Local foods — a success story

Sign at a goats and cheesemaking workshop (local foods).

By Drs. Robert & Sonia Vogl
President and Vice President, Illinois Renewable Energy Association

Local foods has been a success story since the dawn of agriculture. Recently, however, it has become a movement that appears innovative and new. This is not surprising, since most Americans have not gardened and probably cannot remember that gardening was a normal part of daily life for their grandparents.

We are familiar with modern industrial agriculture, which consists of miles of rows of one crop — often corn or beans. The closest we may come to familiarity with obtaining our own food is purchasing it in a grocery store to which it has been shipped from somewhere “away.”

Little by little, gardening and local foods have become more familiar parts of life. Farmers’ markets, at which people can purchase foods grown by someone else, but probably someone relatively local, have become popular Saturday morning events. CSAs, in which people purchase shares in locally-grown crops and receive a box of the pick of the week, have become familiar.

Local foods can be defined in a number of ways. Alyssa Smith, author of Plenty and speaker at the 2007 Illinois Renewable Energy and Sustainable Lifestyle Fair, spent a year eating foods from within 100 miles. The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines it as a relationship between producers and consumers. The Consolidated Farm and Rural Development Act determined that local foods should come from within 400 miles. Names for local food systems include organic gardening, sustainable agriculture and permaculture. Organic gardening uses natural products and methods, and avoids artificial chemicals to enrich the soil and manage pests. Sustainable agriculture produces products without compromising the ability of future generations to do the same.

Proponents of permaculture, a form of organic agriculture that uses ecological design to produce self-maintaining agricultural systems similar to natural systems, claim that it can easily outperform industrial agriculture in terms of productivity per unit of land. An example provided is a California CSA farmer who provides food for 300 to 450 people on 2 acres of land, producing eight time the amount that the “Department of Agriculture says is possible per square foot … Soil productivity increased dramatically over his time there.” Permaculture enthusiasts foresee a flourishing new world using their techniques. (Resilience)

If this year’s Renewable Energy and Sustainable Lifestyle Fair provides any indication, local foods has become a popular item. Workshops on foods from preparing the soil through eating were well attended.

One speaker helped audiences learn to garden successfully through improving the soil and encouraging beneficial insects. An overview of weekend homesteading presented firsthand experiences raising produce and animal products, growing fruit and vegetables in the city and country, and extending the growing season using simple, inexpensive structures. In a nearby county, residents developed more than 200 raised beds at 40 sites in 10 acres in a sustainable food security system.

A local high school developed an aquaponics curriculum appropriate for urban settings. Fish and vegetables feed each other in a continuous cycle of reuse.

Special foods demonstrations ranged from preparing raw foods through fermenting vegetables, an ancient method of food preparation, to butchering one’s own hunted or raised meat.

Preparing and preserving garden bounty presented an overview of canning, freezing, drying and creative ways to prepare foods after they have been preserved. Simple cheese- and yogurt-making was covered. Having an environmentally-friendly kitchen, working without expensive appliances, cutting waste and even cooking when the electricity goes out completed the set of workshops.

Growing, preparing, preserving and enjoying one’s own food has become a popular undertaking.

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 sonia@essex1.com.

From the Sept. 11-17, 2013, issue

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