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Buying local is climate action

High quality, locally grown food is one of the great assets of the Rogue Valley. We live in a fertile valley surrounded by farmland. Fresh produce is nutritious and packs a lot of flavor.

Buying local is climate action, because we cut down on greenhouse gas emissions associated with transporting food, and we help secure our food supply in the face of climate change and other disruptions.

Local farmers face more challenges than ever. Cheap imported produce, skyrocketing land prices, the pandemic, climate change and local fires have all taken their toll.

Ironically, “local produce is never cheaper than imported produce,” according to Elise Higley, owner and farmer of Oshala Farm in Applegate. Higley is a board member of Our Family Farms, a nonprofit that grew out of the successful 2014 citizen initiative to ban genetically modified crops in Jackson County.

Local food prices run high in part because of the high local land costs, and also because local farmers are “competing with hemp and cannabis farms that are paying labor costs of $18-$20 an hour,” Higley explains.

Many of the farmers who are growing cannabis and hemp, “want to grow vegetables, but they can't afford to,” she asserts.

COVID piled additional challenges on farmers in 2020.

“It cost more to produce the same amount, because we had to separate everybody and spend money explaining to everybody what was going on,” Higley relates. “With any kind of sore throat or stuffy nose, we had to pay people for time off. We had no down time. It was just nonstop. But we felt like we're in the right place, doing the right thing.”

Surprisingly, “most of the food that's produced here is exported, and most of the food that's consumed here is imported,” Higley asserts.

This vicious import-export cycle occurs in part because there is no price tag on the greenhouse gases produced along the way.

“The closer you get your food, the more you reduce your carbon footprint,” notes Ashland City Councilor Tonya Graham, executive director of GEOS Institute, a nonprofit that helps communities be more resilient.

“Often, people don't know enough about their food system to know that it's in jeopardy by climate change,” Graham says. “What does it take to get some locally grown food? For a lot of communities, it’s almost insurmountable.”

For many people, 2020 was the first time they realized that our food systems are fragile, and that communities could actually lose access to food. “You saw big farms wasting food, milk being poured out, and animal products not being able to find a home” due to dislocations in the food-supply chain, according to Alison Hensley Sexauer, coordinator for the Rogue Valley Food System Network, a nonprofit working on food resiliency in Southern Oregon. At the same time, people in many areas of the country faced increased food insecurity — especially Indigenous communities and communities of color. A recent Oregon State University report estimated that about 25% of Oregonians experienced food insecurity in 2020, compared to around 10% in December 2019.

“I think our community finally realized how important local food production is,” says Higley. “That felt really good, even though we were working harder than ever.”

But last year, the Almeda and South Obenchain fires created a new challenge: a severe housing crisis for local farm workers. “Without farm workers, our food supply is definitely in jeopardy,” Higley points out. “As farm owners, we are worried about all our employees leaving because they have nowhere to stay.” Our Family Farms has raised more than $250,000 to help farm workers and has awarded seed grants to more than 40 families while continuing to work on long-term solutions for housing for agricultural workers. Donations are still being accepted.

Many people can’t afford to pay the higher price of buying local food, but if you can, Higley urges you to do so. “If we want to see local farms continue to grow food, we have to buy that food and we have to support them,” she asserts.

The prime spot to buy local food is the Rogue Valley Growers & Crafters Market, opening in Ashland March 2. An excellent resource is the “Rogue Flavor Guide,” published annually by the Rogue Valley Food System Network. The guide connects consumers with local farms, ranches and food- and beverage-oriented businesses, their products and the retailers who support them.

Lorrie Kaplan is chair of the Ashland Climate Action Project of Southern Oregon Climate Action Now. She can be reached at lorrie@socan.eco.

Learn more

Here are additional ways that local residents can contribute to a thriving local food scene in the Rogue Valley:

  • Advocate for more local food and less “imported” food at local grocers.
  • Shop at the Rogue Valley Growers & Crafters Market (opens in Ashland March 2), rvgrowersmarket.com
  • Rogue Valley Food Systems Network publishes the “Rogue Flavor Guide” (the 2020 edition is online, and the 2021 guide is in process) and an online Food Systems Directory. Donations are tax deductible and support their work to create a thriving regional food system; rvfoodsystem.org
  • Our Family Farms has a Fire Relief Fund; 80% of funds go directly to farmworkers for immediate housing needs, and 20% to longterm affordable housing solutions for agricultural workers, working with other community organizations. Updates will be provided as things progress. Donations are tax deductible. See ourfamilyfarms.org
  • The Crest at Willow-Witt offers programs for youth and community groups to learn about and feel a connection to the natural world. "Our dream is to be able to fund a week of summer camp for elementary school-aged children from the fire-affected areas of Phoenix-Talent, Kids Unlimited, and the Boys and Girls Club, so they can have a week of summer camp and go home with a box of food that they’ve harvested twice a week at no cost to them," says Lanita Witt, board president. Donations are tax deductible. See thecrestatwillowwitt.org
  • Southern Oregon Food Solutions offers tips on reducing food waste and other food-related climate-friendly actions, and opportunities to volunteer and donate food. See southernoregonfoodsolutions.org

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