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Farmers can succeed by selling food locally

(Thursday, March 13, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- George DeVault, The Morning Call (Allentown, PA), 03/12/03: Live poor, die rich. That seems to be the mantra -- maybe the epitaph -- of the current generation of American farmers, judging from The Morning Call article about Warren Schwartz selling his 110-acre farm to the Northampton Area School District for $1.25 million.

As a farmer, I also find joy in 82-year-old Schwartz selling to a school district, instead of a housing developer. The last thing the Lehigh Valley needs is another "house farm." But it also saddens me to see prime farmland taken out of production when so much of our food already comes from out of state.

Pennsylvania farmers are a lot like George Bailey in the classic Christmas movie "It's A Wonderful Life." We're worth more dead than alive, to paraphrase mean old Mr. Potter.

The corn and beans and hogs and beef that most of us raise barely earn enough to pay the bills. But cover Lehigh Valley farmland with houses, and it is suddenly worth a fortune to people fleeing the big cities. All of that is about to change -- for the better, I believe.

Why? Simple economics. Last week, I paid $1.939 a gallon for diesel fuel for my tractor at the Hess station west of Emmaus. Last May, diesel at the same station cost 61 cents a gallon less. Food in the United States now travels 1,500 to 2,500 miles from farm to table, according to a Morning Call article last year. It comes mostly by truck, on tractor-trailers from Florida, California, Mexico and Canada. Semis run on diesel, lots of diesel. While three 5-gallon cans of diesel will keep my 33-horsepower John Deere running for weeks, a tractor-trailer truck gets about 5.5 miles to the gallon. Trucking food from 1,500 miles away burns about 273 gallons of diesel. From a distance of 2,500 miles, fuel consumption is about 455 gallons. At today's prices, the cost of that fuel is $529 to $882. Imagine what will happen if we go to war with Iraq.

We in the United States now pay less for food than any nation on earth, about 8.4 percent of our disposable income, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture╠s Economic Research Service. (USDA figures for other countries include: United Kingdom 10.2 percent, Canada 10.4, Ireland 14.5, Japan 15.9, France 17.7, Israel 18.1, Italy 19.2, Mexico 24, South Korea 26.4, Greece 30.1, India 48.4 and Philippines 52.9.)

The more expensive diesel fuel becomes, the more we in the Lehigh Valley are going to pay for food that is not going to be any fresher, tastier or more nutritious. But it could be all of that and more.

In Lehigh and Northampton counties, more than 18,000 acres of farmland have now been preserved for agriculture in perpetuity. Pennsylvania leads the nation in farmland preservation with about 250,000 acres permanently protected. We have plenty of land to grow more of our food. All we need now is more people willing to grow it.

We have them, too. Hundreds of people attended a New and Beginning Farmer workshop near Harrisburg on March. 1. The man across from me at lunch there was from Northampton County. He just bought a farm in Fulton County, three hours away.

Back in the Lehigh Valley, producer-only farmers' markets in center city Allentown, Bethlehem, Easton, Coopersburg and Emmaus are literally begging for local growers. And they will find them, I believe, in the new generation of farmers that is heeding the words of workshop speaker Dan Looker, business editor of Successful Farming magazine: "You don't need to grow corn to get started in farming." Nowhere is that more true than in the Lehigh Valley. We don't need more low-priced corn -- farming as usual -- any more than we need more house farms. We do need more people growing fresh fruits and vegetables, herbs, cut flowers, and producing pastured poultry, pork, beef, hormone-free milk and farm-fresh cheeses. One acre intensely cultivated in vegetables earns as much as 75 acres of corn or beans.

As fuel and food prices rise, suburban sprawl and house farms aren't going to be such an attractive investment. Single-family homes will no longer be what realtors call "the best and highest use" of our land. The new, best use will be producing food for local consumption. All it takes is three groups working together:

  • Farmers can diversify into high-value crops, join a farmers' market or start a vegetable subscription service.
  • Landowners who want to preserve working farms and farming and not just "open space" can link with people who want to farm.

  • Consumers can buy locally grown food.

Two groups that can help are: Pennsylvania Farm Link, phone (717) 664-7077 or e-mail pafarmlink@redrose.net); And Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture, phone (814) 349-9856 or on the Internet at www.pasafarming.org.

It will take a little time to connect the dots with creative leases and novel business plans. But, before long, we may sound like George Bailey, instead of Mr. Potter, when we speak of farming in the Lehigh Valley in the 21st century: "It's a wonderful life!"

George DeVault raises certified organic vegetables on a preserved farm in Upper Milford Township. He is a Food and Society Policy Fellow of the Kellogg Foundation.