food system infrastructure

posted April 22, 2010

an essay by Tom Philpott, actually the full-length version of what he wrote in the NYTimes piece we just referenced.

To enter a farmers’ market in a U.S. city in the summer is to experience firsthand the recent revival of small-scale farming. Stand after stand offers a dazzling variety of chemical-free produce, pasture-raised meat and eggs, farmstead cheeses, and more.

Yet in a sense, our teeming, bountiful farmers markets amount to a gloss on a food system that rewards scale and cheapness over all other factors–including quality, nutrition, ecological sustainability, social justice, and a sense of place. While farmers markets, community-supported agriculture (CSA) programs, and “locavore” restaurants have proliferated over the past decade, they still provide just a tiny portion of the calories consumed by Americans.

Indeed, for all the foment of recent years, local and regional food networks occupy a small niche within a highly industrialized, extractive, and globe-spanning agri-food system. Moving beyond niche status will require significant investments in infrastructure that can link the growing number of small and mid-sized farms to the growing number of consumers who want to eat within their foodsheds and support ecologically sound agriculture.

Already, the infrastructure gap is constraining the local-food movement. We see it  glaringly in the market for meat, where a widespread shortage of USDA-inspected slaughterhouses is causing supply bottlenecks and forcing farmers to “scale back on plans to expand their farms because local processors cannot handle any more animals,” as The New York Times recently reported.

Dairy offers an even starker case. With a few companies processing the great bulk of milk consumed in the United States, processing facilities are few and far between. Most dairy farmers have little choice but to accept the miserly prices the large firms offer. Just at the time when consumers are demanding local milk from grass-fed cows, small-scale dairy farming is mired in a state of perpetual crisis: surviving farms languish under severe pressure to either scale up dramatically or exit the business altogether.

How did we reach this pass? In short, a very few companies have managed to gain ever greater control over food processing in this country–and as they gobble market share, they shutter small facilities and consolidate operations into vast centralized factories.