Beyond the Farmers' Market, The case for regional agriculture

A farmers' market is an asset in any community. Lakewood is no exception, and the Wednesday afternoon North Union market is not to be missed. The abundant variety and colorful selections draw shoppers from all walks of life, while providing area farmers a direct link to the community they serve. Beyond the enjoyment of spending time on a summer afternoon sampling local peaches or organic honey and picking up some groceries, market participants have the opportunity to make a positive impact on our regional economy and local community.

The concept of "food miles" is a growing concern for those involved in food issues. The farther a food has to travel before reaching the plate of the consumer, the more food miles it is said to have acquired. The significance of measuring food miles stems from the overall effect our food choices have on fossil fuel consumption, resulting from both transportation and refrigeration, and therefore on the economy and the environment. Food that is highly processed, after being shipped to multiple facilities and warehouses, accumulates high mileage. On the other hand, food that is locally produced and minimally processed, such as the food one can find at the North Union Farmers' Markets, is said to be low in food miles, since it was produced, and will mostly likely be consumed, in Northern Ohio.

In a time a when globalized trade has opened up markets and standardized food production, items from around the world can be available virtually anywhere. Obviously, this convenience does not come without a price. The hidden costs of mass marketed food products include a negative impact on the regional economy, and diminished food security for those living in the region. Arguably, any population needs to be able to provide its citizens with an adequate food supply. As city dwellers, we tend to be disconnected from our food sources, both physically and mentally. Food security is an important urban issue, however, and densely populated communities require a constant supply of food. As farmland on the outskirts of the city and in surrounding counties gives way to suburban housing and shopping centers, the region loses some of its capacity for feeding its residents. In times of rising fuel costs, threats to public safety and global instability, our choices as a society have left us vulnerable and dependent on faraway food sources. The security of our food supply is at the mercy of an industry that does not have a vested interest in the well being of our region.

By contrast, family farmers are small business owners making a contribution to the local economy. According to the Center for Farmland Preservation, a nonprofit based in Peninsula, Ohio, "Privately owned agricultural land generates more in tax revenue than it requires in related services. The community services that have to be provided to new residential development include police and fire protection, water and sewer services and educational costs. Cost of community services (COCS) studies have highlighted the fact that farmland demands far less in community services than it pays in yearly taxes." In addition to being an economic asset, small-scale farming operations are more likely than large, corporate farms to practice sustainable methods, such as organic or biodynamic farming. Small family farms often market their products directly to the consumer through farmers' markets, cooperatives or roadside stands. By purchasing food directly from the producer, consumers eliminate the big business of food, while supporting a family owned and operated enterprise that is inherently interconnected with the future of our community.

In addition to the economic aspects of supporting nearby farmers, food shoppers can take advantage of the health benefits of eating seasonal, locally grown foods. Some nutrients are less stable than others, such as vitamin C and particular B vitamins. These vitamins begin to diminish as soon as produce is harvested. Anyone who has experienced the difference between a fresh vine ripened tomato and the average grocery store variety can attest to the value of freshness. The good news for those trying to eat fresh is that the summer months in Northern Ohio provide abundant produce. Our climate provides all the right elements for a widely varied and lengthy growing season, and local farmers give the community an opportunity to make the most of the season.

Community supported agriculture (CSA) takes the beneficial aspects of the farmers' market to the next level. CSAs are formed when farmers ask members of the community to invest in their efforts, in turn providing those families or individuals with farm-fresh goods throughout the season. CSA members buy shares in the farmers' season, providing their business with an infusion of capital, and limiting the risk and uncertainty inherent in farming. Members are rewarded for their support with the freshest foods available, ranging from produce to organic, free-range eggs, meats and prepared foods, depending on the farm. Because many benefits can accrue to both members and farmers, CSAs continue to grow in popularity.

