Food system failures in 2018 and subsequent recalls in North America included massive quantities of romaine lettuce from the Yuma Arizona growing region; 200 million white eggs distributed by Rose Acres Farms from a farm in North Carolina; and Kellogg’s voluntarily recalled 1.3 million cases of Kellogg’s Honey Smacks. People got sick and some died.
Local organic food movements offer an alternative to the large scale, impersonal, industrial food system and are like seeds of hope. Communities are embracing concepts such as knowing where your food comes from, knowing about food safety and knowing your farmers. Food safety remains a priority and a challenge in the local movement as well. Consumers should be aware of safe food handling practices at all times.
Mary Hutten, volunteer manager of the Lettuce Eat Well Farmers’ Market on Cincinnati’s West Side, fell in love with the local food movement so that she and her family could eat well and have choices such as a diet with “no synthetic chemicals.” Mary’s job brings local consumers and local producers together and values the community building aspect of a farmers’ market. Conversations about flexibility, creativity and alternatives abound. Concepts such as eating seasonally and eating regionally have become pervasive.
To prepare for scarcity, Mary invites us to preserve the abundant local harvest as it comes in. Canning, jarring, freezing and fermenting offer opportunities to save and store. Enjoy a jar of August harvested Ohio sweet corn in the middle of February. Imagine tasting thawed June harvested local strawberries at Christmas dinner.
Steve Willis, farmer and owner with his wife, Barb, of Just Farmin’ in Butler County, grew up on a farm. He left agriculture for a career in manufacturing engineering but returned to his roots in 2010 as he and Barb started Just Farmin’ in their backyard. They were inspired to act by seeing their children suffer from allergies due to eating processed foods purchased at grocery stores.
The Willises now grow vegetable crops at two farms and sell directly to consumers and restaurants. Year-round production is enabled using multiple high-tunnel hoop houses. Steve is integrating 30 years of engineering experience with modern, sustainable and natural agriculture practices. Steve and Barb aggregate select production from other farmers they know and trust to reduce risk and offer their customers greater choice.
According to Steve, “You can get paralyzed thinking about preventing failure. You don’t want to design something with holes in it. You can’t see all possible ways something might fail. You cannot control Mother Nature, but you can plan systems to reduce risk, such as by crop rotation, cover crop protection and, if possible, by growing indoors in protected hoop houses.”
Steve and other farmers consider the impact of insects, disease, temperature, wind, sun and rain on crops. Sustainable agricultural practices can break disease and insect cycles by using natural methods and avoiding chemicals, poisons and pesticides. Natural remedies include attracting birds and beneficial insects to the farm property. Steve recommends only using Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI) listed products, if necessary, for fertilizer or pest control to help protect crops, Mother Earth and our bodies from harmful chemicals.
Bethany McCarty, former farm manager at the Procter Center and currently the business development manager at a certified organic farm in central Ohio, grew up on a four-acre farm and helped her dad grow vegetables including pumpkins, tomatoes, corn and peppers. She also helped him sell at Saturday farmers’ markets. To this day, farmers’ markets remind Bethany of family, friends, warm relationships and community. An Agriculture Education degree from Ohio State University led to early work in education and then to the Farm Manager position at Procter.
Bethany says farmers “can always learn something from failure. Without failure, you don’t grow as much. You can learn more from one failure than multiple successes. We learned to diversify, so that if a wet season ruins a portion of crops, we can rely on animals such as broiler chickens or eggs to make our income and sustain the farm. You then learn what to do better next year.”
Reflecting on how her faith tradition inspires her in the local food movement, Mary notes, “My heart goes out to our farmers. They struggle with weather, varmints and insects to feed us and make at or below minimum wage for their efforts. We are here to help one another. Have compassion and understanding for farmers in the local organic movement. Support them at local farmers’ markets and buy from their CSA programs.”
Steve adds, “We embrace giving back. We have a zero-waste philosophy and share surplus crops with Bethany United Methodist Church. For example, during our tomato harvest season, volunteers at the church cooked up large batches of spaghetti sauce to feed hungry kids in downtown Hamilton.”
“I feel called by God to do what I am doing,” said Bethany. “I love it when friends ask, ‘how do I start a garden in my backyard?’ I loved giving tours of the farm to families at Procter. It feeds my passion for education and farming. I feel called to share what I have learned to help feed the world, so that no one goes hungry.”
Mary, Steve and Bethany all agree, “Sometimes you just need to pray.” Local farmers and farmers’ markets may not be able to compete with Walmart or Kroger on price, but you will love the friendships, relationships, passion, knowledge sharing, fruits, vegetables, honey, eggs and meat that they can bring to our table.
Is failure inevitable? Our response to failure is what matters. Can we learn from our own mistakes, the mistakes of others and of the past? For some, fear of failure is a great motivator. For others, lessons in failure help create backup plans to the primary backup plan. So ‘lettuce all’ embrace diversity, flexibility, preparedness, cooperation and compassion. Fall in love with the local food movement. You will be energized during the day and sleep better at night.
Mike Eck is a food justice advocate and is actively involved in the local organic food movement in southwest Ohio. Mike and his wife, Denise, are members of Christ Church, Glendale.