Buy into local food: Investing in our farming systems

September is a month for food lovers to savor with the harvest at its peak and a smorgasbord of events for THRIVE's Eat Local month. It's also a great time to reflect on fragilities in our local food system and how to address them.

I recently returned to Ashland after moving to Pennsylvania for a short time. Living elsewhere opened my eyes to the rare bounty we have, and the need to protect and build it. In Pennsylvania, I was lucky to find one organic producer that delivered — over an hour away. Such delights are just a bike ride away at our incredible growers markets and farms. Organic and sustainable practices are widespread, allowing us to nourish ourselves healthfully and sustain community health and the environment.

Behind this bucolic picture however, lie real challenges. Farmers often live on a shoestring, and they're becoming a rare commodity as successive generations seek more viable work. We're lucky to have a fresh crop of young famers in the Valley. It's important to support them and inspire more, since current production represents a fraction of our total needs. Buying local food is a key step, but we can also volunteer, helping farmers reduce operating costs.

Additionally, many farmers can't afford to buy land, so they pour significant resources into rented property they could lose if the landowner sells. We must set aside farmland for the long term, particularly by investing in land trusts and long-term leases.

Such investments many not deliver the immediate financial returns of land sold for development. Yet, long-term yields are far greater, considering the value of food that could be grown, jobs that would be created, food security and environmental preservation. THRIVE and the Friends of Family Farmers are working to develop tools to enable farmland trusts locally. White Oak Farm in Williams, protected under a conservation easement and held in a land trust, shows how these are a win-win for all.

With food recalls mounting, our economy struggling and food companies centralizing control of our daily bread, protecting our ability to produce our food is critical. And it just tastes better! Let's do more than buy local. Let's grow local food systems by asking farmers how we can invest our resources to reap a delicious, healthful, sustained harvest for people, the planet and the economy.

Melissa Schweisguth consults on corporate social responsibility/sustainability and works for the Food Trade Sustainability Leadership Association. She moved to Ashland in 2004 and recently moved back after a stint in Hershey, Penn.

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