Does the Local Food Chain Have a Weak Link?

Posted on Wednesday, August 5th, 2009 at 9:41 am by makennagoodman

On Saturday evening in central Vermont, a group of small-scale farmers sat around a picnic table to bid goodbye to one of their apprentices. It was a beautiful evening; sunny after weeks of rain, warm after weeks of chill, fresh food from the farm, and neighbor farmers to help cut the cake. But underneath this sense of calm satisfaction of local summer harvests, lay a deep sense of despair. The tomato and potato blight had ruined their year’s harvest, and for these guys, lost them more then $5,000.

According to Lynn Byczynski, author of The Flower Farmer: An Organic Grower’s Guide to Raising and Selling Cut Flowers, and editor and publisher of Growing for Market, a national magazine for local food producers, the blight came earlier this year than usual. Why? Because of the failures of our local food system, for one:

From Growing For Market:

There’s irony in the fact that many backyard gardeners who wanted to grow their own food — the ultimate in local, as they say — went to big-box retailers to buy vegetable transplants started a thousand miles away. The irony is made bitter by the fact that those transplants are now being blamed for an epidemic of plant disease that is devastating farms and gardens all over the Northeast and mid-Atlantic. The disease is late blight, which is a common problem in August and September for tomato and potato growers throughout the United States. But it has never appeared as early as this year — mid-June — nor spread as far, with crop losses reported from Maine to South Carolina and as far west as Ohio and West Virginia.

Hundreds of tomato and potato fields are being plowed down in an attempt to stop the spread of the disease, causing tremendous financial hardship to farms that are already struggling from cold, rainy weather. The customers of those farms will have to buy their tomatoes and potatoes from someplace else, possibly someplace a long way from being local.

William Fry, professor of plant pathology at Cornell University, told the New York Times that one cause of the rapid spread of the disease was hundreds of thousands of tomato plants sold at Wal-Mart, Lowe’s, Home Depot and Kmart stores, grown at a Bonnie Plants greenhouse in the South. Bonnie Plants recalled all remaining tomato plants from the retailers on June 26, a move that a company spokesman said cost more than $1 million in sales. The company also denied liability for the spread of the disease, saying that only five of the recalled plants showed signs of late blight. Whether there is any culpability in this incident is not the point. The issue is that the plant distribution system is much like the food distribution system and is, therefore, a weak link in the local food chain.

Bonnie Plants started 91 years ago in Alabama as a grower of field-grown vegetable plants for Southern farmers. Over the years, it switched to potted plant production and expanded, but still remained a regional supplier. In the 1980s, as mass-market garden centers proliferated, Bonnie Plants “saw an opportunity to increase sales at an even greater pace,” according to the company’s web site. “In 2009, we have 62 greenhouse production facilities located in 38 different states. 450 sales reps service over 13,000 accounts…throughout the United States…” In other words, this local, family business grew itself into a behemoth. That’s the inevitable result of big corporate retailers demanding huge volume of homogenous products. It’s tough for a small, family-owned greenhouse operation to supply enough plants for even one Home Depot or Wal-Mart, let alone an entire region’s worth. And so small greenhouse businesses don’t even try; instead, they find a niche as retail garden centers. Or they go out of business.

Similarly, supermarket chains demand volume that only a very large company can supply, and so we have food safety problems like the spinach contamination of 2006, in which the deadly E. coli pathogen occurred in a field in California. The spinach harvested from that field was mixed with spinach from other farms, then washed, bagged and shipped all over the United States. Ultimately, 103 people were hospitalized, 35 suffered acute kidney failure, and four died. Or consider Tanimura & Antle, the Salinas, CA, vegetable grower. It found Salmonella in one lot of Romaine lettuce in late July, and issued a voluntary recall. The recalled lettuce was sold in retail, wholesale and food service establishments in Canada, Puerto Rico, and all 50 states. One lot of lettuce.

Consumers are looking for a new system, a safer system. They intuitively recognize that buying food at the local farmers market, or direct from a farm CSA, is smarter and safer than buying from a big grower shipping from the other side of the continent. The increase in consumer demand has created new opportunities for farmers and aspiring farmers to sell more local food than this country has seen in decades. The late blight epidemic serves as yet another reminder that we need to do more to restore food security and rebuild local commerce in our communities. Perhaps the transplant problems will create another opportunity, for local greenhouses growing plants to sell to local gardeners and farmers. When that happens, we may be able to stake a claim to true local food, from planting to plate.

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