Best to start at the beginning. Growing up in north Alabama we lived down the street from my grandparents. My granddaddy was raised on a farm in Kentucky and was the first in his family to leave and get an education. With help from the GI bill, he became a mechanical engineer and brought his family to Huntsville in the early 1950s. The suburbs were growing like wildflowers and the Grace family soon found themselves thoroughly suburbanized. My grandmother taught school and my granddaddy helped design the space shuttle booster rockets. But, even as their lives became more urban, they retained their connection to the land. They bought a house on the edge of a large farm and their backyard abutted a cow pasture. That picture on the left is of me riding the lawn mower with my granddaddy. They planted fruit trees and a substantial garden and every summer of my childhood we would get baskets of fresh tomatoes, squash, cantaloupes and other vegetables from the bounty of their humble plot. When I was four, my parents began building a house a few blocks away that backed up to the same farm. During construction we lived with my grandparents. One fall morning my grandmother asked if I’d like to go out in the front yard and pick pecans from their tree. “No thank you,” I replied. “We get those at the store.”
For my grandparents, this is a funny story that underscores the naivety of their grandson – an anecdote about a suburban kid’s complete detachment from the land. But it occurs to me that they could just as easily read this story as a tragedy. After all, my flippant remark about pecans is in some ways a rebuke to my ancestors – most of whom were rural people whose livelihood was dependent upon the land. From my experience, there was always a store and there were always pecans.
That they choose to read this story as a comedy instead of a tragedy might have something to do with the fact that their own lives so closely parallel the rise of the industrial agriculture system. When my granddaddy left the farm in the 1930s he was mirroring a trend across the US. Our primarily rural country switched demographically in the 1920 census and the exodus from the farm has increased exponentially since then. The industrial agriculture system that swung into place to nourish the postwar baby boom helped insure that food could be had for cheap – not out of your yard or your local farm, but down the street at the clean gleaming supermarket. In less than 50 years we virtually erased hunger for the masses and put in place assurances that there would be no more famine. No one who could afford a $.69 can of beans would go hungry again.
But, at what price? What are the true costs of the industrial ag system? As family farms struggle to stay afloat others are forced to sell out to competitors or to sell their land to developers. Farmland around the country, but specifically in Alabama, is shrinking and the numbers of family farms is dwindling. When my grandparents moved to Alabama the state had 200,000 family farms. Today, there are less than 50,000. Our food no longer comes from the farmer down the road. Most food grown here in the US is grown in concentrated regions, which not only hurts the soil over the long term but requires an endless supply of fossil fuels for transportation from farm to plate. A study conducted by the Leopold Center at the University of Iowa showed that the average item on your dinner plate has traveled 1,500 miles from the farm to your stomach. Our once bountiful harvest has now become an unsustainable quagmire using up too many finite resources. And it’s spiraling toward more industrialization instead of less.
In a state like Alabama, where we have one of the longest growing seasons in the country, you would think we would have a strong farm economy. But the only local products in the grocery store down the street are muscadine wines from an Alabama vineyard and bar-b-que sauce from local restaurants. Our produce section is dominated by citrus from California, potatoes from Idaho, asparagus and squash from Mexico, and avocados from Chile. Despite our border on the Gulf Coast, our fish come from Vietnam, hatcheries on the West Coast, and various locations in between. The beef is from the West and the pork is from Iowa. Some of the chicken is from Alabama, maybe even from a chicken farm up the road. But first it’s shipped to Arkansas for processing before making the trip back to your plate.
As the boutique market for organic and naturally grown products expands, more and more Americans are awakening to the problems created by the industrial agriculture system. But, the organic market has become a hallmark of the upper middle class. We may all want to eat healthier food raised in sustainable ways, but only a few of us can afford it. Furthermore, like most any marginalized buying trend in American life, the organic movement has become co-opted by multinational corporations. The USDA certification process for “organics” has been called into question as the procedure for small farmers to become certified becomes more expensive and more regulated into obscurity by government bureaucracy. Some of this is unintentional while some is the result of a powerful food lobby who quite likes the status quo. All of it, however, is distressing and, at least for me, very unappetizing.
So what’s to be done? My wife Rashmi and I pondered this question one morning over the breakfast table. We were eating off-brand cereal, organic milk from the Midwest, and drinking coffee beans grown in South America and roasted in Vermont. Our conclusion, derived on a whim and with an insatiable curiosity about what might happen (Rashmi, after all, is a scientist trained in the scientific method of testing hypothesis), was to eat only food grown or raised in the state of Alabama for one season. As a documentary filmmaker, it seemed natural to document the process. So we’ve decided to make a movie about our little experiment. We’re both writers as well, and so we’re starting this little blog to keep a written record of what we’re doing. Soon, another couple – friends of ours who are both concerned about sustainable agriculture and who have recently purchased a farm up the road – decided they would join us in our pursuit of local foods. We plan to update regularly with our experiences around the state at various farms and we hope you’ll follow our adventure by checking in every now and again.
You should know that we didn’t come up with this little experiment by ourselves. Folks from around the country have been thinking and writing about local diets for a while now. In fact, the New Oxford American Dictionary chose “Locavore” as their word of the year in 2007, meaning someone who eats locally grown food. Gary Nabhan published a book called “Coming Home to Eat” back in 2001, which many consider the germination of the local food movement, and others, like Barbara Kingsolver, Michael Pollan, and Alisa Smith and J.B. Mackinnon have written on various pursuits of local food. But we wondered what would happen if we looked specifically at our home state. What would happen if, instead of using the typical 100-mile radius that many locavores use, we focused on the agriculture of the entire state. In some regards this would seem to make our project easier – goat cheese from near the Tennessee border to seafood from the Gulf Coast. But we didn’t choose this expanded range for its perceived ease of use, but rather to make an informed case to the people of Alabama that we can revitalize our rural economy by supporting local sustainable agriculture. We believe that family farms don’t have to slide into foreclosure if we demand their produce show up on grocery shelves. That the folks growing strawberries in South Alabama have the same struggles as those growing potatoes on Sand Mountain. We hope that our little experiment will yield some interesting results, but as a group of foodies, we’re also hoping to share a few great meals. Please contact us if you’d like to discuss our project, if you have something to add, or if you’re trying to eat Alabama yourself. You can contact Andy, Rashmi, Joe, and Sara by sending an email to our first names and then eatingalabama.org (e.g. andy(at)eatingalabama.org). And please pass our blog along to those you think might be interested.
We'll see you on the farm,