Zan Romanoff, our Program Coordinator, writes about economy & community in the wake of natural disasters:
Last year I wrote about sitting with Bren Smith while members of his Community Supported Fishery program picked up their first post-Irene shares; while the Connecticut coast had come through that storm relatively unscathed, Bren’s Thimble Island oyster grounds had been closed for the better part of two months, 80% of his crop destroyed by mud churned up on the ocean floor. It was a tough moment for him and his business and so particularly heartening to see customer after customer come by with nothing but sympathy and an eager desire to help: it served as an important reminder that community supported agriculture programs of every kind are as crucial for their economic impact as the actual sense of community and kinship they can create.
Bren used the money he got from those shares to tide him over as he replanted and started again. Oysters take two years to come to market size, and it’s a long waiting game with a lot of work to get them there, so he diversified his crops, adding in faster-growing mussels, clams and seaweed in case of another huge event. Last week Sandy caused storm surges nearly double the height of those seen in Irene; as Red Hook flooded and Breezy Point burned, Bren’s comeback crop was drowning down below. Oysters need to be able to filter water continuously and the muck kicked up by huge waves effectively choked them; suspended longlines growing mussels (and awaiting a winter seaweed crop) snapped in the storm.
It’s all too easy, in the modern food system, to see failed farmers as isolated economic events; when the farmer is part of our community and food is part of your consciousness, however, you begin to see a much larger, and very different, picture. What’s going on with Thimble Island Oyster Co. is happening to farmers up and down the eastern seaboard; it happened when Irene flooded hundreds of thousands of acres with contaminated water, making produce grown there unsalable, and it will happen again. These disasters put our friends out of business but they also destroy the local food supply— and bigger operations are not immune, as we saw when drought swept the country this summer and prices for commodity crops soared. When farmers are failing, we need to be afraid for their economic viability but also for our own health and safety. When natural disaster strikes, there is no safety net. Science has given us huge advances, but we’re still planting and growing in the ground: there is no alternative food source.
Farmers who grow commodity crops are well-supported by crop insurance payouts; small, independent farmers like Bren, who grow things other than wheat, cotton, corn and soy can’t necessarily depend on the government to keep them going when disaster strikes. It’s up to us, his community, to do that, to support not only a smart, sustainable business model but also the kind of food we’re comfortable consuming. CSF shares for 2013 are available, and again the cash infusion Bren gets from them could be the difference between staying in business and closing up shop. Each of us has a stake in a future of a better food system, one that doesn’t cause further climate change, and that can deal robustly with the effects that we’re already feeling. A CSF payment literalizes that stake, making it clear to us exactly what we lose when small farmers go under: the choice to eat better, and the chance to be a part of the community that makes good food possible.
Looking for follow up from last week’s New York Times Magazine food issue? Look no further: here’s Mark Bittman, talking about his experiences in the Central Valley on LA’s KCRW.