One of the readings I like to share with the students in the UMass Sustainable Food and Farming program is Fifty Million Farmers by Richard Heinberg. This reading is an abbreviated version of an address he presented to the E. F. Schumacher Society in Stockbridge, Massachusetts in 2006. It is a powerful declaration that in a world in which climate change, diminishing supplies of easily accessible fossil fuel, and increasing economic stress – our food supply is not guaranteed. We need lots more farmers in lots more places!
I first heard of this outlandish idea in Sharon Astyk’s book, A Nation of Farmers. She makes the additional claim that we not only need more farmers but our understanding of “farming” must include individual efforts to feed ourselves. That is, even those of us who have gardens and (perhaps a few chickens) to feed ourselves and our neighbors should be included in this call for more local farming.
Think Globally and Farm Locally
Some of you may have attended a workshop in the Amherst Town Hall a few years ago where Dr. Brian Donahue, a faculty member at Tufts University, shared a rough evaluation of what we could grow in New England if we had the political will to do so.
He suggested that we could grow:
- Most of our vegetables on 250,000 acres
- Most of our dry beans on 500,000 acres
- Half of our fruit on 250,000 acres
- All of our dairy and most of our beef and lamb on grass on 4,000,000 acres with 3,000,000 in pasture)
- All of our pastured pork, poultry and eggs but mostly using imported grain on acreage already in large animal pasture or in woodlots
- Some portion of our grain for specialty products and perhaps feed and vegetable oil on 1,000,000 acres
The major constraints are:
- lack of vision and will
- lack of training/education
- failure to invest
Well, one of the ways to develop the political will would be for more individuals to pay attention to where their food comes from – and gardeners care! I know we can grow more food in Amherst and some of that food could be grown in our own backyards.
Grow Food Amherst
A few of your neighbors began working together this fall to help our town become more food self-sufficient (trying to “keep up the exciting work done by our neighbors across the river” Grow Food Northampton).
The first project was a “gleaning and cooking together” community effort in which food that would have gone to waste was collected by volunteers and delivered to the Not Bread Alone soup kitchen and food distribution center, as well as a local church.
Organized by the town’s Sustainabilty Coordinator in cooperation with Grow Food Amherst and Transition Amherst, this work attracted about 20 volunteers who collected sweet potatoes, cabbage, broccoli and cauliflower (that was too small for market).
A few days later another community event was organized as part of the national Food Day celebration of local and sustainable food for residents to learn to preserve and make soup from the food that was gleaned from local fields.
In addition to these efforts organized by volunteers, the UMass Stockbridge School of Agriculture and the UMass Permaculture Initiative partnered with the Amherst Public Schools to plant fruit trees at three elementary schools and are making plans for vegetable gardens in the spring. Following the lead of Todmorden, England, permaculturists at UMass are committed to growing food in pubic spaces such as local schools.
We can grow much more locally!
This is not to say that we should rely on gardening or even backyard homesteading to feed the American population but I believe if we each took more responsibility for some portion of our own food – individually and as a community – we would also create more market demand for food grown by local farmers. In the U.S., about one-percent of the food is sold directly from farmers to consumers. In the Pioneer Valley we buy about 10% of our food from local producers – but that means that 90% of don’t buy local on a regular basis…..
We can do better!
NOTE: You are invited to join the Grow Food Amherst mailing list simply by signing up here: Grow Food Amherst.