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Local Organic Food & Farming Can Help Revitalize the Economy

Community-based agriculture has the potential for creating jobs, developing small business entrepreneurships and keeping precious dollars in the community.

"As manufacturing jobs decrease, food jobs are increasing," said Dr. Kami Pothukuchi, associate professor of urban planning at Wayne State University in Detroit.

This is especially good news for a state like Michigan whose economic engine has been dependent on the declining automobile industry.

Out of a total GDP of $381 billion, agriculture is the state's second largest industry pulling in $63.7 billion annually compared to $68.4 billion from manufacturing, according to the Michigan Department of Agriculture (MDA) and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

However, the present "industrialized food system" is made up of a handful of "mega-corporations" that control food production, processing, distribution and preparation, said Pothukuchi. Change to a community-based system is difficult because these corporations have a lot at stake in keeping the current system.

The U.S. industrialized food system was designed in the 1950s to increase production in order to provide the nation with cheap and plentiful food that was easily accessible. As a result, the United States became a top food producer in the world.

A variety of food-related jobs in processing, marketing and distribution also emerged even though the number of farmers declined. The U.S. Department of Agriculture Census (USDA) reported that farms increased in size averaging 155 acres in 1935, a peak year when the country had 6.8 million farms, compared to 2002 when farms averaged 441 acres and numbered 2.1 million farms.

It is important to remember that the industrialized food system was developed at a time when most American businesses were creating systems for mass production and economies of scale. Because volume is critical to the profitability of this system, farming methods developed to support a large-scale, energy-intensive monoculture that uses huge amounts of water and chemicals for herbicides, insecticides, and fertilizers. Tons of animal waste products also accumulate and pollute land, water and air because factory farming methods keep animals indoors and free of disease instead of allowing them to graze in pastures.

Actually, the cost of the industrialized food system outweighs its benefits. For example, most food in the industrialized system ends up in supermarkets after traveling an average 1,300 miles to get there. Fruits and vegetables may spend seven to fourteen days in transit. So freshness and taste are sacrificed for the products' ability to travel.

Transporting products has been possible through cheap fuel. However, when oil reached over $100 a barrel last spring, the expense incurred over such long distances proved problematic. For example, world food prices averaged an increase of 43 percent over the past year, which inadvertently created a global food crisis that is causing political and economical instability and social unrest in both poor and developed nations.

Unseasonable droughts in grain-producing nations also affects high food prices just as falling stockpiles, the increased use of biofuels in developed countries and increasing demands for meat products in Asia's middle class, according the BBC (May 2008).

The Consumer Price Index estimates that U.S. retail food prices increased in 2007 by only 4 percent, but this is the largest spike in 17 years-with more expected to come.

Industrial farming practices were developed when world population was only 2 billion. While these practices increased the carrying capacity of the earth then, they are slowly destroying the earth's long-term carrying capacity for today's population, which is 6.7 billion and climbing.

Over the past two decades as the industrialized food system has expanded to the global level, concerns over food safety have emerged, like the recent tainted food imports from China.

The industrialized food system has had a detrimental effect on the local economy, said Pothukuchi. Our food system should be a community-based system that revolves around small, polycultural farms that practice sustainable agriculture, preserve regional biodiversity and help build local economies. This is already being done in many ways.

First, local food networks like community gardens, food co-ops, Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA), farmers' markets, and seed savers groups keep money in the community.

Second, as more people prefer organic food products, organic farming represents a profitable alternative for local economic growth and sustainable agriculture since organic farmers tend to sell to local markets (within 150 miles). More acreage is being dedicated to organic farming. From 1997 to 2005, the number of U.S. certified organic acres grew by 63 percent, while Michigan certified organic farmland increased by 166 percent.

In actuality, the number of industrialized farms converting to organic farming methods remains steady, but small. Michigan's 45,500 certified organic acres comprise only 0.4 percent of the state's total farmland and 1 percent of the total 4,000,000 certified organic acres in the country according to the Michigan Organic Farm and Food Alliance (MOFFA). But the potential for growth is there, especially when organic food processors/handlers are figured into the economic mix. The USDA reports that there were over 3,000 organic-certified facilities nationwide in 2004, with 41 percent of those located on the Pacific Coast and almost 800 in California alone.

Local organic food is admittedly more expensive than food from large, industrialized farms, however, organic advocates claim that prices in the industrialized food system are cheap because their true cost omits governmental price supports, direct payments or tax breaks and road infrastructure.

Third, colleges and universities across the country are looking for ways to support sustainable agriculture. One way they are doing it is by supplying their cafeterias with food grown by local farmers. These institutions teach students how to grow backyard and community gardens as well as food-related careers like urban farming. Pothukuchi started an urban gardening program at Wayne State, which is distinguished as the largest inner-city campus with a comprehensive food systems program that is not run by an agriculture school.

Some areas of the state are actively recruiting youth for community-based farming careers through hands-on learning situations. The 4-H Entrepreneurs Club in Kalkaska County has youth pick and buy produce at area farms in order to sell it at five different farmers markets. There are similar programs in Detroit and Monroe County.

Fourth, regions like Grand Traverse in the northwestern lower peninsula, are rebuilding their local economies through agriculture by forming partnerships among businesspeople, economic developers, schools, grocers, restaurateurs and food retailers, reported the Great Lakes Bulletin News Service. As these partnerships work to bring more food-related jobs to the area, they not only support local farmers but they also protect precious income-producing farmlands from being overtaken by urban sprawl.

The Michigan Land Use Institute (MLUI) speculates that the Grand Traverse region could stimulate more job growth and entrepreneurship by supporting its 2,229 farms through cooperative efforts like the Food and Farm Network. Moreover, a 2006 MLUI study found that farms could generate 1,889 new jobs across the state and $187 million in new personal income by selling more fresh produce locally.

Fifth, state programs can provide yet another opportunity for local economic development, like the MDA's Agricultural Innovation Program. This competitive grant seeks to establish, retain, expand, attract or develop value-added processing and production operations in Michigan through innovative financing assistance to processors, agribusinesses, producers, local units of government and legislatively-authorized commodity boards in Michigan.

All these efforts for change, however, have barely dented the deeply-entrenched industrialized food system. Michigan residents, for example, spend $26 billion on food with only 10 percent from the state's farmers, according to a 2001 MLUI study.

"Michigan has the second most diverse agriculture in the United States [with 150 crops]," said Pothukuchi. "We could add another $2.6 billion to the state's economy if we increased production of local food by another 10 percent."

Olga Bonfiglio is a professor at Kalamazoo College in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and author of Heroes of a Different Stripe: How One Town Responded to the War in Iraq. She has written for several national magazines on the subjects of social justice and religion. Her website is Contact her at olgabonfiglio AT yahoo DOT com.