COVID-19 Has Exposed the Fragility of Our Food System—Here’s How We Can Localize It
The pandemic has demonstrated the shortcomings of our mega-food industries and the necessity to localize food production. Farms and mills from Northern California to Canada are creating new small-scale, regional food systems.
The U.S. was once a haven for small-scale, family farmers. Today, food giants have gobbled up most of those family farms, creating the monstrous and unsustainable food industry known as Big Ag. The extent to which this massive, industrialized, global food system falls short became especially unmistakable in 2020. The current food system is “fraying.” It relies on the horrendous treatment of laborers, a wasteful allocation of resources, worldwide environmental devastation—and in a pinch, can quickly devolve into near-collapse of the entire system, as evidenced by the delays, shortages and pressure during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the deepening hunger crisis in America. Among the many necessary systemic changes 2020 has illuminated is the need to majorly restructure the way we cultivate and access food in our communities.
Faced with the shortcomings of the current food systems, food producers across the Pacific Northwest have been innovating ways to reestablish locally sourced, regional food systems. In the process of localizing the food supply chain, they aim to establish food security for their communities, create local jobs and support the surrounding ecosystems.
During a free, online event called Festival of What Works, which took place in November 2020, entrepreneurs from an array of backgrounds shared their success stories to demonstrate how it is possible to build and scale local food production across geography as well as institutions and create more food-secure communities. The festival was a project of a newly launched eco-trust network called Salmon Nation. It gathered a collection of voices from various cultures and focuses, to showcase solution-oriented projects from Northern California through Alaska (a region called “Salmon Nation” by many of the area’s Indigenous people) that offer place-based responses to the current political, economic and climate realities.
Here are three examples of localized food projects successfully challenging the current system—all of which lend themselves to replication in other areas.
1. Localizing Flour Mills Across a Region
When food giants wiped out family farmers, mills were no exception. Just about 120 years ago there were 24,000 mills in the United States. Today there are only 180.
In recent years, both Indigenous groups and small-scale, independent farmers in the Pacific Northwest have started to bring back regional grain farms and flour mills. These mills process non-commodity grains that are meant to grow within the specific regions where they are cultivated, and a regionally oriented food supply chain is beginning to reemerge around flour produced by the mills.
Kevin Morse, the founder of the regionally sourced and operated Cairnspring Mills flour mill in the Skagit Valley in Washington, says he founded the company as a way to bring back small-scale, local flour milling and respond to the ecological problems and issues of climate resilience associated with large-scale production.
The Cairnspring Mills sources from grain farmers across the region between Northern California and Northern Washington.
“[Regional food supply chains will be key into the future] when it comes to climate resilience because we’re going to have food deserts and food shortages,” Morse says. “By bringing back local supply chains and local production capacity to turn that crop into food, we automatically make the community more resilient because we’re not relying on imports.”
A video on the company’s website details how Cairnspring Mills was instrumental in keeping flour in production in the region during the COVID-19 outbreak. When many food supply chains were interrupted and grocery aisles sat empty, many of them without flour for months, Cairnspring stayed in operation and supported other local businesses in the process.
“Our supply chain is local, our grain storage is local, so we never skipped a beat on production [during the pandemic],” Morse says. “We were able to keep people employed and were able to help businesses that relied on flour to stay in operation. We were [also] able to keep the farmers farming and give them contracts so that they could go to the bank and get their financing. [Having a local mill] really brings back control [and] resilience.”
During the Food Democracy at Scale panel discussion on November 16, 2020, at the Festival of What Works, speaking about Cairnspring, Morse said that it is “the first craft mill in this country,” and currently operates at a similar scale to some of the early craft beer companies and small coffee roasters. He said the mill is doing for flour what “Starbucks did for coffee and Sierra Nevada did for craft beer.”
The mill has the capacity to make about 7 million pounds of flour per year, and it sells its flour to the surrounding community via commercial customers and craft bakeries—both locally and down the West Coast region into Northern California. In comparison, a single mill belonging to the large-scale milling companies in operation today can make the same amount of flour his mill produces in a year, in just two days, he says.
He, however, pointed out in the panel discussion that the flour produced by these large-scale milling companies is “a very different flour… What they have brought us, unfortunately, is grain that’s not healthy. What they have brought us is grain that’s oftentimes polluted with chemicals or grown in monocrop environments, which are contributing to other issues we have with water quality and disease resistance… They can source grain from Kazakhstan, Canada and Kansas, and that could all be in that white bag on your shelf.”
He says Cairnspring is doing the exact opposite by sourcing from farmers and paying them premiums above commodity pricing so that they can stay economically viable while being incentivized to steward the land. They’ve helped provide a market for regionally viable grains that have long been used as a financially unsustainable rotation crop. And, they’re focused on producing a quality, flavorful craft product rather than driving down prices with mass production.
Morse says when the pandemic hit, more people began to understand the importance of local food systems for community resilience and in the six months since March, the business has raised $2 million.
“There’s been a shift in consciousness—not only of people seeing the need for this, but more people are seeing that it’s just a better product and it has real market potential,” he says.
