The University of Iowa Student Environmental Coalition invited Local Foods Connection to have a represenative on a panel discussion about global warming. Mark Quee, farm manager at Scattergood Friends School in West Branch, sat on the panel to discuss the relationship between agriculture and global warming. LFC purchases CSA shares from his farm. The panel discussion was held in December 2006 in Iowa City. The following is the text of his talk:
My name is Mark and I’m here to talk about how local food production can impact global warming, and, interestingly, the converse: how global warming is going to impact local food production.
I am the farm manager at Scattergood Friends School, which is a small Quaker boarding school about 15 miles east of Iowa City near West Branch. Our production includes approximately 3 acres in certified organic vegetable crops and about 5 acres in organic apples, pears, peaches, plums and cherries. We also have recently converted over 25 acres from conventional corn/soybean production to pastures which are in transition to organic certification and from which we raise grass finished beef and lamb, as well as free range our laying hens and turkeys. We grow a lot of food and consider our primary market the students and staff at the school: about 80 mouths to feed three times per day, August through May. But we also sponsor a small CSA program, serving families in West Branch and Iowa City and we market directly with New Pioneer Co‑op both in Iowa City and Coralville.
There are many ways how what you eat contributes to global warming with food miles being the most obvious. I was tempted to spend a lot of time talking about this and began the requisite on‑line searches, and of course found lots of interesting information; some of the highest quality research is coming out of Iowa’s own Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture located at Iowa State University. Rich Pirog and others have done several interesting studies into food miles and especially how it relates to Iowa. A brief summary of their findings in 2004 indicate that conventional distribution systems of raw fruits and vegetables require travel on average of about 1500 miles from farm to family. So the broccoli or potato and all the other fruits and vegetables that you’ve eaten today are well‑traveled. The researchers compared this conventional distribution system with a regional (Iowa‑based) producing/marketing/consuming system as well as direct farmer to consumer (CSAs and Farmer’s Markets) systems and found that the most efficient (in terms of petroleum consumption and CO2 emissions) was…drum role…not the CSAs and Farmer’s Markets, but the Regional distribution system, as a result of economies of scale allowing for more efficient transportation over moderate distances, followed by the small systems (which cover shorter distances, but with much less quantity) and finally the conventional systems. So, that’s pretty interesting, but not too surprising, and I encourage all of you to look into this more.
The important thing to consider is that what you buy does make a difference. Choosing Iowa‑raised, or buying direct from local farmers can impact global warming, albeit perhaps in a very small way. More importantly though is the beauty and empowerment that comes from being so closely connected to your food. When I hear friends or family talking about shopping at Wal‑Mart, or whenever I pass a Super Center, I feel sad because I think (perhaps too piously) that all of those people have given up. They’ve surrendered their potential to create positive social and environmental change and instead perhaps have allocated their energy and desire to whatever bowl game is being hyped or more likely, to discreet individualized survival. But the connection to the thing—food—that most literally makes us who we are and, more importantly, who we are to become, has been severed. So, an ugly cycle exists: people buy displaced produce, at disconnected SuperCenters, preventing meaningful consumption and connection, increasing isolation, resulting in more of the same.
So, the solution is not new or unique and can probably be super‑imposed on panel discussions on a wide variety of topics ranging from poverty and homelessness, AIDS awareness and prevention, education reform, accessible healthcare and on and on: we need to build connectivity and community in order to strengthen our individual weaknesses and create positive change. Simply by supporting local producers, eating seasonal food produced by soils you can see and feel, immediately creates a physical connection (at the cellular level) and begins the process of emotional and social connectivity and ultimately…Community. And that is what will produce change.
I hate to end on a dire or pessimistic note, but a down and dirty reason why you should immediately resolve to support local food producers is Food Security. You may really really need us in the not so distant future. Current distribution systems could be easily disrupted—fuel shortages, climate change, political instability, can make oranges a distant memory. Local food may be the only food and you will need access to knowledgeable people who have been working with nature’s changes over time. As an organic farmer I am constantly humbled by how much more I need to learn. Each season I eliminate some ignorance, but always discover more. And the learning curve is not always steep, but it is long. I get results in September about choices in sweet pepper cultivation made in April; tweaks in animal breeding can have impacts for years. I, and all other local producers, need the community to see that buying from us is not only the way to have a wonderful funky-looking tomato or the freshest head of lettuce, but it is a deposit in a very real knowledge and experience bank.
–Mark Quee, Farm Manager at Scattergood Friends School in West Branch, Iowa.