It’s 2020. Do you know where your next bite is coming from? If you live on Whidbey Island near Seattle, you just might.
I just co-hosted an event on Whidbey called FOOD 2020. In the morning we sent our minds forward to 2020, looked around and described a food system that could supply 50% of everyone’s daily fare. In the afternoon we stood in that vision and asked ourselves what happened to permit this. Working this way, we circumvented “it’s impossible” and “somebody oughta – but not me” because we assumed we surmounted the barriers.
Finally, we asked, “So what? Now what?” and three working groups formed.
Peak oil and resilience in food
It’s getting clearer to many farmers here in the northwestern corner of the US that change is coming – even folks who, when Transition Whidbey started three years ago, saw us as marginal unto Cassandras.
The picture of the future is emerging. Peak oil will truly challenge our food security and sufficiency. Oil and cheap energy enabled an agricultural system that now cannot exist without it. From tilling to irrigation to harvesting to distribution, oil has enabled an expansion of land in production and food in the pipeline.
Hidden by this apparent victory-over-want are challenges now arising from the earth itself: exhausted land, dead zones in oceans due to nitrogen fertilizer run-off, water table depletion, salinization from deep water wells, crops that can’t thrive without pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers – all derived from fossil fuel. We assumed stable weather (say adios to that), inexhaustible tilth (likewise), and transportation systems that favored “comparative advantage” (local mono-crop and global swap). Rising energy costs will change that equation too.
The average age of farmers in Island County, as in the rest of the US, is nearing 60 and we don’t have a sufficient “replacement crop” of young farmers in the pipeline. The deck is currently stacked against them. Land is expensive. They can’t earn enough from farming because laws, policies and subsidies favor of agri-business – so they farm as second jobs if at all. The costs of daily life, including health insurance and education, fall on their backs rather than being a social good.
As I am fond of saying these days, “if you want to grow food, you have to grow farmers.” You have to un-stack the deck.
As hopeful as the spread of CSAs and farmer’s markets are, it’s far, far, far from enough. These are cool bottom-up food adaptations, but they don’t alter the local food system. They don’t grow land in production. They don’t grow farmers. They don’t solve system challenges like processing, value added products, distribution, planning. This is why Food 2020 was an important conversation for our future.
Cooperation and tension
One co-organizer characterized the 60 people in the room this way:
- Farmers – generally very hard working, perceive themselves as “poorly understood or misunderstood and possibly disadvantaged.”
- Community design people – focused on process and communication, sometimes not aware of how often the subgroups have been asked to do “visioning” in isolation (conversely, the subgroups don’t recognize that they have not done “visioning” with the entire system).
- Idealists – often eaters, each passionate about 1-2 elements of a food system, generally environmentalists, often social justice proponents – important to the system, but often not valued by all other participants, sometimes not even by each other.
- Institutionalists – conservation district, extension, chamber of commerce, school districts – these see the hurdles and can often be heard to say “that won’t work,” or “that’s not how it’s done.” Also important to the system and a challenge to engage in creating solutions without giving them a controlling role.
In our minds’ eyes
We developed 150+ specific ideas about what our food future could look like, everything from hoop houses to sharecropping to a central processing and distribution facility to festivals to seed saving and exchange to policies that put land and education and support into the hands of young farmers.
What emerged by the end of the day were three groups willing to take next steps:
- A food and agriculture policy council
- A creative financing group – from mini-Grameen Bank-style microloans to land trusts
- A farmer’s cooperative
There is more work to be done, of course, but just those three will get several crucial balls rolling.
We revealed to ourselves the hurdles we do have to surmount but we looked around the room at 60 people many who cared enough to give a sunny day in a rainy growing season to a conversation for the future.
Chalkboard menu, changes daily
So, it’s 2020 and if you come to Whidbey here’s what you’ll find on the potluck table:
Mint tea with honey
Emmer salads and pilafs
Green salads with the works – radishes, lettuce, celery, snow peas, tomatoes, cucumbers – topped with a dressing of oil (imported), fresh oregano, fresh basil, pressed garlic, sea salt and even tangy meyer lemon.
Vegetable roasts with beets, turnips, onions and carrots
Hubbard and Delicata squash with butter
Frittatas with chanterelles and onions
Berry and apple and rhubarb pies
And you’d find that in any season, up and down the island, among liberals and conservatives, young and old.
Mapmakers, recipe writers, ordinary people
We here understand that by solving shortages before they appear we may have a chance of such peasant’s tables of plenty. And we also understand that if we do our work well, we’ll develop a road map that other communities can follow.
What innovations have you discovered for food sufficiency and security where you are?
— Vicki Robin for Transition Voice