Ochenski 

Bringing in the sheaves – The joy and benefits of local food

Glorious rain pounded down on western Montana last weekend, drenching the lowlands, turning our highlands white with fresh snow, and leaving the air cleaner than it’s been for most of the summer. Meanwhile in kitchens across the state, Montanans were processing the bounty of summer gardens and laying in high quality, locally produced food for the winter ahead. The same global warming that is turning our forests to tinder and melting our glaciers is also making it possible for Montanans to become more locally self-sufficient and reduce their reliance on long-distance food.

Having lived in the same house for more than 20 years, I still remember the gardens we grew back in the ’80s. They produced great food, but it wasn’t uncommon to receive early snowfalls in mid-to-late August. On two occasions, we awoke to more than a foot of heavy, wet, snow blanketing the garden just as it was almost ready to harvest. Within hours, the leafy green fronds had turned limp and black and soon sagged down to decompose in the puddles left behind by the melting snow.

Those days, however, seem to be over. While it was highly unusual to see triple-digit temperatures or even high 90s back then, nowadays it’s a pretty regular occurrence. This summer, Missoula hit 107, which seems unimaginable to long-time Montanans. If the global climate scientists are right, and the preponderance of evidence sure looks like they are, this is a trend that will get a lot worse in the coming years—especially as politicians and governments waste precious time arguing about economic impacts instead of aggressively addressing the causes.

What this means to Montanans is pretty simple. While every action possible should be taken to reduce global warming, conserve energy, and use our resources more efficiently, we are going to be living with the realities of our new climate for some time to come and had best figure out how to make the most of it. Significantly increasing our ability to produce local food for local consumption is one of the very best things we could do.

Americans now rely on foods that have been shipped an average of 1,500 miles from field to market. In our new, warmer Montana, trucking in lettuce or spinach from California or Mexico that may well be contaminated by e. coli or drenched in industrial-strength pesticides makes little sense when we could grow it here ourselves, keep better control over the quality, and receive a much fresher product on our tables. And of course every time we reduce the need to truck, fly, or ship food in on railcars, we are significantly reducing the energy consumption and concurrent pollution such long-distance transportation requires.

Perhaps more importantly, however, is what growing our own food does for Montanans and their communities. Some years back, farmers’ markets were small affairs if they existed at all. Now, virtually every Montana city has at least one and sometimes two farmers markets per week for most of the growing season, and they’re getting bigger every year.

Missoula, for instance, not only has its glorious Saturday Market where a wide variety of beautiful vegetables are up for sale, but also has branched out into the Clark Fork River Market where locally grown meats and sausages await. And what a great community-building experience to walk downtown, fill your bags with everything you need for complete meals of high-quality table fare grown by people you know and trust, see old friends, and share favorite recipes, cooking, and canning techniques.

Moreover, growing our own food is giving us better opportunities to help others in our communities that are less fortunate, elderly, or infirm. Just this week the story of Missoula’s youth offenders growing food for low-cost sale to seniors hit print. Somehow, I suspect getting their hands in the dirt and then seeing the product of their labor go to grateful recipients will have a much more positive, long-lasting effect on those youths than spending time on probation or behind bars. I also suspect those on the receiving end of the line may well come away with an improved perception of today’s young people.

But we are still in the infancy of what we can accomplish in this area of self-sufficiency. As the baby boomers slide into senior citizen status, there will be a huge potential to tap their time and skills for the benefit of all. Even with global warming, Montana’s winters are still long and cold, but building community greenhouses all across the state would give seniors a warm and sunny place to go where they could enjoy the company of their peers while growing healthy food for themselves and others.

Although there is no state-wide effort to construct community greenhouses, the potential and need is evident. Sooner or later some visionary legislator will say, “Hey, maybe we ought to make some money available to help communities be more self-sufficient by growing green plants instead of building coal plants.”

Plus, the growing number of community gardens around the state shows the interest is there. Not only do more people want to grow or purchase local food, there is also an increasing appreciation for the difference between the impacts and unknowns of industrial agriculture when compared to the cleanliness and care typical of local producers.

On every level, a more focused effort to boost local food production makes sense. We consume less energy, create less pollution, foster a healthier environment, and bring our communities together. And once we realize the benefits of self-sufficiency for food, can implementing energy self-sufficiency be far behind?

Undoubtedly there are those who will say a Wal-Mart Superstore is all we’ll ever need. But when I think about the growing impacts from global warming and then look at my kitchen counter stacked with jars of beets, tomatoes, and pickles and my freezer stuffed with carrots, beans, and broccoli, “bringing in the sheaves” of local gardens is worth celebrating.
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