“Sassanach” — outsider — that’s what went through my head as I sat in the Bellefonte Art Museum last month during the annual meeting of the Centre County Farmland Trust. The meeting room was full and I recognized many of the local faces, Centre County denizens for generations. But I was not one of them. I don’t have a farm; I can barely manage the herbs in pots on the deck. What was I doing there?
I had been a member of the Centre County Farmland Trust since my involvement with Slow Food Central Pa. from 2000 to 2010. It seemed a natural extension — the linking of food and farm. But something has gone very wrong in the agricultural system of the United States, and a compelling message on the CCFT fall newsletter made that disconnect very clear.
According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, half our plate at each meal should consist of vegetables and fruits. We are eating half that amount. But the news gets worse. American farmers do not grow enough vegetables and fruits to supply our population with the recommended number of daily servings. To achieve this, 5 percent of U.S. cropland would need to be dedicated to vegetable and fruit production. But less than 2 percent of U.S. farms grow what we need to eat.
So what is growing on all our farmland from sea to shining sea? Fifty-two percent is devoted to corn and soybeans. Bio-engineered corn is processed into corn syrup and becomes aisle after aisle of sweetened soft drinks that pack on empty calories. Soybeans, also bio-engineered to be herbicide resistant, feed the animals that we eat and are the second largest source of vegetable oil. All those rows of snack foods — Doritos, Fritos and Cheetos — have two primary ingredients: corn and oil. It’s no coincidence that the salty snack food aisle is adjacent to the soda aisle in every grocery store. Big agriculture, fat with government subsidies, wins.
We are the lucky ones, here in central Pennsylvania. We have seven farmers markets each week during the growing season and several year-round markets. Talk to your farmers at these markets and tell them what you want to buy from them next year. Purchase what they have to sell during the winter; far less but still enough to fill your plate with the recommended 50 percent if you choose wisely. And support organizations like the Centre County Farmland Trust and Pa. Land Trust Association that bring the issue of our declining farms and open spaces into the spotlight. Last spring Lynn Parker Klees, president of the Central Pa. Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics, toured Tait Farm with a group of dieticians to educate them about local food and where it is grown. Connecting the educators with the farmers is a logical step toward building connections that matter. The proposed RE Farm Café, an educational farm initiative by Duke and Monica Gasitger, is another. The one-acre Student Farm at Penn State also teaches students where our food comes from and what goes into the growing of it.
We need our farms to produce more food to fill a growing consumer demand for more locally grown vegetables and fruits. It’s a two-part problem — and solution. Informed consumers must create a demand for more locally grown produce so that farmers will grow what consumers want to buy. The Centre County Farmland Trust helps to ensure that to happen and works to do that now by preserving the rural landscape so hotly desired by outside developers. According to that Union of Concerned Scientists, raising the cropland that produces vegetables and fruits for local consumers to 5 percent “could create 189,000 new jobs and 9.5 billion in sales to local economies.
Anne Quinn Corr is the author of “Seasons of Central Pennsylvania,” of several iBook cookbooks (“Food, Glorious Food!” “What’s Cooking?!” and “Igloo: Recipes to Cure the Winter Blues”) that are available for free on iTunes. She regularly posts to the blog HowToEatAndDrink.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.