Farmers debate effects of fuel on food

by Beacon Staff • September 28, 2005

Emerson students have the opportunity to eat healthy and become involved with their local community by supporting farmers' markets, which are raising awareness of the benefits of locally grown food versus nationally transported produce.

It is likely that food costs are not going to escape unscathed from the fuel shortage due to the recent hurricanes. According to Whole Foods Markets, Inc., one of the largest natural and organic grocery stores, produce travels on average 1,500 miles before it reaches the dinner plate. Even President Bush is feeling the fossil fuel pinch. On Tuesday he asked Americans to try to conserve gas by commuting to work. But he also said, "We're willing to use the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to mitigate any shortfalls in crude oil that could affect our consumers."

Before we jump down that path, buying local and regionally produced food is one viable alternative to dependence on national and international imports since it would greatly reduce the amount of fuel expended in shipping.

Shopping at farmers' markets is not just about helping to ease gas usage-it is also a unique way to interact with the local population and community. The Federation of Massachusetts Farmers' Markets (FMFM), a nonprofit organization founded in 1978, has worked for years to assist local farmers and revitalize neighborhoods by supporting farmers' markets throughout Massachusetts. The Metropolitan Boston Markets and the FMFM have helped establish 30 different farmers' markets throughout the Boston area alone.

Many vendors are on a first name basis with their customers in Boston. The white stalls at the Government Center farmers' market, packed with fresh seasonal produce, are often stuffed with people asking advice about the quality and taste of the heirloom tomatoes or the best mix of salad greens. The customers interact within the marketplace as if they were attending an event rather than shopping for the evening meal.

Amitha Raman, a sophomore marketing communications major, said she enjoyed the experience of going to farmers' markets because of the prices and value of the food.

"You can sit there and talk to the people who grow your food," Raman said. "You can get so much more for your money ... [and] there's a big difference in taste."

Kate Stillman, 24, of Stillman Greenhouses and Farmstand from Lunenburg, Mass., is one of many growers at the markets and has a bachelor's degree in plant and soil sciences with a concentration in horticulture from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She said that her father, owner Glenn Stillman, told her the oil crisis of the 1970s "put farmers' markets on the map" because the rise in gas prices made locally grown food a more economical choice.

Andy Pollock, 41, is the owner of Silverbrook Farm in Dartmouth, Mass. The farm is certified organic by Baystate Organic Certifiers, a United States Department of Agriculture National Organic Program accredited certifier. Pollock agreed that supporting local sustainable farms is important and emphasized why he has decided to grow organically in spite of the red tape. He pays $700 annually to keep his certification, he said. The BOC inspects the farm's records, invoices, seeds, field activity, whether there is a buffer zone (a 50-yard buffer zone is required if a farm is next to a conventional field) and pest management.

"I think it's the right thing to do," Pollock said. "It's the right way to farm."

Pollock listed three reasons as to why a farm should be organic: the quality of the soil and the environment, the safety of the farmers, workers and animals in the fields and the types of chemicals that are found in foods today.

"When you're buying organic, you're buying safety for the workers," Pollock said. "I pay fair wages for everyone."

Stillman agreed that one of the pivotal aspects of farms and farmers' markets is that the money generated stays within the local community and economy. Her family's farm is not certified organic, but they use as few chemicals on their crops as possible, Stillman said.

"My father won't use anything where his kids can't go out and grab an apple off the tree," Stillman said.

Many shoppers are unaware that organic farms use chemicals on their crops, although they only use chemicals that are naturally occurring, while conventional farms use synthetically produced chemicals. Strangely enough, the body cannot tell the difference between the two types of chemicals, Stillman said. When the produce grown on larger industrial farms in California is shipped to Boston, the organic and conventional produce goes through the same post-harvest treatment to preserve freshness, which is unnatural, Stillman said.

"I don't think it's as important to distinguish between organic and conventional [farms] ... it's between local versus national," Stillman said. "It's all relative. What's it costing us to truck organic food from California? Quantify the cost."

Whole Foods Markets supports local farmers and advocates buying locally grown produce in their stores. Their Web site (www.wholefoodsmarkets.com) has a "Top Ten Reasons To Buy Local" list that includes the fresh taste of tree ripened produce, supporting the local economy and community and buying produce with the seasons.

Jeffrey Hart, 32, associate produce team leader at the Whole Foods Market on River Street in Cambridge, said that the amount of local and regional produce available in the store ranges between 10 and 20 percent, but that it fluctuates yearly because of various factors like weather, season and supply.

"We carry as much as we possibly can," Hart said. "We're waiting on local apples and pears. [The farmers] say they have an abundant apple crop but it's late this year."

While the grocer is promoting the purchase of local and regional farmers' crops in their stores, customers are buying food from a supermarket. They continue to stock many organic and conventional foods customers crave that are not seasonal and generally come from California, such as pineapples, watermelons, mangos and avocados.

Stillman said that just because something is organic does not necessarily mean it is entirely natural to be able to eat it year round. She gave the example of strawberries at this time of year.

"It's not natural," Stillman said. "We should just start to learn to live without strawberries."

Some students may wonder if it is possible to eat seasonal crops, but there are plenty of locally grown apples, pears and squash at this time of year. Kale, chard and many different kinds of lettuce are available throughout the summer and early fall.

Also, produce can always be frozen for a later date, Stillman said. "I froze two bushels of green beans yesterday,"she said.

Stillman said, however, that she sometimes takes a trip to the grocery store because it is convenient.

It can be difficult with a busy lifestyle to juggle such concepts of local versus national or organic versus conventional. The confusion, however, cannot cloud reality: our country produces 25 percent of the world's green house gases and even President Bush-who ironically is reluctant to admit global warming exists-is calling for Americans to "pitch in" by changing their

fuel guzzling habits. Farmers' markets can offer one opportunity for students to take responsibility for their part in the world by embracing that old phrase, "think globally, act locally."

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