Shortening the Food Chain

Our veg box from Verdegreens Farms was a collaboration between them and several other Houston farmers. The Fella called it a “cardboard cornucopia.”

When Covid-19 first started hitting America really hard in March, I told the fella that “this panic buying is one thing, a disrupted supply line is going to be something else entirely.” Then the stories appeared in the paper, about how already struggling dairy farmers were having to dump their milk, since their market (little cartons sold to public schools) was drying up. Tales of produce being left to rot or plowed into the ground to fertilize next season’s crop followed. With this weekend came the news that meat chickens were being depopulated and that pigs and cattle would meet a similar fate if new processors cannot be found.

I’m not worried for the Fella and me; we’ve trained for this. The 1940s WWII Ration Diet experiment taught us to be frugal eaters. I do think we as a nation will survive just fine, although our eating habits will have to change for a while. Even those who haven’t learned to make Wooten Pie, Meat Pudding, and Potato Charlotte will endure.

I hope we learn from this. It’s not a lack of demand that is causing this, but rather a lack of dexterity in our food supply chain. The bigger the ship is, the hard it is to turn it and the food industry of America is a small flotilla of huge ships. The smaller ships are doing a little better, because they can change direction more quickly. Large dairies didn’t have the market because they don’t KNOW the people to whom they are selling their milk. Frequently their milk isn’t even sold in their own communities, but rather become part of the larger milk supply. Smaller dairies, many who already have a direct link to their customers, are faring better.

The same goes for produce growers. Smaller farms, many of whom already sell directly to customers through farmers markets, have adapted and through direct customer links they are staying afloat. The quality of the product is fundamentally better because it was not shipped across the country. Do I have the variety I would find at a supermarket? Of course not, because many things are not in season yet and that is okay.

As a country, we need to re-evaluate our food values and decide if having tomatoes in February is more important than creating a food chain that is more sustainable. By sustainable, I am not merely speaking of ecology, but also from a stability standpoint. Is it prudent to depend on a few regions of the country to grow all of our food, if that makes our supply lines so fragile?

I’ve seen a growing interest in gardening and backyard chicken raising. There is a resurgence of homemade foods. Bread baking is making yeast almost impossible to find. As annoying as that is for people who have been baking bread for years, I am glad to see people learning new skills and trying new things. And it forced me to revisit sourdough! I want to see people grow more in touch with how food gets from field to plate. I pray that it isn’t just a fad. I pray this becomes a larger movement.