Ithaca HOURS
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 Paul Glover consults for grassroots economic development as GreenPlanners.

Where Does Ithaca's Food Come From?

by Paul Glover  *  February 1987

Everything we hope to achieve, have and enjoy would be shaken from our grasp, without the miracle of seeds unfolding into food, far from where we live. Are you on the road to success? Take food with you. Whether we eat from silver plates or tin cups, three times daily or three times weekly, we will eat or die.

Fortunately, enough food is brought to Ithaca to fill City Hall every night. While we sleep dozens of trucks deliver about 200,000 pounds to over 120 local food retailers. Fruits and vegetables reach us from California's Imperial and San Joaquin Valleys, from Mexico and Florida. New York state supplies potatoes, apples and onions. Milk and eggs from the Southern Tier refrigerate here with slaughtered Midwest steer. Fresh fish from the Atlantic flop ashore at Boston.

Although Tompkins County was once 78 percent cultivated, with 3,700 farms producing more food than local needed, we
now import about 85 percent from an average of 1,300 miles away. Ithaca's grand orchards, gardens, wheat-, oat- and corn fields lost ground to Great Plains' harvests, to federal farm policy, and to the region's latest crop: suburbs. Some 540 farms are left here on 34 percent of land area; 10 to 20 cease each year.

As the cartoon shows, metals and fuels forge tools which raise food. The food we buy has survived bugs, birds, weeds, diseases, erosion, drought, flood, poison, harvest, storage, trimming, crushing, mixing, cooking, packaging, spoilage, more storage, and transport to wholesalers and then markets, to be swallowed by us.

The system never rests, delivering the greatest variety of eats for the least paycheck, any place on earth. From high above, our machines and trucks and toilers would look like blood cells racing through an athlete. We are fed so well we can live preoccupied with careers, romance, God, homes, sex, families and thrills.

But there are problems in heaven. Ithaca has become an army camped far from its sources of supply, using distant natural resources faster than these renew. Every day 4,000 additional U.S. residents each require as much food as you, yet nationwide each day agricultural land twice our City's area is destroyed for suburbs, shopping centers and stripmines. Within ten years California's crops will feed only Californians, says that state's agricultural commissioner -- not Ithacans. Mexicans will also become starved enough to push ahead of us in line for the food they grow. Meanwhile, the Prairie Breadbasket faces groundwater shortages and loss of irrigated cropland. Florida's orchards are being ripped out for suburbs.

And worse: Costlier fertilizers and deadlier pesticides are needed to pump more food from overworked dirt. Millions of cubic yards of topsoil fly or float away daily. At the same time, America sells grains abroad, trying to feed nations which have preceded us toward agricultal ruin. More hunger is served by less land every day.

The Good News

Relax, though, don't eat faster. We are not riding a spoon to the mouth of doom. There are many organizations working to grow healthy food systems. The Natural Organic Farmer's Association (NOFA) seeks to certify New York's authentic uncontaminated produce. Hometown food is fresher, too, andmore nourishing.

Local food production also enriches Ithaca by keeping money here that would otherwise go to Big Food headquarters far away. The $500,000 spent yearly for food at the Ithaca Farmer's Market bounces around Upstate longer, creating more jobs. Moreover, it's an investment in Ithaca's agricultural future.

Likewise, most of GreenStar Co-op's summer vegetables are supplied by nearby farmers or wholesalers, like Finger Lakes Organics, Richview Farms, or Ludgate's. Several restaurants and other grocers try to do so also. In fact, the Finger Lakes Food Association will provide retailers with lists of fresh local supplies. They celebrate regional harvests during Finger Lakes Food Week.

The most direct marketers of all is Project Growing Hope, the community gardens off Meadow Street. Since 1976 they've provided land for as many as 250 landless yearly.

How well could New York live from its own back yard? Michael Turback, former owner of the Made in New York Store and Turback's restaurant, proudly notes our state is already #2 nationally in production of wine ("some of it world class") and cheese ("Cuba, New York's is the best cheddar I've eaten") and apples. This county has in the past produced huge quantities of nearly every staple sold in markets today. Among the 171,000 apple trees counted here in 1885 were varieties flavored like strawberries and bananas, some mild and others almost too sweet to binte. Many regionas perfected distinctive local crops. Once you could taste Ithaca.

Cooperative Extension of Tompkins County publishes a "Guide to Local Food Producers." The Farming Alternatives Project assists Extension by

providing information about organic agriculture, or unusual crops, like aquaculture.

Though Cornell has mainly served agribusiness, there are campus organizations which research and promote sustainable agriculture, the kind that feeds the soil feeding us. the Farming Alternatives Program helps agribusiness and small farmers make practical transitions to healthy cultivation. The Ecological Agriculture Research Collective refined organic farming techniques and maintains a showcase garden.  Sustainable Cropping Systems Design has been taught: building gourmet soils, the food of food. Perhaps Cornell biotechnicians will invent tropical edibles that love snow: pineapplecicles, rice cubes and lemonades.

Tompkins County's Soil Conservation Service (USDA) works with farmers to slow erosion. "Forest fires are more dramatic, but not more destructive," says Gary Lamont.

There are other encouraging signs. Many citizens do their part to help by one or more of these changes:

* We eat less meat, so that grains are fed to humans, and animals do not suffer.
* We shop for New York labels, rather than eating food hauled cross-country.
* We grow some of our own food.
* We recycle kitchen scraps into our gardens.
* We buy bulk when we can, looking for food value rather than packaging.
* We ask our grocer to stock organic fruits and vegetables.
* We support small farms by spending at farmer's markets.
* We plant fruit trees rather than ornamentals.
* We control retail sales by joining or starting a buying club or co-op.
* We have a good time without wasting metals, plastic, oil, paper and electricity.
*We have one or fewer children, and adopt the rest.

Even large factory farms are beginning to learn the benefits of non-toxic pest control, drip irrigation, green manure, mulching, intercropping, rotation and genetic diversity.

Cities and towns are starting to analyse urban agricultural potential, to plant edible parks, to link building codes and development options to urban agriculture, to fund food preservation centers, turn clean sludge into fertilizer, establish agricultural zones, and give tax breaks to greenhouses.

The State of Pennsylvania buys the farming rights to agricultural land threatened with suburbanization. These and related things can be done here at the insistence of citizens. In fact, it has been suggested that Ithacans buy Ithaca by selling raffle tickets to create a greenbelt. Some Ellis Hollow residents have already pooled money to keep their forests green.

The time is ripe. Recently our city converted its last farm into a shopping mall. And the Town of Ithaca sees leapfrog growth.

Securing an American Future

Changes in food and fuel suply and dirstribution will bring changes in our personal lives, corporate goals and legal contracts. Some changes will be easy, others hard. All are opportunities for living better. Sooner, rather than later, developers will lose the right to destroy topsoil that could feed thousands of Americans for hundreds of years, merely to house suburbanites. But their skills will be needed to rebuild Ithaca toward balance with nature. These new laws, organizations and personal styles show understanding that, no matter how super our computers, we will never invent substitutes for food, water and air, that our nation will progress or erode with its soil, that ultimately the land is the law of the land.

Originally published in the Grapevine Weekly February 18, 1987.