Risk-free local food

Barbara Kingsolver’s new book, Animal Vegetable Miracle is a paean to a year of growing and eating local food at her family’s new home in the Appalachian region where she grew up. In the book, Kingsolver writes with admiration and hope about Appalachian Harvest, a network of organic family farmers who distribute and market their goods to area supermarkets. I looked up the organization on the web, and saw that the Appalachian Harvest packing facility was destroyed in a fire a few weeks ago. The group has resolved to keep going through this growing season (they’re taking donations to rebuild). The contrast between the Kingsolver family adventure and the Appalachian Harvest’s disaster got me thinking about the strengths and weaknesses of the “Miracle” approach.
The Kingsolver family experiment took hard work. The family grew most of its own produce in a large garden. Much of their protein came from the chickens and turkeys they raised. The subsistence gardening required many hours of weeding, mulching, picking, canning, drying and home cooking, not to mention sex therapy for turkeys that have been nearly bred out of the instincts of breeding. Meanwhile, Barbara continued to worked as a writer for magazines, her husband Steven is a professor of environmental studies, and their daughter Camille’s was college-bound high school senior. The combination of subsistence gardening and day jobs made for long days. The experiment in local provision also brought many pleasures; forgotten rituals of neighborhood harvesting, the craft and sensory pleasures of home cooking, the family meals, the connections at the farmer’s market, the awareness of the seasons.
The experiment comes across as less of a stunt than Manhattan’s No Impact Man, who is blogging about his family’s experiment in a 19th floor apartment without grid electricity, elevator, plumbing, or toilet paper. The Kingsolver family began their experiment already experienced with gardening, household chickens, home cooking, baking, and preserving. The No Impact family are novices at the subsistence skills. They tried home composting and got flies. They tried gardening and killed the plants. (But they’ve got a book deal, a movie deal, and a Good Morning America gig).
The Kingsolver crew didn’t try to go off the system entirely. They have grid electricity, drove a hybrid car, and bought coffee, spices, and some nonlocal wheat flour. As a young adult, Barbara Kingsolver when through times on food stamps, and had no interest, to her credit, in revisiting poverty and hardship.
The No Impact family’s choices are far too extreme to be a role model. The Kingsolver lifestyle in its entirety is beyond the skills and lifestyle of most Americans, but it is close enough to serve as a model to learn from. More people could buy good food economically at farmers markets, which would create a bigger, more viable market for local organic farming. It would be a greater shift, but more people could garden in cities and suburbs.
The Kingsolver local food project was practical, given the skills and economic resources of the family. It was also lucky and risk-free. The weather was good, the harvest was bountiful. The vegetables, fruit and meat preserved in August carried the family all the way through the winter. The animals were healthy and the turkeys learned to reproduce. There was no drought, flood, fire, or pestilence. And if there had been, the family had income and savings. They could have replaced what they lost and headed to the supermarket.
Barbara Kingsolver’s tale of a year of living locally is romantic, heartwarming, lyrical. It is the home gardeners version of Henry David Thoreau, who had the freedom to tramp in the exurban woods around Concord when on break from serving as the steward, handyman and tutor for Ralph Waldo Emerson’s household.
The organic farmers of Appalachian Sustainable Development don’t have the same economic security. With the decline of tobacco, local farmers are trying to make a living by branding and packaging their food for supermarket customers. The packaging plant fire has put their livelihoods at risk.
The classic stories of American agriculture show even greater risks. Willa Cather and Edna Ferber wrote classic novels about the drudgery, drought, loneliness, hunger and despair of people who tried to make a living from the land.
Eating locally produced food, as subsistence or local market farmers has many virtues. It is more sustainable than the long-distance system we have now, which wastes vast amounts of fossil fuel, degrades soil and water, and is causing an epidemic of obesity and diabetes. We could stand to be a lot more local than we are today.
But when humans have no choices other than local consumption and local markets, the result throughout history is periodic starvation. The ability to transport and trade takes the edge off the risks. Valuing local food is good; worshipping it is excessive.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *