Wednesday, August 31, 2011

A Shepherd's Perspective on Local Food Systems

We recently received a request to supply 360 lamb rib chops for an event in Placer County.  Seems the folks putting on the event love lamb chops and wanted to support local producers.  While I appreciate the support, I find myself troubled by what this order implies about the state of our local food system.  As a society, we have become accustomed to being able to purchase any type of food at any time of the year.  We fail to consider the repercussions of this approach to buying food locally from small scale producers.  The more I think about it, the more I believe that local food system means more than just eating in season and shopping at the farmers’ market.  A successful local food system requires collaboration between eaters and farmers – between supply and demand.

Our “eat anything at any time” system of food distribution relies on commodity scale production – “You want lamb chops, we’ve got ‘em – how many do you need?”  To fill an order for 360 rib chops, we would need to process 23 lambs.  While the $1,100 this order would generate in income for me would be nice, I would need to market 46 legs of lamb, 368 loin chops, 92 boneless shoulder roasts, 46 sirloin roasts, 92 lamb shanks, 23 packages of riblets and 50 pounds of stew meat before I’d realize any profit from these 23 lambs.   Furthermore, to fulfill this one-time order, I would be telling my loyal customers at the farmers’ market that they won’t be able to purchase rack of lamb or rib chops from me.

A local food system must ask its participants to work together – “I would like lamb, what do you have that might fit my needs?”  Farmers and eaters, in this type of arrangement, are in constant communication.  In addition, we must address storage needs – grass-fed lamb chos that are harvested in the fall can be consumed in the springtime if we have adequate frozen storage space (and if we overcome our aversion to frozen meat).   Farmers must pay attention to what their customers want, too – we must adapt our products and our plantings to address our eaters’ desires.

Largely, we’ve become a society that makes its dining decisions in the moment – few of us plan our weekly menus anymore.  The biological realities of farming require more planning – both on the part of the farmer and on the part of the eater.  A local food system, if it is to succeed, must account for these longer term realities and the day-to-day needs we all have for fresh, nutritious food.

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