Morse has a background in farming, economic development and conservation ecology. Prior to founding the mill, he worked for a decade with the Nature Conservancy and was director of the Puget Sound Working Lands Program. It was his job, he says, to find ways to align conservation and farming, “to achieve conservation outcomes on private land.”
After working in various fields for 35 years, he came to see that all of the things he cared about—from regenerative and sustainable farming to conservation—were in response “to a food system that wasn’t serving us well.”
He explains that as the food system was centralized, local communities lost their access to local food processors. This, in turn, forced farmers into the commodities system, or into single-buyer markets, making them more vulnerable to market changes, and pricing out the majority of small-scale farmers. He came to realize that many of the environmental issues he came across in his work—like issues with water quality or wildlife habitat—stem from that commodity system.
“Modern farming and chemical agriculture were destroying habitat and not giving farmers an alternative market to take care of their lands,” he says. “I’ve never met a farmer that says, ‘I’d really love to use more chemicals on my land,’ or ‘I really don’t want to see any wildlife on my land.’”
He came to realize that in order to rebuild local food systems, there was a need to rebuild local processing infrastructure. He also realized farmers would need to get a higher premium for their “higher-value, better-tasting, more nutritious products.”
“Thankfully, we’re at a time where the consumers are demanding cleaner food and they have more awareness of the challenges with some of our modern agriculture,” Morse says.
The idea to create a local mill came out of community interest in adding value to local grains, which were seen as “a crop that farmers have lost money on for a hundred years, but they’ve used in cereal grain rotations as a way to break disease cycles and add organic matter to the soil to maintain a high quality in their other cash crops like potatoes or brassicas,” Morse adds.
At the time Morse had the idea for the mill, the Washington State University Bread Lab as well as port officials at the Port of Skagit, farmers and other interested stakeholders were already looking into better ways to utilize the grains grown in the region.
The mill now provides a local, resilient model of producing flour using those undervalued regional grains—and the model encourages ecologically supportive farming practices.
“[Farmers] have a market incentive to improve their stewardship of the land for healthy soils, water conservation, carbon sequestration,” he says. “They’re incentivized to implement those best practices instead of pushing them to the side because they can’t afford them in the current commodity system.”
Looking at the next five years or so, Morse says the company is considering expanding to bring small, locally operated mills with similar models into other regions—but not before the current mill is well established.
“We’re looking at a half-dozen places around the West, maybe one or two on the East Coast that are prime for partnerships and collaboration with new communities to build new mills.”
2. A Regenerative Way to Farm Chickens
An innovative chicken farming model in British Columbia could help pave the way for a new standard of poultry farming that is regenerative and solar-powered. The system is referred to as poultry-centered regenerative agriculture (PCRA), and Skeena Energy Solutions (SES), a project started by the Skeena Watershed Conservation Coalition (SWCC), is putting it into action. It has 1,500 chickens living in sustainably built, solar-powered coops, with free range to wander during the day under a low canopy of brush, which encourages increased egg production and healthier birds while also fertilizing and replenishing the soil where the birds graze.
“Canopy is really important as we discovered because chickens are jungle fowl, [not pasture animals],” says Kesia Nagata, energy coordinator for SWCC. She notes that even if poultry farms are free-range, but the range does not have a covering canopy to allow chickens to hide from potential predators, chickens’ wandering range will stay limited.
The regenerative poultry model gives the birds free access to rotating, fenced grazing areas. Rotating the area where the birds graze allows chickens to fertilize and nourish the soil while avoiding damage to the land by overuse, Nagata explains. The chickens are given locally grown feed from small-scale producers, and the project has hired local workers, the majority of them Indigenous people, who are paid living wages.
One of the big incentives for SWCC to explore the regenerative chicken farm concept is that it models a potential way for communities to stimulate their local farming economies. Ideally, it provides a method of raising 1,500 healthy, productive chickens at once on plots of land that are two acres or smaller, which keeps the cost of entry low.
“With this set-up on 1.5 to 2.5 acres, a single farmer can work three hours a day to produce 4,500 four-pound, free-range chickens in nine months, along with thousands of pounds of nuts, berries, and other cash crops… [translating] to over $80,000 (meat) or $250,000 (eggs) gross income per year, per single plot,” states an article by BC Local News while quoting a description of the project provided by SES.
The idea behind the pilot chicken farm program was to demonstrate a sustainable, land-based, inclusive, ecologically and socially viable way of farming, Nagata says.
She says the idea to incorporate a chicken farming model for an organization like SWCC, which is usually focused on salmon, was inspired by a similar regenerative farming project in Minnesota that works to pair Indigenous and immigrant farmers with small land plots.
“The focus of [SWCC] is to look at community economic development as a basis for salmon conservation, and it’s all holistic. If you don’t have communities that are healthy and wealthy and connected, they don’t have the privilege to protect the land that they depend on,” she says.
The pandemic, intense weather and other unforeseen hiccups delayed certain aspects of the project as it was getting set up through 2020, and Nagata says one of the goals for SWCC is to work through all the potential kinks so that they can eventually offer a streamlined, regenerative chicken farming model that small-scale farmers might be able to replicate across the region.
