Saturday, February 28, 2009


Over the last 15 years or so, watersheds have become the primary planning unit for a variety of land use and environmental management decisions. Defined as an area that is drained by a particular river or stream, watersheds are a useful way for dividing geography into regions that share a common thread. Watershed planning has been particularly useful in land conservation.

Foodsheds are an emerging planning tool that adapts the watershed approach to a community's food supply. Unlike watersheds, foodsheds are difficult to define on a map, in part because particular food outlets within a single community may have very different foodsheds. For example, the foodshed for the Auburn farmer's market today includes portions of western Placer County, southern Yuba County, and even northern San Joaquin County and the Pacific Coast. By contrast, the foodshed for Auburn's Belair supermarket is global - it includes fruits and vegetables from Central and South America, salmon from the Atlantic Ocean, lamb from New Zealand and grain-based products from the Midwest.

Like watersheds, foodsheds can be evaluated for their existing conditions. They can also be modified to achieve a more desirable condition. For example, the ecological cost (in fossil fuels, pesticides and environmental degradation) involved in shipping fruits and vegetables halfway around the world is enormous. While some may argue that modifying this foodshed requires government action, I believe that modifying our own eating habits is equally, if not more important. Do we really need to eat table grapes this time of year? At the farmer's market today, I'll be able to purchase naval and blood oranges grown in Newcastle, mandarins grown in Penryn, grapefruit grown in Loomis and apples grown in Lodi. By the time I tire of citrus, I'll be able to get local cherries and strawberries. Eating with the season is a big step towards a more sustainable (and more local) foodshed.

Another step towards a more sustainable foodshed is to make more efficient use of the land around us for growing food. As I drive around Placer County, I'm struck by the amount of land that could produce food but is currently idle. In years past, towns like Auburn and Colfax were surrounded by small farms - they could be again. What are missing are the farmers - we've lost at least one generation of people with knowledge of how to work the land. This need is why many of us have created farm internships - we get some help in exchange for sharing our knowledge about farming.

Over the next several months, I'm going to be working on the foodshed idea as an approach to conserving local farmland and food production. I'd be very interested in hearing other perspectives!

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