmers get needed cash to buy seeds along with a stable income in an unstable profession. In a good summer, CSA members are showered in an abundance of produce: far more than their money’s worth.

In a year in which rain smothers the sky for 6 weeks on end, the reverse occurs. In a year with biblical blight, your CSA farm might, as my farm did, lose its entire tomato crop.

Okay, I admit I was horrified when I heard it. Yes, I could still buy tomatoes from other Maine farms (or Mexico or California). Yes, we got extra heaps of glorious greens in our shares, which made up for some of the lost tomato value.

But, there is no crop that better embodies the joys of eating local seasonal produce than tomatoes; especially the ones you paid for six months ago in the dead of winter, imagining the tangy red taste of summer soil and sunshine. It’s truly hard to compensate for the loss of summer tomatoes.

Except when you consider this: supporting a CSA is profoundly different from most other purchases you make, going far beyond the contents of your weekly share.

Normally, our purchases are interactions between us and what we buy. I want a tomato; if I like the price and the quality, I buy the tomato. If I don’t, I can buy a different tomato or an eggplant, or put the money in the bank.

With a CSA, the deal we make is with a person, not a tomato, and more than that, it’s a deal with a piece of land, with our local soils, and with our water. It’s a deal with the local weather and it now appears that it’s also a deal with the global climate.

The deal goes like this: hey there, farmer, field, climate, you protect us, you feed us, and we’ll protect you in exchange. It’s an unusually honest transaction. If we don’t preserve our farmland and our farmers, they can’t feed us. We rarely have this direct a relationship with the things that matter most to our survival. What control do we have over the electricity grid? The oil markets?

A well-run farm can improve the soil and protect local water and air quality. The foods it offers are generally healthier than those available in the supermarket. Money spent on local foods supports the local economy. The Maine Organic Farmer’s and Gardener’s Association calculates that if every Maine family spent just $10 a week on local foods it would keep $100 million dollars circulating in our economy during the growing season.

Farmland is not in infinite supply; worldwide the competition is actually quite fierce. Last year South Korea acquired a 99 year lease to half of Madagascar’s arable land (public protests overturned the deal). Wealthy nations and corporations are rapidly buying up farmland in poorer places.

Although the United States does not need to sell its farms to make ends meet, I’m frequently astounded by what does get sold when the price is right (think drinking water, mineral rights, public land, and clean air). I like the idea that communities support local ownership of their own farmland.

Surprisingly, buying local food is also one of the single most effective ways that individuals can make a difference for the environment. Getting food to our tables is responsible for a staggering one third of climate changing emissions.

On average, we use approximately 10 times more energy (mostly from burning fossil fuels) growing, processing and transporting food than is provided by the food itself. In a truly absurd example, Cornell researcher David Pimentel calculates that providing the east coast with California lettuce takes 60 times more energy than is in the lettuce (i.e., 60 calories of fossil fuel for every calorie of lettuce).

Given those abysmal environmental credentials, it is somewhat preposterous that we eat lettuce from California during a Maine summer when lettuce is available locally. CSAs feed their neighbors with a mere flicker of fuel.

I might have wished that some of my investment in this year’s CSA had grown into pounds of ripe tomatoes. But no matter the crop varieties or yields, I know my dollars were plowed into open space, clean water, clean air, a vibrant local economy, and a knowledgeable farmer who will have enough to live on through the winter so he can grow food for the community again next year. It’s still a bargain.

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