“We wouldn’t expect a small-scale, low-income farmer to be able to do all of the research and take all the losses that we are taking,” she says. “Our hope is that we can iron out those details to make it a lot more accessible to people and potentially have a working business plan and a template for how to get loans and grants and so on for this type of project. Because it’s so adaptable. The whole thing can be scaled.”
Nagata says while the project’s first months have illuminated the challenges inherent to straying from the current food system, they also ended up stimulating the local economy in some unexpected ways.
“I’ve been really humbled by how hard it is to make such a tiny little dent in such a huge problem—as well as having to be part of the problem in some ways in order to make it work—but I get excited about the fact that one project like this has inspired so many people to think about how else they can tag onto it,” she says. “Supportive jobs, businesses, and products can be created around this one idea—and that’s where the real economic development part is for me. Like, okay, great, there are some chickens. But there’s also a chicken soup and a chicken pie company. There are also local grain growers. We’ve got the local feed store interested in helping out. There are also all the administrative jobs involved in running things. There’s also the potential for pet food—and whatever else. There’s so much potential for change from a single project like this.”
3. Sustainable Livestock Ranching
The American meat industry is unsustainable, and beef alone carries a significant carbon footprint. During the Food Democracy at Scale panel discussion at the Festival of What Works, Cory Carman, a fourth-generation cattle rancher, shared how and why she operates Carman Ranch, which is spread across 5,000 acres, as a sustainable, grass-fed, locally oriented meat business.
Carman Ranch, located in Northeast Oregon, is a century-old family business that raises grass-fed cows on an open pasture. The main focus of their business is on building healthy, carbon-sequestering soil while producing beef that is more nutritious and healthier than many of the mass-produced options.
The ranch recently began to partner with other family ranch producers across the greater region in order to stay afloat in a meat industry saturated by major conglomerates.
Carman said as she took charge of the family ranch and looked at what the fourth generation of the farm would need to look like into the future, she realized partnerships with other producers would be key.
“Individuals doing their own thing is not how you create change,” she said in the panel. “I started marketing grass-fed beef from our ranch and added additional producers from our region. Now we work with eight to ten producers in the Northwest, from Montana into Idaho, Washington and Northern California, to provide a year-round supply of grass-fed beef.”
The operations of Carman Ranch are also unique in that they ship cattle directly from the farm where they are raised to the meat-processing plant. From there, the meat goes directly to wholesale, or directly to the customer—and all of these steps happen within the local region. These steps are highly uncommon in the meat industry.
Carman said in the panel that the ranch produces 20,000 to 30,000 pounds of meat per week, on average. This is far less than what industrial cattle farms produce, and Carman said the biggest meat players can produce in a single day or even half a day what their ranch produces in a year. What they do provide, bolstered by regional partnerships, is enough to meet the demand for their product, which remains niche, and has a dedicated customer base.
“[Our customers] share our vision… [about] what the food system could look like and the values the food system could deliver,” she said during the panel discussion. And, through the COVID-19 pandemic, they’ve already proven more resilient than the large-scale meat industry.
“When it comes to food security, with the huge processing [plants] shut down [due to COVID], we weren’t impacted at all,” she said in the panel. “We have been a family-owned, smaller-scale processing facility, and a smaller crew that could take much more precautions… Nothing about our supply chain was impacted at all through COVID.”
Rather than focusing on expanding or scaling up their production to drive down costs, the company is focused on carving out a space in the market with their present setup, and investing the time to develop a successful long-term alternative to the unrealistic mainstream model.
“There is absolutely a vision toward changing the whole food system,” she said. “My biggest hope is if we have some success it will only make it easier for other people who want to do that same type of work.”
Their ultimate goal is to serve as a model or “learning laboratory” for sustainable meat production that future farms can pick up and replicate, Carman said. And, according to her, Carman Ranch is in a unique position to explore what does and doesn’t work well, as they have investors who support their larger vision of a more sustainable future for meat.
“We have a really distinct theory of change, [which] is that the food system of the future will be more distributed, more regional, and it will be scaled to ecological realities, not processing realities,” she said in the panel. “In that, we think about something like livestock production, we think about the places where it makes sense to [raise] livestock and how different regional companies could be connected to each other. In our vision of the future, there are a lot of regional grass-fed beef companies and they collaborate to potentially trade cuts, to do things like value-added co-packing that would benefit from aggregating products, maybe they do marketing together.”
She said that collaboration with other regional producers is what keeps the larger vision alive and inspired.
“The biggest breakthrough moments and things that bring me joy, they have to do with our alignment as a group around things like regenerative agriculture, soil health principles, carbon sequestration, animal welfare,” she said. “All these disparate producers are aligned; we’re doing things like nutrition testing on our beef to help us internally understand… what the relationship is between the soil health and nutritional density of the beef. Those are really esoteric things for the customers, but that sort of foundation of all of us working together, around these shared goals and vision… is the success that we feel every day.”
This article was produced by Local Peace Economy, a project of the Independent Media Institute.