Peninsular Place


July 2, 2013

Adventures in Local Food #31


Agricultural Mythologies

Since April I’ve spent about 3.5 weeks in California, the land of culinary contradictions. There is some amazing food in California, it’s true – and you better believe that I was eating every type of local fruit I could get my hands on at the farmer’s market and at the food coop. From rainier cherries, white peaches and tiny blenheim apricots to kumquats, golden raspberries, boysenberries, dates and Goleta lemons, I clearly shared in the bounty of a lot of local farmers on my trip.

When I wasn’t eating fruit, I was alternating between eating Mexican food, Asian food and California Farm-to-Table. Sustainable seafood or locally-sourced Indonesian? Don’t mind if I do! I know it may sound strange to the not food-obsessed among you, but aside from my friends, local citrus, olive oil and avocados are totally the three things I miss most about living in California. Clearly, I love local foods…

However, aside from the amazing small-scale farmers across California growing some truly exceptional fruit, vegetables, nuts and raising quality livestock, the reality of California agriculture is much more industrialized than it seems at first glance. Once you get past the fresh fruit onslaught and incredibly delicious tacos, you begin to notice the gigantic strawberry fields filled with migrant farm workers, the acres of low tunnels covering raspberries along the 101, the CAFOs, the massive monoculture broccoli fields of Salinas (where it smells like Broccoli for miles), hills covered with nothing but oranges, massive greenhouses filled with seedlings, the overall lack of water and the acute lack of water in the Southland.

In other words, the mythology of California as food paradise gets replaced by an incredibly unsustainable agricultural reality. Every time that I’m there, it brings into sharper focus how mythologies of the food system have encouraged us to believe a story about food production that does not reflect the reality. It’s almost as if we’ve come to believe the marketing line – California, land of sunshine, land of sustainability, land where all things grow.

But the reality is it’s a land of monoculture strawberries, of monoculture lettuce, of monoculture oranges. Although it’s true that it’s not the same monoculture that we have here in the Midwest of corn, soy, wheat or dairy, it’s monoculture nonetheless, facilitated by the exploitation of migrant farm labor.

Large swaths of it are also an arid desert with chronic water access problems, but the California agricultural mythology helps us ignore how a place like the San Joaquin Valley is an arid region prone to drought. But nevermind the water, the San Joaquin Valley is the most profitable agricultural region of California where the vast majority of fruits, vegetables and nuts consumed in the U.S. originate!

I was actually quite surprised to find out how little water these agricultural areas of California have and that agriculture is only made possible there by a statewide network of aqueducts, pipelines and groundwater mining for irrigation that is causing aquifer collapse and/or excess salinity that eventually makes soil infertile. The water example demonstrates how the mythology of California as food paradise clashes starkly with the reality of production. Nonetheless this mythology continues to encourage consumers to idealize California in such a way that distracts from the amazing agricultural advances happening right now in Detroit, in Flint, in Ypsilanti, across Southeast Michigan and across the Rustbelt region.

In this way, visiting California always reminds me to see through this mythology and be that much more thankful to be a part of local food in Michigan, where we are only second in agricultural diversity to California, we have hoophouses to extend the growing season and we have all the water we need (and then some). So remember, buying local is not just about supporting our awesome Michigan farmers, it’s also about helping our food system become more sustainable by becoming less dependent on industrial production in areas prone to drought or other agricultural disruptions.

About the Author

Stefanie Stauffer
Stefanie Stauffer
Stefanie is a local food crusader and another awesome member of the iSPY team.

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