Five days after Hurricane Sandy, my local greenmarket in Brooklyn was in nearly full flower. Everywhere I went, citizens were asking food producers, or their hired hands, “Is your farm OK?” Largely, they were. (The fishmonger was absent, dealing with storm-related damage to his boats.) Kira Kinney of Evolutionary Organics, a small farm 90 miles north of the city, told me how strange it felt "to be here as if nothing happened when, to the south, there’s devastation. Last year it was me.” In the wake of Irene, the only thing Kinney was selling were pastel drawings of the vegetables that were underwater in her fields.
For years, locavores have maintained that food travels, on average, 1,500 miles from farm to plate -- a compelling reason, they say, to encourage eating foods grown and raised closer to home. (The data to support this claim aren’t abundant or recent, however; and the original supposition measured U.S. food that was traveling to Chicago. Your own results may vary.) But certain climate events -- Hurricane Sandy, which slammed into the metro New York area last week; Hurricane Irene, which hit the Northeast in 2011; and the intense floods, droughts, and heat waves that have been occurring in the rest of the country over the last few years -- raise some questions about the wisdom of clipping our supply lines too short.
Hurricane Sandy did wipe out many farms to the city’s southwest and east, but New York’s hyper-local upland farms -- in the backyards of brownstones and on rooftops -- fared slightly better (though many beekeepers lost their bees). Farms near the water’s edge, unsurprisingly, did worse. At Manhattan’s southern tip, the Battery Urban Farm was inundated with saltwater from upper New York Harbor, while Brooklyn's Red Hook Community Farm was flooded with up to four feet of water from Erie Basin and the Gowanus Canal, a Superfund site that also overwhelmed a fuel-oil depot down the street. Along with 30 other volunteers, I spent several hours on Saturday raking fouled wood chips and hay from the 2.5-acre garden and carting tons of sodden, polluted debris to the street corner, where sanitation workers would later collect it for landfill disposal. Rural farmers, I imagined, would kill to have all this free labor -- a huge advantage, one supposes, of putting down roots in the social-media heartland.
Walking among the bounty of the farmer's market, which doesn’t sell hyperlocal produce, and thinking about the storm’s winner and losers, I reviewed the benefits of a regional food network. It provides economic sustenance to nearby farmers who, in turn, preserve open space for ecosystem services and wildlife habitat. It increases the traceability of food. And it brings us produce that's fresher, and might very well taste better, than food that has been hauled long distance. (At the very least, local food is grown to be eaten, not shipped.)
While I was speaking with farmers, Corbin Laedlein, the youth empowerment program coordinator for the Red Hook Community Farm, was giving voice to these ideas on the radio program Democracy Now. “[M]any people argue that local farms are the solution,” he said. “You know, our industrial agriculture system is based on using fossil fuels for pesticides, and natural gas. We ship food all across the country. And it just doesn’t make sense. We need to localize production to reduce our carbon footprint.”
Well ... yes and no.
A hundred years ago, a superstorm could easily have wiped out regional agriculture and left residents eating storage crops until merchants could import other food. Today, storm-wracked metro-area residents can shop at supermarkets, which mostly buy their produce at the Hunts Point Produce Market in the South Bronx. (I recently visited the market -- the largest distributor of fruits and vegetables in the world -- while reporting for the OnEarth cover story, “Fresh Food for All.”) Hunts Point buys from 55 countries and 49 states; but only four percent of its produce is grown in New York State, with another 14 percent coming from New Jersey. Thank goodness, I say, for a geographical diversity of producers, for long-haul refrigerated trucks, and for the fuel to keep them running. (Yes, the system depends on fossil fuel for now -- but in the future, it could very well run on electric or other low-emissions vehicles.)
As global warming strengthens the intensity of storms and brings more unpredictable and extreme weather, diversifying our food sources and creating some redundancy will increase our stability. “We need to optimize the local and the regional, but integrate it with national and global trade,” says Michael Hamm, director of the Center for Regional Food Systems at Michigan State University. “First, we’ll need that food in times of crisis; second, cities as big as New York can’t grow enough locally to feed themselves; and third, if regional farms, which could be producing a lot more, optimize their capacity, they’ll be able to supply other areas in time of need -- a sort of quid pro quo.”
Hamm lives in Michigan, where an early spring and a late frost wiped out 95 percent of this year’s cherry and apple harvest. “If we depended only on local supplies, local processing companies that make jams and pies would have gone out of business. Instead, those companies immediately contracted with Poland for fruit.” It takes a global village, indeed.
And here’s another reason local connections matter: last year, in the weeks following Hurricane Irene, visitors to New York City greenmarkets donated more than $100,000 to 25 upstate farmers in distress. This year, farmers and their customers at the market were donating apples, kale, Brussels sprouts, and potatoes for delivery to hard-hit coastal areas on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, in Brooklyn’s Red Hook, and in Queens' Rockaways.
“A regional food network is all about relationships with people,” Cheryl Huber, an assistant director at GrowNYC, the nonprofit that operates the city’s green markets, told me. “This storm hit the city, and now upstate farmers are asking how they can help by donating food through City Harvest,” a hunger charity. Some upstate farmers even brought fuel into the city, Huber said, so that GrowNYC vans, which had trouble finding gasoline, could service the greenmarkets. “There are relationships here, between rural and urban, that do not exist in other parts of the nation. And these relationships help keep money in the community” instead of sending it off to a supermarket’s corporate headquarters in some distant state.
Clearly, the nation needs to increase its resilience to big storms -- by shoring up infrastructure, for example, and by softening shorelines. Farmers can build buffers around fields and adopt such practices as conservation tillage, mixed cropping, and nitrogen-fixing cover crops, which tend to increase, rather than decrease, their soil’s ability to withstand weather extremes. Optimizing our regional farms will help provide more food security to more people in a less certain future. But we’re still going to need those connections to farms that lie farther afield.
Image: Alec Perkins/Flickr