Amy and Chris Sheffield operate Trout Lily organic farm in Ashland, Ohio, and are offering 18 CSA shares this year. When asked about their reasons for getting involved in community oriented agriculture, Amy, who also works with nonprofit food security organizations, is quick to emphasize the social importance of food. "Doing the CSA was really important to us," she says. "We're very community minded. We want to know who's eating our food, and to cultivate relationships. A close-knit community has always been important in our lives, so we want to keep it local."

Chris, fresh from the field, is too hot and dehydrated to comment, and defers to Amy. "It's exhausting," she continues, "but we feel responsible to be different from [larger farms] where not as much attention is paid to quality. It's been a big learning experience for us. As young farmers we have to be willing to be creative, to combine the CSA, farmers' markets, and sales to local businesses, and we want to be able to make a living at farming. It takes a lot of time, but it's worth it to create a community around the food- and to share big meals with friends."

One drawback to the CSA model is the seemingly cost-prohibitive initial investment. Many farmers offering CSA shares are willing to accommodate members with a flexible payment plan, and some CSAs offer a reduction in fees for members willing to volunteer on the farm or help with distribution. Other programs are being developed to help those most needing this type of access to fresh foods- low-income urban residents.

This year marks the first season the nonprofit organization City Fresh, a project launched by Northeast Ohio Foodshed Network with the cooperation of many local businesses and national organizations, is operating in Cleveland. With plans to expand to a second west-side neighborhood next year, City Fresh is coordinating a CSA by organizing area farmers and offering CSA shares to area residents on a sliding scale based on income.

City Fresh is working with area restaurants and grocers to increase their offerings of locally produced foods, thereby attempting to keep more food dollars in the regional economy. City Fresh is tackling urban nutrition concerns with educational programs about cooking with and using fresh ingredients. In addition, City Fresh is organizing community gardens to help supply neighborhoods with fresh foods, and in some cases entrepreneurial pursuits.

Maurice Small, the Food Center Coordinator for City Fresh, energetically spreads his knowledge for growing food and his passion for building strong food-centered communities throughout the Cleveland area. "There's no experience like gardening," Maurice proclaims.

"You have to be at the grass roots, with all income levels, all mentalities, all age groups. You have to reach each level of society. And you can become like the worm, burrowing through the happiness of the garden," Maurice betrays his adoration of the benefits of composting, brew-waste and vermiculture. In addition, he suggests "utilizing the [formerly] industrial areas along Lakewood's borders," to develop gardening projects.

Family and community gardens offer a tangible way for people to get involved with local food issues. The importance of individual gardens should not be overlooked. In addition to providing food, gardens can spawn community involvement, bring neighbors together and reconnect urban residents with their natural surroundings. Lakewood is a community of many gardens, and by strengthening existing networks the city can promote local food production as a component of our development toward a sustainable 21st century economy.

Some Lakewood residents view gardening as a sort of backyard revolution in which any of us can take part. Others have discussed the potential of rooftop gardening, and planting fruit trees such as apples, pears or peaches to provide fresh fruit during the summer months. These are potentially useful ideas aligned with the goal of attaining food security.

Around the country, progressive communities are developing school-based programs that provide educational opportunities as well as providing fresh, locally grown and produced foods to area school lunch programs. According to the Wisconsin Homegrown Lunch program, "Farm-to-school projects support and promote local and sustainable agriculture in the short term, through direct purchases, and in the long term, through education of the next generation of consumers." Programs such as Wisconsin Homegrown Lunch, the Food Systems Project in Berkeley, California, and other farm-to-school initiatives provide a model for educators, parents, school administrators and others wishing to bring the discussion of sustainability and community development into the classroom and lunchroom.

Lakewood is a community at a crossroads. As we consciously consider the progress we'd like to achieve, food should play a significant role in our blueprint for establishing and maintaining a sustainable inner-ring community. Since food is essential to our survival, every day brings a new opportunity to make a positive impact on our regional economy and general well being. Northern Ohio's farmers and Lakewood's community gardeners provide the key to moving beyond the farmers' market.
Read More on Flora and Fauna
Volume 1, Issue 2, Posted 10.07 AM / 21st June 2005.