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Beyond the Plate
By Leah Mayor

It is an interesting time for agriculture. There is more demand than ever for healthy, fresh, local food. Organic and green consumers take pride in knowing their farmers, considering the seasonality of vegetables, and putting foods that they have never tried before on their plates. The move toward local food is certainly to be commended but conscientious consumption will not solve our long-term economic, social, or agricultural needs. The fact is that many countries surpass us in producing seasonal, affordable, and healthy food. Many of them have better technology, farming practices, labor rights, and infrastructure than we do. It turns out that our food dollars may be doing a better job of supporting food systems abroad than at home.

Despite the growing momentum and power of the "new food revolution," few of us take action beyond what we put in our shopping bags and on our dinner tables. To create viable, sustainable communities we need to build a food system that will future supply future generations viable opportunities in farming and agriculture.

What is it going to take for the future of agriculture to thrive?

Save, Create & Maintain Farmland
It may sound over simplistic, but the future of agriculture depends largely on the creation and maintenance of farmland. Even with the increased usage of farming technology like vertical farming and hydroponics, the majority of our agricultural products, from carrots to corn syrup, can be traced to our land. And though it may seem obvious that we should preserve this land, development devours our farmland at the rate of an acre a day. In the midst of this development fervor, demand for local produce is increasing and there are plans in some states, like Connecticut, to increase the demand for local food from 1% to 5%. This growth has agriculture and food producers, distributors, and experts debating whether or not there is enough land to support even this seemingly small increase in local consumption. It has been estimated, using a crop by crop production average, that an acre of farmland can produce 10,642 pounds of produce per year, so with the world population on the rise -- 7 billion and counting -- every acre counts.

Develop Technology & Good Farming Practices
Food production already relies heavily on technology and will continue to do so as the need for food increases. Though technology is no cure all, it must play an important role in the future of food production in this country. The nostalgic, and largely urban, view of farming in which overalls and pitchforks play a prime role is outdated. As a culture we tend to think of farming as an industry of the past, a perception which may very well be holding back development of technologies and methods that could provide us all with adequate amounts of safe and healthy food. So, while other countries are making great strides in agricultural technologies, many feel that the U.S. lags sorely behind in using cutting edge agricultural technologies. We should be funding research and building partnerships that explore agricultural methods and technologies so that we can feed our people and protect our lands.

Design Infrastructure & Policy
Problems with our agricultural system are exacerbated by the fact that our infrastructure and distribution chains are better able to deal with longer supply chains than shorter, more localized, supply chains. To move food from Australia to any mid-sized city in America is easy, but to move food from farms to nearby cities is far from simple. Furthermore, the effects of policy at every level bring to bear critical influence on what we eat, how much it costs, where we can buy it, and why farmers grow what they grow. Redressing these issues will require the collaboration between consumers, farmers, researchers, politicians, and policy markers.

Shift our Thinking Beyond the Plate
The good news is that the timing could not be better to rethink our approaches to farming and agriculture. There is burgeoning energy and interest in supporting local food cultures and taking this beyond individual consumer habits; thinking beyond the plate. While that will certainly include eating and promoting locally grown foods, it will also mean valuing agriculture as a way of life, ensuring economic viability of farming and promoting agriculture as an irresistibly sexy occupation. It will also require that we let go of nostalgia and acknowledge that small farms are already major economic players in our communities. Small farms typically pay about three times the amount in taxes than they receive back in services.

There is an unprecedented opportunity to put agriculture at the heart of economic development and healthy community development. Ensuring local food in our communities for the future will mean creating regulations that promote and support agriculture, planning that integrates agriculture into healthy and livable cities, management practices that produce the best food possible and keep our soils and waters healthy for the long haul, regulations that support and foster the diversity of agriculture including orchards and vegetables, flowers, plants and trees, aquaculture, dairy and value-added products. Ultimately, this means thinking differently about agriculture and its role in our families, communities, and economies. And asking not how to make agriculture a thriving industry but remember that we are unlikely to have thriving communities without really rethinking our relationship to agriculture.

*Special thanks to the Working Lands Alliance Steering Committee and the Connecticut Food Farms and Jobs Working Group for their on-going and inspiring conversations about agriculture.

Follow Leah Mayor on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@LeahEMayor

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