Food Security in King County, Washington: A Farmer’s Perspective
I will start by acknowledging the importance of food security. We need food to live. It’s right up there with water, and probably a little ahead of shelter, but it’s definitely one of the essential three. Having enough food is different from continual confidence in having enough food. Knowing you will always have food allows you to focus on other aspects of human life, and allows for greater flourishing. Not knowing keeps you thinking about food, scrambling to get it, and worrying about not having it.
What is the best way to be food secure? Assuming you had a shelter that was big enough, the best way may be to stuff your home full of non-perishable food, so as to comfortably feed you and yours for a lifetime. Because we eat a lot, that would take a massive storage space. It would also be weird. There is a reason most people don’t do this, beyond the space and cost; humans like food fresh and in variety. While irradiated meals satisfy the nutritional demands of the body, they would, in time, leave the mind wanting, and the gut flora weak.
What’s the next best way to be food secure? To grow your own food. If, on your own land, you could predictably grow all of your own food, you would be very food secure. You may still be at the whims of nature (don’t count your cabbages until they have grown), but a good knowledge of horticulture would probably render many of your crops successful, despite weather. I don’t know if any single person, or family unit, or indeed small community has ever been completely self-sufficient in modern times. In ancient times, people may have hunted and gathered all they needed, but probably traveled great distances to do so. Trade has been essential to the human diet since at least the birth of agriculture.
I am not an expert in trade, but my guess would be that the closer trading partners are physically, the more reliable the supply lines are. One could imagine a person carrying salt to trade a 1000 miles away, and one would conclude that it is unlikely that person would make it in a timely way, or that the salt would survive, or be traded at a reasonable value. In modern times we say “time is money,” and so even with planes, trains, and automobiles, shorter distances often affect value. So, in the case of trading food, proximity and security have a close relationship.
If we can accept that the close proximity between food producers and food consumers supports food security, then we can understand the importance of local food and the movement to eat locally. People ate locally for most of human history, but now, food is zipped around the country and the world, sailing on the wind of market forces. The ease of productivity and the vast increases in productivity have given rise to the feeling of food security, but volume only covers part of the essential nature of food security.
One could imagine abundance of food in one locality, but for a variety of reasons, that food can’t be delivered and distributed. During normal times, the market brings food to where there is need and demand. However, it is easy to imagine events that might disrupt that normal flow. War, trade wars, energy crises, climate change, and pandemics. Food near its end-consumer has a lower carbon impact, fewer supply chain issues, and tends to be fresher and healthier. Food security means having volume of food and proximity to food; having enough food nearby.
What does food security look like in King County? Does King County have food security? The simple answer is no. Washington State is a fantastic producer of agricultural goods. But, most food is produced outside of King County, either in the Skagit Valley, or east of the Cascades. That’s pretty close, but closer would be better.
Dow Constantine, the county executive, once said he would like to see King County produce 10% of its own food. That would be an increase from around 3%. 3% sounds scary when you think of the 2 million people who live here, and the volume of food needed to fill a 97% gap. It is probably unreasonable to expect the county to grow most of the food it consumes, without vastly depopulating the county, but we could get to 10% or even 20% of the food production, which could provide a crucial cushion to hold the county over during a disruption. I don’t think of myself as an alarmist, and I don’t have apocalyptic visions, but we could take a few steps towards greater independence from the global food chain. Remember that food is right up there in the top 3 most important things, and it bears our protection, even in a normal world of abundance.
Here are 3 steps we could take as a county to increasing our food independence:
Step 1: Increase food production in agricultural spaces. This may seem obvious, but here is what I mean specifically: The agricultural space we have is largely fixed, but how we use this land could be changed a great deal. A lot of good farm land is not being maximized for food production. Much land is used as rural recreation, or recreational agriculture. This county is large and contains a great amount of wealth. This increases the price of farm land, and puts people on farm land who are not seriously interested in building productive land.
From the top down we can: create incentives for land owners to see food production occur on land, and disincentivize non-food-producing farms. This would place food production as a better use, a higher public good, than rural recreation and acreage that creates privacy, but not production.
From the bottom up we can: grow our own vegetable gardens. Think of the iconic Victory Gardens; while Americans may have lost the habit of raising some of their own food, self-sufficiency is part of the American identity. Land owners could actively announce that their farmable land is available for rent. Too often, young farmers have a hard time locating good land, often because they are young and haven’t made the necessary connections.
Step 2: Increase the number of farmers. Small farms tend to be more calorically productive per acre than large farms. Idle farm land should be brought into production by new farmers, not merely increasing the size of existing farms. Increasing the acreage in food production will require more farm workers, and the productivity of the land will be amplified by increasing the number of small autonomous farms.
From the top down we can: Increase access to land. The biggest obstacle for new farmers is finding land that is affordable. The municipality could offer subsidized loans for food producers who want to buy land. We could subsidize farmers markets, so that farmers wouldn’t have to pay booth fees, which would give beginning farmers time to build their products and customer base.
From the bottom up we can: encourage children to go into farming as a viable career. Farming is more than monotonous back-breaking work. It requires ingenuity, and endless creativity to solve problems, provides independence, and is endlessly rewarding.
Step 3: Increase the market appetite for local food. If the King County consumer changed his or her perspective and sought out local foods, it would put market pressures on increasing the first 2 steps; buying local would encourage land owners to put their land into food production, and encourage people to go into the profession of farming. At our latitude, and with season-extending greenhouses and row cover, we can extend our growing season, and in some cases do it year-round. Farmers in King county can grow a high volume of crops about 4 months out of the year. During the winter months, farmers sell items they have in cold storage, and winter is a prime time to sell meat such as beef, pork, lamb, and poultry. Eating locally may mean eating more greens in the summer, and more roots in the winter; more berries in the summer, and more meat in the winter.
From the top down we can: Cut subsidies for corn. The Federal Farm Bill pays American farmers to grow corn, which is largely used in processed foods, and turned into sugar. We encourage farmers to grow a monoculture of corn, and financially support keeping its price low. If you buy a product with High Fructose Corn syrup in it, chances are it saw federal money somewhere in its life. But, if you buy broccoli from a King County farmer, you have to pay market price. We should not support less healthy food. We should not tilt the playing field in favor of food processors and away from small vegetable producers.
From the bottom up we can: Buy our food locally. If local food is demanded, farmers will respond. More land will be put into production, and more people will pursue farming as an occupation if the market demands more local food.
Our local food source is a muscle. If we exercise it, use it, make demands on it, it will become more capable and stronger. But strength doesn’t happen overnight, and over-stress a muscle all of a sudden, and you will come up short.