It is an interesting time for agriculture. There is more demand than ever for healthy, fresh, local food. Consumers take more pride than ever in knowing their farmers, considering the seasonality of vegetables and trying new foods. The move toward local food and conscientious consumption is certainly to be commended, but it may not solve our long-term economic, social or agricultural needs. Despite the growing momentum and power of the “new food movement” and the “slow food revolution,” too few of us take action beyond what we put in our shopping bags and on our dinner tables. Technology, investment, conservation practices, policy and infrastructure are all pointing to ways that all of us, as consumers and citizens, can do a better job at supporting American farmers in producing seasonal, affordable and healthy foods. To create sustainable communities we need to build a food system that will further supply future generations with viable opportunities in farming and agriculture.
What is it going to take to save the land that sustains us and allow for the future of agriculture to thrive?
It may sound overly simplistic, but the future of agriculture depends largely on the creation and maintenance of farmland. Even with the increased use of farm technology like vertical farming and hydroponics, the majority of our agricultural products—from carrots to corn syrup—can be traced to our land. And though it may seem obvious that we should preserve this land, development has been devouring our farmland at the rate of more than an acre per minute. In the midst of this development fervor, demand for local produce is increasing and there are plans in some states, such as Connecticut, to increase the demand for local food from one to five percent. This growth has agriculture and food producers, distributors, and experts debating whether or not there is enough land to support even this seemingly small increase in local consumption. It has been estimated, using a crop-by-crop production average, that an acre of farmland can produce 10,642 pounds of produce per year, so with the world population on the rise—seven billion and counting—every acre counts.
Develop Technology and Good Farming Practices
Food production already relies heavily on technology and will continue to do so as the need for food increases. Though technology alone is no cure all, it must play an important role in the future of food production in this country. We should be funding and supporting research as well as building critical partnerships that explore agricultural methods and technologies so that we can keep our working lands productive into the future.
Design Infrastructure and Policy
Our infrastructure and distribution chains are better able to deal with longer supply chains than shorter, more localized, supply chains. To move food from Australia to any mid-sized city in America is easy, but to move food from farms to nearby cities is far from simple. American Farmland Trust is proud to maintain our strong leadership position in educating stakeholders about the 2012 Farm Bill, including the short- and long-term implications that policies at every level bring to bear on what we eat, how much our food costs, where we can buy it, and why farmers grow what they grow. Our efforts in addressing these issues focus on the collaboration among consumers, farmers, researchers, politicians and policy makers.
Shift Our Thinking Beyond the Plate
With a global spotlight on sustainable food systems, the good news is that the timing could not be better to rethink our approaches to farming and agriculture. The burgeoning energy and interest in supporting local food cultures is forming a groundswell and providing a perfect opportunity to look beyond individual consumer habits: thinking beyond the plate. Certainly, that will include eating and promoting locally grown foods. It will also mean valuing agriculture as a way of life, ensuring economic viability of farming and promoting agriculture. It means understanding farmers as having an irreplaceable place in our economic systems as well as honoring the role that they play as stewards of our quality of life and landscape. This shift will ultimately require that we let go of nostalgia and acknowledge that small farms are already major economic players in our communities.
We have an unprecedented opportunity to put agriculture at the heart of economic development and healthy community development. Ensuring local food in our communities for the future will mean creating regulations that promote and support agriculture; planning that integrates agriculture into healthy and livable cities; management practices that produce the best food possible and keep our soils and waters healthy for the long haul; and regulations that support and foster the diversity of agriculture including orchards and vegetables, flowers, plants and trees, aquaculture, dairy and value-added products. Ultimately, this means thinking differently about agriculture and its role in our families, communities and economies. Thinking beyond the plate means asking not only how to make agriculture a thriving industry, but also remembering that we are unlikely to have thriving communities without really rethinking our relationship to agriculture.
Please share: What are your thoughts on how we can support America’s working landscape beyond the plate?
Note from the author: Special thanks to the Steering Committee for the Working Lands Alliance, a project of American Farmland Trust, and the Connecticut Food, Farms, and Jobs Working Group for their ongoing and inspiring conversations about agriculture. An earlier version of this piece was originally featured in the Huffington Post.
About the Author: Leah Mayor is the Working Lands Alliance Project Director and New England Project Manager at American Farmland Trust where she focuses on policy, outreach, and education about the importance of farmland protection in Connecticut and the Northeast. Mayor is the founder and principal of Taking Root, and also blogs about food and agricultural systems for a number of online platforms, including the Huffington Post.