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Can Whatcom County Farms Feed Whatcom County?

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Category : Whatcom Locavore Basics

2011 Whatcom Food & Farm FinderA reader wrote in with this question recently: “Do you know if there is any data about whether Whatcom County produces enough food to feed its population?”Short answer is, “Perhaps yes, if we eat mostly berries.” I’m just joking (sort of). The real answer is much more complicated.

Studies have been done which show there is just barely enough fertile and farmable land still available in Whatcom County to feed everyone who lives here. “Still available” means not contaminated in some way, such as paved over. However, not all possible land is currently being used for farming. For example, some is being used for golf courses, residential backyard grass, and many other non-food uses. Let’s take a look at a few of the problems involved if Whatcom County farms were to feed all Whatcom County residents.

Whatcom County currently has about 148,000 acres being actively farmed, and according to the 2010 census we have about 201,000 people. One estimate commonly used says we’d need about half an acre to feed one person for a year using sustainable methods. That includes fruit, vegetables, grains (for both human and animal feed), chickens (both for eggs and meat), dairy goats (for both milk and meat), and pigs. Doing the math, this means we need at least 100,000 acres of farmland to feed everyone in our county. We have that much! So far, so good, at least in theory.

From there, though, things start to get very complicated very quickly. For example, tomatoes can only be harvested during a short time of the year, and they don’t keep very well. We like to eat tomatoes year round. Either everyone will have to quickly scramble to learn to can, dehydrate, or freeze tomatoes or we will need processing plants to do these things for us. That kind of infrastructure currently doesn’t exist, or is being used for other purposes.

Getting crops to the consumer without significant waste from transportation damage or spoilage is another problem. It’s one thing for an individual farmer to bring small amounts of produce to a weekly farmers market, but it’s quite another to bring large quantities to a grocery store and get consumers to purchase it in time. Again, infrastructure is required that currently isn’t in place.

Companies like Acme Farms + Kitchen are attempting to create solutions to these infrastructure issues. Acme picks up fresh food from farms, portions it out for their customers, and makes weekly deliveries. They also do some processing, such as freezing peppers. Will their business model work on a sufficiently large scale? Time will tell.

Winter food is another problem. Are enough consumers willing to learn skills such as canning, dehydrating, freezing, and root cellaring? Or will commercial facilities to do these kinds of things be necessary? What about people who don’t cook at all? Eating foods directly from the field would require huge behavioral changes that can’t happen overnight.

Notice there are no cows on the list of foods produced by our half acre, yet most of us eat beef and dairy, and plenty of it. Add enough land for cows, and our land needs just went up at least another quarter acre per person, maybe more. Our current county farmland is suddenly barely enough. Nearly a third of our county farmland (44,000 acres) is presently used to grow corn and grass for silage (aka animal feed).

Farmers understandably like to grow crops which will produce the most income. As a result, a lot of current farmland is monocropped–used to grow single products. Examples are berries, which grow well in our naturally acid soil. A large part of the Whatcom berry harvest is exported outside the state (our farmers provide 65% of the raspberries consumed in the US). Every acre used to grow food to ship outside the County means an acre of food which needs to be imported to feed ourselves. Since different crops have different values, how would we convince farmers to grow the variety of foods we need to fulfill our nutritional needs instead of the crops for which they can get the most income per acre? Also, not all farmland is suited for growing all crops.

Transitioning to a local food economy will take years at best, and I’ve only just scratched the surface of the issues. Yet I think there are a lot of signs across the country, and especially here in Whatcom County, that having access to fresh, healthy, affordable food is a priority for growing numbers of families. Ultimately, that means the food needs to be locally grown.  Farmers markets, CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) programs, organic foods, grassfed livestock–the demand is quickly increasing. As we begin to care more about what we put in our mouths, the economy will shift to meet that demand.

Will we ever feed Whatcom County from Whatcom County farms? It’s really up to you. What kind of food are you supporting with your food dollars? And from where?

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Comments (1)

Interesting analysis. Even more problematic to make an island food sell-sufficient.

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