George, my husband and business partner, likes to start presentations with the question, “How many of you are involved in agriculture?” Unless he’s speaking at a soil health or farming conference, only one or two hands go up in the air. Then he asks, “How many of you eat?”
If you eat, you are involved in agriculture.
The locavore “Know Your Food” revolution grows strong and bouncy like a well-fed colt. Yet, for all the interest in real and regional food, most eaters still know little about the challenges farmers and ranchers face.
A resilient regional food system is all about partnership. One of the joys of an agrarian life is the palpable partnership with the planet we experience every day. Everything we do is about partnership. We’re partners with the cows, sun, grass and soil microbes; partners with the harriers that hunt our hay piles all winter and the eagles eating carcasses in the spring. We are partners with our customers.
We need each other—consumers and producers. We need to understand one another’s challenges. Cranky ranchers must recognize that working parents haven’t time to slow-cook a roast during the work week; they need convenience, at least some of the time. The weary urbanite needs to realize a farmer toils endlessly and may still lose his or her crop to a hailstorm or to the more insidious unpredictability of climate change. And they need to know that according to the USDA, on average, only 15.6 cents of each food dollar makes its way back to the farmer or rancher.
Consumers and producers are both harmed by lack of transparency in the current food system, be it political and industry resistance to country-of-origin labeling or the growing confusion of claims and certifications telling you this package of green beans will fix your car and your cholesterol levels.
Our human delight in new flavors and foods, as well as our demand that our favorite familiar foods be available year-round, places impossible demands on our growing season and farmers.
We’ve lost much, when it comes to the infrastructure of a smaller-scale functional food system, from processing and distribution to vibrant rural economies. The resulting system makes potatoes from Idaho cheaper in New Mexico than those grown 200 miles north in the San Luís Valley, a place whose climate, culture, geomorphology and water are intimately connected to the rest of the Río Grande Valley watershed.
A regional food system is vital to growers. The grassfed beef world offers insight into how dearly we ranchers need it. In this country, grassfed beef sales increased 40 percent from 2014 to 2015. Over 80 percent of total sales are imported beef. How can cattle raised in Uruguay, barged to the U.S. and processed here be cheaper at the store than beef from the rancher down the road from you? While the global market shifts and customers search for prices they can afford, we ranchers commit two years in advance to raise certified organic, grassfed beef. We scale up to meet demand, only to find that our pioneering risks to raise this food are suddenly all for naught.
Farmers’ markets and direct sales alone won’t build this system. Farmers and ranchers are often far from towns large enough to make direct marketing profitable. Our ranch has a 100-mile round-trip drive to a farmers’ market. Our customers loved our beef and bought weekly, even during the economic recession beginning in 2008. But we still drove steaks and roasts round-trip too many Saturdays, and many weeks didn’t cover our gas and labor costs. Currently, retail stores lack the structure to purchase from individual farms and ranches that aren’t able to produce the volume of zucchini or chickens needed.
An oft-quoted statistic is that we are seven meals away from anarchy, meaning people will abide by the law until they are truly hungry. It’s unwise to dismantle large stores when we haven’t the infrastructure to replace the efficient ways multitudes of people access their food. For example, the dearth of processing plants makes it all but impossible for our ranch to feed our neighbors. Small processors were closed decades ago, as the consolidation of animal agriculture into a few mega-corporations resulted in USDA rules that cater to large processors. Many rules have little to do with humane slaughter, cleanliness, or zoning; they focus on paperwork and a private office for a USDA inspector, space a small plant can’t provide. The honorable skills of turning all of an animal into food are almost gone. Without regional facilities to grind grains to flour or turn animals into meat, the food system we want will elude us.
There are seeds and sprouts of this new system. Networks of distribution and transportation systems like La Montañita’s Co-op Distribution Center are critical to a regional food system. Regional centralization can greatly decrease the fossil fuel miles food travels; one large truck full of food uses less gas than multiple small pickups driving carrots from farm to town. Rather than fight over customers and undercut one another, many ranchers now band together in cooperatives and organizations, like Sweet Grass Co-op (of which we are co-founders) and Southwest Grassfed Livestock Association to market collectively, build farm-to-table initiatives, and educate ourselves as land stewards and entrepreneurs. From soil conservation groups to growers associations, those who grow food recognize that much of the harm done to the planet comes from agriculture, and we practice a land ethic that gives back to the soil we all depend upon.
Everyone can do something. Don’t let the enormity of the problem keep you from finding your small percentage of the solution. Focus on what is within your discretion, not on what you can’t change. What can you do, today, to act personally to create or support the food system you want? What can you do in the next two weeks?
Now, go do it. The system you want starts with you.
Julie Sullivan and her husband George Whitten own and manage a certified organic cattle ranch in the San Luís Valley of Colorado. She is the founding mentor of the Quivira Coalition’s New Agrarian Program and a former university professor of environmental studies.
Food System Investments Boost Regional Economies
The Federal Reserve Board of Governors, in partnership with the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis and the U.S.D.A’s agencies of Rural Development and the Agricultural Marketing Service, has released Harvesting Opportunity: The Power of Regional Food System Investments to Transform Communities, a compilation of new research, essays and reports that explore the potential for the growing popularity of locally sourced food harnessed to boost economic opportunities for rural and urban communities.
“Regional food systems represent a promising avenue for economic growth through the creation of new or the enhancement of existing jobs and businesses,” say Federal Reserve Board Gov. Lael Brainard and St. Louis Fed President James Bullard in the book’s foreword. “With appropriately targeted policies and support, the attendant opportunities can advance the economic and financial security of low- and moderate-income households and communities.”
Contributors include experts from the U.S.D.A., financial institutions, universities, nonprofits, philanthropic organizations and more. The book covers topics such as:
· Prospects available in the regional food systems sector,
· How to advance efforts to provide meaningful earnings and job opportunities for low- and moderate-income households and communities,
· Vital partnerships that are key for deploying knowledge and capital to support the sector’s continued growth,
· Examples of communities that have used regional food strategies to advance economic and other community goals, and
· Models of collaboration between policymakers, practitioners and the financial community.
The book also shows how improved access to healthier foods can boost community health and lead to a more productive workforce. For more information, visit
“HomeGrown” Event Showcases New Mexico Food Products
Food produced in New Mexico will be showcased at the fourth annual HomeGrown: A New Mexico Food Show & Gift Market, Nov. 18-19 at the New Mexico Farm & Ranch Heritage Museum in Las Cruces. The museum is partnering with the New Mexico Department of Agriculture to present the event.
Sixty growers and businesses will be represented. Some items offered for sampling: salsas, baked goods, sauces, honey, produce, jerky, candy, cheese, beans, pecans, pistachios and wine. New Mexico crafts will also be represented.
Many of the vendors are members of NMDA’s Taste the Tradition and Grown with Tradition programs. Some of the enterprises previously featured: Kianna’s Chile Products (vegan mango salsa, Laos chile paste) and Valley Gurlz Goodz, of Albuquerque (pickled vegetables); Andele’s Restaurant and Ol’ Gringo, from Las Cruces (pecan pie, salsa and gift sets); and Jesusita’s Salsa Fresca, of Cimarrón. A few of the new vendors: Jinglebob Land & Cattle Company, of Anthony; Mesquite Willie’s Desert Products (mesquite flour, Southwest seasonings, barbecue rubs); and Morrow Farms, of Hatch (pinto beans).
The market will be open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 18, and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Sunday, Nov. 19. Admission is $5 per vehicle. For more info, call 575.522.4100.