By Bonnie Sigwalt, MBA Candidate, Marlboro College Graduate School

Blogging from the “Reinventing Our Food System: Examples of Success” session presented by Vern Grubinger, Vegetable and Berry Specialist for University of Vermont Extension and Coordinator of the Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program of the USDA (NE-SARE).

I am a firm supporter of the Local Food Movement and think that supporting the production and consumption of local food through Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) and even planting a garden in your own backyard can go a long way in terms of also promoting a local economy, getting to know your neighbors better and even living healthier lives.  When Vern Grubinger asked the question “So, is Local Food the answer?” the audience (to include a number of local farmers) had very mixed feelings.  Vern had just gotten done informing us that our nation’s overall food system is controlled by about four or five extremely large companies.  Those companies not only control the processed foods found on grocery store shelves around the country, but they also control other parts of the chain to include fertilizer and seeds as well. And then a handful of other extremely large companies control the distribution and sale of this food. Our current policies and governance are structured to continue to support this Oligopoly.  Any supporter of local food enterprises would most likely already know this, but what I did not consider was the fact that the seeds, soil and fertilizer used by food producers also fall under this control.  Most non-local food costs less but does not reflect its true cost due to subsidies and cheap fuel.  Additional subsidies have allowed these large companies to transport great distances and package goods easily.  Vern then reminded us that the food spokespeople of our current food system are as artificial as the foods they are promoting: Tony the Tiger, The Pillsbury Doughboy, Green Giant to name a few.  The fact that a box of Fruit Loops cereal costs less than fruit should be a wake-up call, but then again, Fruit Loops are easier to package ship and sit in warehouses or on supermarket shelves than fruit…

The Slow Living Summit is being held in Vermont and the majority of its attendees are from the northeast where the Local Food Movement is alive and well and there is a cornucopia of local food choices.  But what does it mean to be local if you live in the middle of corn country where there may not be a lot of fresh food alternatives?  Local food works well in Vermont and it is valued, but not everywhere.  Several successful examples exist that can be replicated elsewhere and this article mentions a few of the many working models that Vern presented.  The main point of his talk was to highlight the need for more “Horizontal Networks” (lots of relationships, resiliency and redundancy built into the food system) versus “Vertical Networks” (how our food system currently operates linearly).  In Vertical Networks, farmers are at the bottom as price takers.  Horizontal Networks focus on how people relate to each other and enjoying Economies of Scope where it is just not about efficiency and maximization of profit.  In Vertical Networks it’s all about Economies of Scale and maximizing efficiency (and profit) for the top of the chain (large corporations).  The food system needs a better balance of both Horizontal and Vertical Networks.  In some cases, Vertical Networks work to a farmers advantage (in technology, for example).  Vertical Networks for lettuce (Vern pointed out), are not as good.

In Vertical Networks, the food system can look like a beef cattle feedlot or a warehouse full of chickens.  Vern stated that in speaking with a chicken farmer who had a warehouse of chicken, the farmer said this type of system was “safer” because he knew what the rules were (based on corporate guidelines handed to him or what-have-you).  But what happens when disease is introduced into this type of system?  It’s over.  You must destroy thousands of animals and have no where to properly dispose of them. Horizontal Networks don’t take the risk of “placing all the eggs in one basket”.  As in a healthy ecosystem, when you spread the system out in lots of different pieces (e.g., permaculture techniques, CSAs, etc.), there is a lot less risk and a lot more safety.

Since farmers in Vermont cannot necessarily control the Vertical Market, they have done a lot of creative things to move to a more Horizontal construct.  Take for example the “localization of milk”.  Vermont has lowered the property taxes for agricultural use value and people recognizing the added value of “local milk” are willing to pay premiums for it as well as voluntary electricity premiums for “cow power” (electricity generated from cow waste).  CSAs and Farmer’s Markets are on the rise creating a greater demand for food grown closer to home.  Food growers are using different approaches to “scale up” by creating farm cooperatives such as The Pioneer Valley Growers Association in Massachusetts and the Deep Root Organic Co-op in Vermont.

Alternatively, other farms are scaling down and finding ways to get food directly to the consumer.  Dairy farmers are returning to the old-school milk bottle with their names on to distinguish themselves from other milk producers.  Some are even going so far as bringing back milk (and even cheese) deliveries directly to homes.  These types of offerings not only bring a premium to farmers’ products, but also introduce a host of challenges not necessarily seen on a Vertical Networked farm.  Now you are not just a dairy farmer, but you are a producer, packager, truck driver, marketer, etc.  Groups of farmers are using “co-packing” techniques in order to create horizontal brands with added value: Maine’s Own Organic Milk (10 organic farms in northern ME)and Rhody Fresh (8 RI Farms) milk are some examples of this.

The list goes on and on with examples of how to create food enterprises that create more Horizontal Networks, and we were reminded by Vern that ‘beavers build their lodges one bite at a time’ so don’t be overwhelmed by the amount of work that needs to be done. While it does take time to build relationships with your community and partnerships with others who you may have once viewed as your competition, it is these relationships and partnerships that will help reinvent our food system into the healthy, thriving, transparent, resilient system it needs to be in order to sustain us. Let’s start talking to each other and collaborating to find out which of these working models can be replicated into our communities.