Louisville is crazy about food—whether that’s growing it, buying it, sharing it, or eating it. Many initiatives in the city are currently touching on the local food scene—the planned West End Food Port, urban farming, new restaurants claiming local food use, farmers markets, new venues selling local produce and meats, and even an emerging interest in food tech. The city has made “local food” a major component in its economic planning and development initiatives.
Given all this attention around Louisville and food, it’s natural to ask what, “what next?” What are the challenges still facing the city around local food production/distribution/consumption? What are we going to have to face next? How can Louisville overcome these challenges and become a food leader nationally?
In an effort to uncover the answer to this huge question, Broken Sidewalk’s Drew Tucker gathered the opinions of a group of local food experts. Here’s what they had to say.
Ivor is a local farmer and teacher at Field Day Family Farm and a partner in the local food restaurant, Harvest, in Louisville. He was a delegate to the World Social Forum and the Rural World Assembly in Porto Alegre, Brazil in 2003, served as the President of the Community Farm Alliance in 2005, and became a founding board member of the Food Literacy Project in 2006.
The single biggest challenge facing local food system development in Louisville—and everywhere else in the United States—is federal farm policy. It’s the Farm Bill. Without a significant reorientation away from commodities on the federal level, local food systems will remain at a competitive disadvantage. Production and consumption are both impacted by federal policy, as are aggregation, distribution, and processing.
At the most basic level, federal farm policy impacts pricing. The result is that federally supported commodity industries are able to offer what they produce and process at artificially low levels. Consumers then, cannot be blamed for evaluating, and ultimately choosing, primarily on the basis of price, if not necessarily on value and on health.
The choice for non-commodity producers, because of present farm policy, is between narrow margins and competing on something other than price. Arguably, the city has done nothing wrong and has, indeed, done much good in its market-based approach to local food system development. But ultimately, in order for the market to be fair for producers, whatever their crops, market-based approaches must build support for—and lead to—policy change. Ultimately, scalability for a more prosperous and responsible agriculture requires a reevaluation of pricing and fair margins for farmers.
To move us as a city to the fore, we should explore an approach that combines continued support for market-based farming, including a campaign that asks public officials to publicly model support of existing local food system opportunities, CSAs, farmers markets, and local stores and restaurants that support local farmers. We should publicly applaud and celebrate existing local food system participants of all stripes, and we could create an aggressive campaign that sends concerned citizens and local public officials to Washington to lobby for farm bill policy reform as well as the adoption of a citizen-recommended local farm bill along the lines of Seattle’s.
We have come a long way in a short time. We can—and should—go further.
Adam grew up in Lexington and his passion for local food and farming is tied to his travel, reading of Wendell Berry, and through his experiences working his family’s land. Adam currently runs Barr Farms in Rhodelia, Kentucky. He is working with the Community Farm Alliance and serves on the board of Sustainable Agriculture Louisville.
The number one challenge I see is expanding local food production and distribution into an expanding market—the 2012 Karp Resources study found another $130 million in demand for local food—while at the same time retaining the values that have been at the foundation of the local food movement.
First, to define local food, it is less important to talk about the number of miles (hyperlocal, 100 miles, 250 miles) from farm to plate. A more important starting point is to ask, “does purchasing this local food have direct farm impact?” A question to ask about direct farm impact is, “how much of my food dollar is actually going to a local farm?”
To ensure the integrity of the local food movement we need to be sure not to lose sight of the connection cities have to the farms around them. If the local food sales are growing, but the direct farm impact isn’t growing then there is a problem. Whenever we take metrics on the local food movement, we need to keep in mind the direct farm impact by measuring, one, how much of the food dollar is going to a local farmer, and two, how is net farm income improving as sales of local food increase to meet that demand.
Another point about values I would make is, what kind of farms do we want to see? Farms that are small scale and diversified do a really good job of protecting the land and water, while providing nourishing food at the same time. Farms need to grow to meet the growing demand—we are growing our organic vegetable operation this year—but we also need more farmers to be supported. I don’t see any danger of any mega-farms taking over in the Louisville area, just pointing out what I consider to be a guiding principle to the local food movement.
Perhaps the biggest challenge for the local food movement specifically to Louisville is collaboration! Sometimes it seems groups of folks in this work can be a bit campy, focusing only on what they are doing without larger collaboration. The more people we reach out to the better and I think there are positive signs, including the West Louisville Food Port. That cooperation, including aggregation of product at local farms in the region for shipping into town, is going to be the key for more sustainable growth in the future.
Luke has operated Groce Family Farm just outside Louisville with his wife, Katherine, for the past six years, where they manage land with an eye towards regeneration, producing vegetables and pastured pork. Follow Luke and Katherine on Instagram.
I am glad that Louisville is a town that has a food conscience. It is fantastic to be a farmer who is supported by people interested in knowing where their food comes from. My hope for Louisville’s food system would be that this conscience becomes a more informed and active one.
“Is this local?” and “Was this sprayed?” are good places to start, but there are many more choices just as important that a farmer is making when he raises your food. I believe that politics are downstream from culture, and the votes cast at the farmers market, restaurants, and grocery stores are the ones that are going to bring the biggest changes to our food system. Change won’t come from ten people who have the ear of the mayor or governor, but from tens of thousands of people who are deciding for themselves what is important, and then letting the farmers, shop owners, chefs, butchers, and distributors know. The politicians will follow.
I have little doubt that all of my wildest desires for widespread regenerative land use, policy initiatives, wise investment of resources, and regulatory sanity would come true if significantly more people were aware of some of the following things:
- The act of producing food can have the capacity to rapidly degrade, slowly degrade, or regenerate land: above-ground and subterranean ecosystems. There is no current labeling system on your food for this.
- These ecosystems are the primary resource base from which human life, sustenance, and flourishing are based upon. This resource base is renewable, but finite.
- Land will follow a natural progression, aided or unaided, from simple (bare, denuded soil) to complex (mature forest, prairie, marsh etc). And humans can obtain food, fuel, fiber, and medicine from every stage in this progression.
- All humans (and all animals humans eat) obtain their calories from plants which live less than one year (annuals) and plants which live more than one year (perennials).
- The annual tilling of land, or the use of herbicides in place of tillage, resets the ecological succession of land back to the least healthy, most carbon emitting, hardest to maintain, and least complex form of ecosystem possible in that place.
- The use of both animals and plants in the restoration of land towards more complex ecosystems in a way that resembles natural patterns is the best tool we have to regenerate land, feed humans nutritiously, sequester carbon, build ecological diversity, and continue to thrive into the future.
One could spend a lifetime branching out from these six points. I intend to. But I think that understanding and sharing them is the best way to create real change in our local food system. Do have a garden, and do eat annual plants farmed well on ground that is being regenerated or, at a minimum, “sustained.” But build soil, or ask questions of the farmer about how he builds soil and promotes ecological regeneration. And if you’re aware of these things, try to find more food that comes from perennial plants, and animals who eat them: from the forest and the pasture. Food from perennials grown in nature-mimicking poly-cultures is rare in the marketplace, but more of us farmers are seeing its value to human and ecological flourishing—and we are responding. And if we are successful in repairing our land and feeding happy, hungry, eager, conscious people with open wallets, others will surely follow.
[Top image: Barr Farms at a farmers market. Courtesy Barr Farms.]