By Drs. Robert & Sonia Vogl
President and Vice President, Illinois Renewable Energy Association
Over the last decade, locally-grown organic foods have become more widely available, and consumer demand for them has grown as well. Organic foods, although not always locally grown, can be found in our stores; some restaurants serve organic-based meals.
A variety of farm businesses are involved in local foods; many of them can be found in this area. They include such practices as farmers’ markets, community supported agriculture, community gardens, school gardens, urban farms, small-scale food processing, U-pick operations and roadside farm stands. Since it is harvest season, it is a good time to be on the lookout for ads regarding local foods.
At this year’s Illinois Renewable Energy and Sustainable Lifestyle Fair (Aug. 11-12 at Ogle County Fairgrounds), a leading advocate and practitioner of sustainable agriculture discussed efforts to make our food systems more sustainable than they currently are. Fred Kirschenmann, a distinguished Fellow at the Iowa Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture and president of the 2,600-acre certified family farm operation in North Dakota, laid out the need for more sustainable agricultural practices. He believes educational efforts toward sustainable farming practices will be most effective if targeted at younger farmers.
As we look out over farm fields in the Midwest, we see miles of corn and soybean fields. In most years, its practitioners see their abundance as evidence of success. Yet, the dominance of these two crops is, in part, dependent on federal programs that encourage the current agricultural system. Only limited federal funds have gone to local foods.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has supported a variety of programs related to local and regional foods, including local food purchases for child nutrition programs, grants for farm-to-school programs, and promotion of community and school gardens.
A Congressional Research Service Report in January 2012 noted that local food sales are small but growing, and estimated to be about 1.5 percent of the U.S. market for agricultural products. While the percentage is small, it obscures the dramatic growth that has occurred in the last decade from farmers willing to take the risk of developing local markets for organic foods.
Consumers of local, organic foods see them as fresher and higher in quality than other available foods. They like to support local farm economies and see their farming practices as more sustainable than the dominant farming practices. Local food supply chains also mean a greater share of the wages, income and farm revenue stay in the local community.
The widespread drought and the resulting reduction in crop yields and rising food prices does raise concerns about food security and affordability. A reasonable response to such concerns would suggest we will see an increase in personal and community gardens.
Although local and organic foods are growing in acceptance, their small presence in the marketplace assures continuing reliance on the existing dominant agricultural system. Yet, the current food system does have its vulnerabilities, and the local food option provides a measure of security, along with good flavors.
Look around for tasty, locally-grown foods. We and our friends have enjoyed our homegrown produce.
Drs. Robert and Sonia Vogl are founders and officers of the Illinois Renewable Energy Association (IREA) and coordinate the annual Renewable Energy and Sustainable Lifestyle Fair. E-mail email@example.com.
From the Sept. 12-18, 2012, issue