Last month I reported on the dynamic state of organic agriculture in Vermont, and wondered about the state of our local food supply. I have investigated, and the good news is that it’s better than I thought. The bad news is, it’s still got a long way to go—but the good news is, plenty of people are aware of this and are doing all they can to improve the situation.
Back in the eighties, when I went broke trying to grow organic apples here in middle Tennessee, I was involved with TAGA, the Tennessee Alternative Growers Association. We called it “alternative” because we wanted to be an umbrella group for anyone who wanted to produce food for their area rather than for the national/international food distribution system, whether they were growing organically or not. We were a small group, with a lot of people moving through the organization as they tried, and failed, to make a living growing vegetables, herding cows, goats, and /or chickens, or, in my case, breaking into the apple business. There’s an old saw about a farmer who won a million dollars and was asked what he intended to do with it. “Farm ’till the money runs out” was his reply. Been there, done that.
At the time, I was up against a limited market. If I had ever produced enough apples to, on paper, make a profit, I could tell from my sales that I would have a hard time moving them all in middle Tennessee. Back then, it was big news when Sunshine Grocery, Nashville’s premier hippie organic food store, went from a hole in the wall on Division Street to what seemed like amazingly spacious digs on Belmont Ave., but I couldn’t sell them enough apples to stay in business. I was cut out of selling to major chain groceries by their requirement that I carry a million dollars in product liability insurance. Besides, Tennessee-grown organic apples look funny next to waxed fruit. I went to ”food fairs” at various church parking lots, where, over the course of a few years, I went from selling apples by the bushel to selling apples by the pound as people quit canning, and I occasionally sold at what was then an outer circle of Dante’s Inferno, the Nashville Farmers’ Market, where the main question seemed to be how cheaply I could be persuaded to sell my fruit, and the attitude around organics recalled an orchardist friend of mine who put a sign out on his road advertising ”ORGANIC APPLES” and was deluged with people stopping to buy oranges.
But that was the seventies and the eighties, and now it’s another century, and the organic food sector is the only growing part of the grocery business. Here in Nashville, Wild Oats bought out Sunshine Grocery, opened a store six or seven times the size of Sunshine, and did a land office business. Whole Foods swallowed up Wild Oats and traffic to the organic superstore has exceeded their wildest expectations, while across town the Turnip Truck thrives with a more basic selection of foods and a lower-pressure environment, and Plumgood Foods offers delivery for those who haven’t got time to shop. The Nashville Farmers’ Market has been reinvented, and, though some of the old miasma remains, it is a much more inviting place for farmers and retail customers alike. A new publication called ‘‘Local Table” lists about a hundred local producers of vegetables, fruits, milk, eggs, meat, and grains. A quarter of them are organic. An outfit called Greener Nashville offers networking among all phases of the sustainability movement, from food to Green politics to green building. At another local level, the City of Nashville sponsors community gardens. Eight are up and running, and two more are in the works. There need to be dozens or maybe hundreds more, in my opinion. .
Meanwhile, the word ”organic” has fallen prey to government regulations. Due to the human tendency to cheat, these rules are pretty fussy. An organic grower is supposed to record every time he enters a field and what he does there. Organic certification costs big enough bucks that between that and the record keeping involved, it is sometimes easier for a small grower with an established customer base to forego certification and work with his trusted customers; unfortunately, this lack of certification works against anyone who is trying to sell to a store or processor who wants to be able to advertise its wares as “certified organic.”
I spent an hour and half talking with local food activists Scott Weiss and Laura Button to refresh my overview of the middle Tennessee food situation. The market for local and organic food has expanded, but it is a long way from mature. In Vermont, we see a statewide organic growers association affiliated with a regional organic association. This regional-state partnership helps its members co-ordinate their production, do bulk fertilizer buys, organize a sellers’ co-op (Deep Root Organics) to deal with large wholesalers, create processing facilities, route usable but unsalable produce to charites, and successfully lobby the state government to create incentives for bringing local, organic food into schools and other governmental institutitons. There is nothing like that in Tennessee. TAGA has been replaced by TOGA, the Tennessee Organic Growers’ Association, which is run by and for the farmers, but they are too busy farming to tackle the wider organizational issues. They haven’t even updated their website since before last spring’s conference! Well, maybe by the time you check it out, they will have…..they’ve been busy, like I said, because….
For the most part, demand is far outstripping supply here in middle Tennessee. There are seventeen CSA farms in the area, and all report being overwhelmed. A CSA, in case you didn’t know, is a farm operation that is supported by pre-season payments from its customers. In return for money up front, these customers receive a guaranteed quantity of produce every week, with the variety dependent on what is in season and how abundant it is.
Laura Button, of Journey to Bliss Raw Foods, tells me she can get more local broccoli than she can handle for a few weeks, and then has to bring it in from California or do without. As a gardener, I know you can grow broccoli through a wider season than that, but it takes careful planning. Nobody in this area is quite enough of a broccoli specialist to meet her needs—yet.
On the other end, there are crops going begging. Jeff Poppen, of Long Hungry Creek Farm, a pioneer organic grower in middle Tennessee, can easily grow more winter squash and kale than he can sell. These former staple foods are out of fashion, but some of what is needed is processing—people may not know what to do with a raw squash, but cook it, mash it up with some local butter and honey and serve it like mashed potatoes or bake it in a pie shell, and I’m willing to bet it will be eaten. Kale and other leafy greens may take a major public education program—but getting more people to eat more of them will reduce the cost of health care and the need for Viagra.
There is a new organization in middle Tennessee that aims to provide overview and co-ordination, although it has not fully stepped into those shoes yet. Founded in August of 2006 by a broad coaliton that starts with the Vanderbilt Institute for Public Policy Studies and the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhoods and runs through the spectrum to Eaton’s Creek Organics and Earth Matters Tennessee, Food Security Partners of Middle Tennessee, according to its website, aims to ”bring people together to create and sustain a secure and healthy food system for their region, from production to consumption. We envision a Middle Tennessee in which all community residents obtain a safe, culturally acceptable, nutritionally adequate diet through a sustainable food system that maximizes community self-reliance and social justice.
”For years, many individuals, community organizations, and businesses worked steadily, yet often in isolation, to address the problem of food insecurity in Middle Tennessee. The Food Security Partners connect these dots through networking and professional development opportunities, a focus on catalyzing collaborative projects, a food security awareness campaign, and a yearly summit to cultivate a shared agenda for changing the food system. We have over 100 partners and members who are committed to sharing information and resources to promote a food system that benefits everyone. ”
Wow. I’ve been nervous about the long supply line we’re on and wondering why somebody wasn’t doing something, and I come to find quite a few somebodies are concerned and working on the problem. I wish them success. I’m going to do what I can to make local food sustainability work. It’s going to take a lot of inspiring, educating, and organizing, but having an organizational framework and solid backers is the way to begin. To build on this foundation, they’re going to need all the help they can get. Got some time?