No farms, no food

I went on the Washtenaw Land Trust bus tour last Saturday, with about 50 other people. The tour passed by several of the farms that the WLT has protected southwest of Ann Arbor, ending up at the lovely Ludwig Farm near Alber Orchard and Cider Mill (home to nearly 50 varieties of apples) on Bethel Church Rd.  Mary Morgan at the online Ann Arbor Chronicle has already written up a nice summary of the land trust tour so I will just wax philosophical about it for a moment.  

I hadn't realized that the WLT is the oldest land trust in Michigan (37 years), or that they have so far protected just over 3700 acres of land, prioritizing recreational areas near Waterloo, agricultural land south and west of Ann Arbor, and waterways. 

While I still don't have a complete understanding of how the land trust works,  I do get the idea that development rights are one of several rights landowners have - including also rights to farm, hunt, and dig for things like water and minerals.  For a farm, when the development rights are sold or donated to the land trust, the land can then only be used for agricultural purposes in perpetuity. Landowners  get cash for the development rights and also reduced taxes, reflecting the reduced valuation of  land without the possibility for development.  

Why does this matter? In settling the new frontier, people gathered in the areas that were best for farming, remembering agriculture was the basis of the 1830s economy when Michigan was being actively settled. So the most fertile areas are the places where most of our cities are now. The issue is that cities and development are encroaching on fertile surrounding lands that at one point in the past fed, and again at some point in the future must feed, the population.  Who hasn't seen cornfields turned into subdivisions?  

In 2004, the Michigan Land Use Institute said:

"Recent U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics show Michigan losing farmland at a rate of 8 acres per hour. The state has lost nearly 1.5 million acres of farmland, or 13 percent of its agricultural land base, in slightly more than 20 years." 

Probably most of us have read that rate at which we are losing farmland continues to accelerate. The Farmland Trust says that the annual average rate at which agricultural land in Michigan is being converted to developed uses is 38,900 acres per year.  As the second most agriculturally diverse state in the nation, could Michigan feed itself? I've read that 50% of our fruit and 80% of our vegetables come from elsewhere.  Judging from how hard it's been to find Michigan-grown flour, I'm guessing that close to 100% of our grains come from elsewhere too. 

On a bike tour of town on Sunday I came across one of the Ann Arbor Historic Street Exhibit signs at the Broadway Bridge, on the Huron River overlooking what used to be a flour mill and is now a small power plant.  According to the sign: 

"In 1860, William Sinclair built the flour mill shown above. Lower Town founder Anson Brown had erected the first mill here in 1833. Brown dammed the Huron River up-stream to create a millpond and raise the level of the water, which flowed down a millrace high above the river's north bank. This provided power for the flour mill, a woolen mill, a paper mill, and other Lower Town industries. Sinclair’s earlier mill on this site was reported to have ground 800 barrels of flour weekly. Following the 1841 harvest, it shipped a record 8,112 barrels to New York via the Erie Canal." 

So in the 1840s, Ann Arbor, Michigan shipped over 8000 barrels of flour to New York.  I wonder how many barrels we shipped this year? 

In Michael Pollan's recent letter to the next "Farmer in Chief," his opening passage should be addressed equally to the American public: 

"It may surprise you to learn that among the issues that will occupy much of your time in the coming years is one you barely mentioned during the campaign: food. Food policy is not something American presidents have had to give much thought to, at least since the Nixon administration — the last time high food prices presented a serious political peril. Since then, federal policies to promote maximum production of the commodity crops (corn, soybeans, wheat and rice) from which most of our supermarket foods are derived have succeeded impressively in keeping prices low and food more or less off the national political agenda. But with a suddenness that has taken us all by surprise, the era of cheap and abundant food appears to be drawing to a close. What this means is that you, like so many other leaders through history, will find yourself confronting the fact — so easy to overlook these past few years — that the health of a nation’s food system is a critical issue of national security. Food is about to demand your attention."

People are starting to ask "Can My County Feed Itself," "Can Vermont Feed Itself?" And it's not just about being able to feed ourselves once cheap oil is gone.  As Tommy Thompson famously noted, the US food system is our weakest national security link.  Pollan explains: 

“When a single factory is grinding 20 million hamburger patties in a week or washing 25 million servings of salad, a single terrorist armed with a canister of toxins can, at a stroke, poison millions. Such a system is equally susceptible to accidental contamination: the bigger and more global the trade in food, the more vulnerable the system is to catastrophe. The best way to protect our food system against such threats is obvious: decentralize it.”

These are just additional lenses for looking at our food community. Do we want to have a food system that can feed us all, indefinitely, and  that we intentionally support and plan and protect? Or do we want to just wait and see what happens?   

When I was buying all my food at a grocery store, I never really considered where any of it came from or that it might be possible that the food there wouldn't be safe or available at some point. But wanting to know where my food comes from seems to have opened both an entire new world of possibility for connection and a Pandora's box of demons I sometimes would rather not know about. I'm glad the people building land trusts across the country (including the exemplary Marin Agricultural Land Trust which has preserved 50% of their county's land) have already been thinking about the importance of agricultural land for quite a while.  

The other interesting piece of news from the Washtenaw Land Trust tour is that they will be changing their name in the next year to reflect an expanded and more regional focus in their work.  And they have a lot of ideas for anyone who wants to get involved.


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