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Hear Ye, Hear Ye

Environmentalists, Christians, farmers and lunatics



This week the Journal spotlights one of the most promising and powerful ideas to have taken root on the North Coast: sustainable agriculture. It's a multifaceted idea that embodies respect for the land, honest living for the tillers, safe and nutritious food for consumers. The focal point of our coverage is a unique gathering that will be held on Saturday at Redwood Acres Fairgrounds in Eureka. The Sustainable Agriculture Expo is a two-pronged event, with a paid speech in the morning that is expected to draw several hundred farmers, food processors and activists, followed by an afternoon of free exhibits featuring advice, tools and techniques to help veterans and novices garden naturally (see box for details).

Journal readers who plan to sleep late on Saturday, or prefer not to pay, can still get a glimpse at the thinking of the event's headline speaker by reading Heidi Walters' profile of Joel Salatin, the self-described  "Christian-libertarian-environmentalist-capitalist-lunatic farmer," - who makes money using traditional crop and critter rotation.

Staffer Ryan Burns brings the good food movement home in a companion article about community gardens and how they enable those who can't afford land to grow nutritious eats -- and get the satisfaction and self worth that comes from doing for oneself.

These stories, and the expo that inspired them, invite us all to make a stronger commitment to a movement that aims to provide not just food, but justice, not merely nutrition for the consumer, but a living income for farmers.

The blueprint for this multifaceted approach to sustainable agriculture is the groundbreaking Community Food Assessment issued last fall by the California Center for Rural Policy, a think-tank affiliated with Humboldt State University.

The report's principal findings were briefly reported at the time: Nearly a quarter of Humboldt County children live in poverty; many families in outlying towns routinely go hungry; in a region of abundant produce, many people can't afford fresh food.

The 125-page report is not a lament but an action-oriented census of the local agricultural economy that points to how all of us -- local governments, business and civic leaders, tribal officials and ordinary citizens -- can strengthen the farm sector that is already one of Humboldt's most vigorous industries.

For instance, by culling county records, researchers at the Center found that 155 local farmers sell directly to the public. These direct sellers collected $1.2 million in 2007, the most recent year for which data are available; that averages out to a meager direct-selling income of just $7,742 per farmstead. On a per-capita basis, Humboldt residents spent about $9.27 each for locally grown foods in the reference year.

One quick way to help those 155 farm families would be to buy more local goods. A study done in Maine and cited by the Humboldt researchers showed that every dollar pumped into the local farm economy yielded five dollars in additional benefits to local producers. The report notes that many North Coast restaurants and institutions are doing their part, by making bulk purchases of local foods; but can more be done?

Boosting the incomes of producers may be the easier of the challenges facing the local agricultural system; delivering fresh, nutritious food to the county's hinterlands will prove the more daunting challenge. Danielle Stubblefield, the Humboldt researcher who co-authored the report, noted the obvious: Fresh produce isn't cheap to buy in part because it is costly to transport and perishable once it arrives. The rural poor don't have the purchasing power to support the refrigerated trucks and displays that make the produce aisles so appealing to affluent consumers in Arcata-Eureka or the Bay Area who can afford fresh and organic wares.

Many problems remain to be solved to make the local agriculture truly sustainable -- which means not merely being gentle on the land, nor just helping producers earn fair livings but also making sure everyone can afford to eat nutritiously. To help coordinate local efforts toward these goals the Center has coordinated the creation of a Food Policy Council made up of nearly three dozens agencies, organizations and institutions.

So enjoy this issue of the Journal and even if Saturday doesn't allow you time to visit Redwood Acres, realize that there are things we can all do -- and many of us are doing -- to promote food justice on the North Coast.

(Editor's note: visit http://bit.ly/hSLrRW to download a PDF of the Community Food Assessment.)


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