Monday, June 13, 2011

Local Ag Feeds a Sense of Place

I was going to school the other day and noticed that one of the local farmers had started his hay harvest. Early June is a bit earlier than most, but the hay grasses are starting to flower, so it is getting to be that time.

It made wonder whether the seasons of local food production is part of the sense of place for people who don’t get out of town much. How would it be? Should it be?

People who attend farmers markets also know the seasons of local agriculture, as do people who shop at grocery stores that like to feature fresh, local foods. People who pay some attention to the landscape they are travelling through also notice* when various agricultural seasons are occurring. Sometimes local media outlets feature planting and harvesting news, but generally only if there’s some problem that will lead to higher food prices (‘this wet spring corn farmers behind schedule for planting, which might result in higher corn prices’ or ‘this late frost will likely reduce this summer’s peach crop’ kind of thing).

Some regions make sure people know the seasons of local food production. Local ag themes make for great festivals. Traverse City Cherry Festival makes sure a lot of people know about TC cherries (even though cherries from other parts of the country make up a large portion of the cherries served there since it’s generally before the local cherries are fully in). On the opposite end of the size spectrum is Stalwart Hay Days. In the world of television comedies, there’s the Pawnee Harvest Festival.

Aside from the tummy, pocketbook or reason for a festival, a general awareness of local ag also could benefit conservation. People even a little attuned to local food production and its challenges might be more likely to support preservation of farmlands. They might be more likely to further support local farmers who can thus afford to keep their lands in ag production. They may wonder why a mega-store in their town is selling canned fruit from across the globe when there’s plenty of local canneries. (In the Michigan stores of one mega-mart, the canned peaches are imported literally from ½ way across the globe but you have to read the tiny type on the label to see that.)

Do you know what’s grown in your place? Beyond that do you know what activities that involves during what seasons of the year and what challenges local growers face? Does that knowledge help you know what’s special and unique and worth preserving about your place?
* Not to get all Andy Rooney, but I’m bothered just a bit by the car commercials in which the young boy brags a about the great entertainment system in the family van. When rolling through the countryside, wouldn’t that child benefit from seeing what’s going on in the landscape?

Another local product
A part of my sense of place is the fact that we can buy excellent, fresh, wild-caught fish. Lake whitefish, lake trout, walleye, lake perch are all available at stores and restaurants. When I’m at a restaurant and I overhear a tourist ordering some kind of ocean fish off the menu, I want to tell them ‘No, eat the local fish!’ but I don’t. I instead think ‘more for me!’

Like the knowledge of local agriculture, maybe people would be more inclined to support habitat restoration and other water quality projects if they knew a little bit more about the fish other than that it sure tastes good. One need not be a fisheries ecologist to know a bit about where the fish come from, how they live there and the challenges of catching them and managing the fisheries. Fisheries outreach (beyond just to anglers) is always a good thing.

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