By Kath­leen Weaver

Most con­sumers believe pro­duce comes shrouded in plas­tic; per­fectly selected apples pre­sented in a pris­tine pack­age ready to enjoy. And while any­one eat­ing fruits and veg­eta­bles excites me for all the obvi­ous rea­sons; health and com­merce related, there is one sig­nif­i­cant dif­fer­ence between the eater of today and that of the past. Eighty years ago most folks knew how an apple was grown, which is no longer the case.

Eighty years ago a sub­stan­tial chunk of the work­force was employed in agri­cul­ture; 22% of work­ers rep­re­sent­ing roughly 27 of 123 mil­lion peo­ple who called the US home at the time. They farmed on small farms in all regions of the US pro­duc­ing mostly for their own sub­sis­tence. How­ever, trends began to shift with elec­tri­fi­ca­tion, mech­a­niza­tion, and infra­struc­ture and trans­port improve­ments, allow­ing peo­ple to seek off-​farm work. This is where we see the most sub­stan­tial change in our food sys­tem that until recently remained unchallenged.

The change that hap­pened over the next eight decades was one of regional pro­duc­tion con­cen­tra­tion: the nar­row­ing of sin­gle farm com­mod­ity pro­duc­tion, and the increase of impor­ta­tion. We find our­selves now with only 2% of the pop­u­la­tion employed in agri­cul­ture. And to fur­ther exem­plify the change, we see that Cal­i­for­nia pro­duces HALF of our fruits and veg­eta­bles, with the bal­ance made up in impor­ta­tion; 50% of our fruit and 20% of our veg­eta­bles come from overseas.

This cur­rent food sys­tem is now being chal­lenged by the buy local, eat local revival that’s taken hold across the nation. From 19942014 the growth in local farm­ers mar­kets, a key indi­ca­tor in defin­ing the trac­tion that local pro­duce has in the mar­ket­place, has seen a more than steady rise, with a 300% increase in 10 short years. This growth can be attrib­uted to many things from national level pro­gram­ming from the USDA and state led mar­ket­ing efforts, to a new aware­ness on part of the biggest, most con­nected gen­er­a­tion of our time, Mil­len­ni­als. Rep­re­sent­ing a third of the pop­u­la­tion and $200 bil­lion in annual spend­ing power, these inter­net savvy, diverse, edu­cated, community-​minded folks are dif­fer­ent from gen­er­a­tions past in that they want trans­parency, con­nec­tiv­ity and mean­ing in all exchanges, includ­ing food.

How­ever the revival is chal­lenged as gen­eral con­sumers become increas­ingly dis­con­nected from the real­i­ties of farm­ing. This dis­con­nect is best described through a visual com­par­i­son. The image the Mil­len­nial con­sumer con­jures when think­ing of a local farmer is a young-​ish hip­ster dressed in what I’d deem farm chic hock­ing their wares at a down­town mar­ket. While in actu­al­ity, the aver­age farmer is 58 years old with warn hands and a face that bears the evi­dence of a hard, less than sta­ble life. This is dras­ti­cally dif­fer­ent from what our imag­i­na­tion or even the mar­ket­place man­u­fac­tures. Take the recent national ad cam­paign from the lead­ing organic gro­cer fea­tur­ing key pro­duc­ers in all their major depart­ments. The one fea­tur­ing pro­duce high­lights a young farmer in an orchard show­ing his bounty to the local retail buyer. This adver­tise­ment spoon feeds us the exact oppo­site por­trayal of our cur­rent sys­tem thus per­pet­u­at­ing a mis­guided notion that there is a plethora of young farm­ers out there grow­ing nutri­tious and deli­cious food for you, the con­sumer, to guilt­lessly enjoy.

To become a farmer or make it a viable exis­tence is an incred­i­bly hard pur­suit. The food sys­tem, as described ear­lier, works against local farm­ers, and while cur­rent con­sumer trends cre­ate a sense of oppor­tu­nity, there are many hur­dles that a farmer must over­come in order to be viable. Geo­graph­i­cal lim­i­ta­tions, sea­son­al­ity, cap­i­tal access, infra­struc­ture restric­tions and mar­ket access are just a few of the chal­lenges fac­ing farm­ers today. Luck­ily the resur­gence in local foods gives farm­ers hope for over­com­ing what often seems insur­mount­able. The Cen­tral Coast, a hot bed of agri­cul­ture activ­ity that is home to pro­duce giants like Tay­lor Farms and Driscoll’s, is also home to stel­lar pro­grams that aim to bol­ster local farm­ers so they can suc­ceed. Greener Fields Together is a local orga­ni­za­tion that puts forth pro­gram­ming that sup­ports farm­ers in their noble pur­suits. Greener Fields Together is a local and sus­tain­able pro­duce pro­gram, sup­port­ing local farm­ers by pro­vid­ing Good Agri­cul­tural Prac­tices train­ing, food safety audit assis­tance and mar­ket access. Their aim is to help farm­ers bridge the gap that exists in access­ing the wider mar­ket­place. And bridg­ing this gap also means money, in the form of grants, which help farm­ers make cap­i­tal invest­ments and infra­struc­ture improve­ments. In 2016, Cul­ti­vat­ing Change, a local farm grant pro­gram admin­is­tered by Greener Fields Together, donated $60,000 to farm­ers through­out the coun­try so that farm­ers could focus on farm­ing and, for a fleet­ing moment, not be bur­dened by the weight of the food system.

To feed our coun­try now and into the future it’s nec­es­sary to grow the local revival by sup­port­ing local pro­duc­ers and pro­grams that offer a chance for the lit­tle guy to over­come the lim­its within the cur­rent food sys­tem. Know­ing the his­tory of food pro­duc­tion, the cur­rent state of farm­ing and how you, as an eater, fit into it will help us return to our foun­da­tion and prove that there are no lim­its to what local pro­duc­ers can do to thrive in a nation built on agriculture.


Image credit: Flickr/​Mobilus In Mobili
Kath­leen Weaver is the sup­ply chain sus­tain­abil­ity man­ager for PRO*ACT.