The weather’s fine for nonlocal foods

I've been thinking a lot lately about food — particularly local food — and weather, as the last week or so has given us Kansans temperatures in the teens and in the 60s, sunshine, rain, ice and snow.

Local is the big word in food trends these days, and for good reason. Our food system has gotten out of whack to the point where many people don't have a clue where their food comes from or how it grows. (A local grocer's story comes to mind, of a woman who asked for local peaches and upon learning there were none, asked why the farmers didn't plant a second crop.)

Limits to local availability
I am here to say, however, that as much as I love local food, I am not in a hurry for the day when everything I eat is locally grown. Weather is the reason why.

I offer up some statistics, courtesy of the U.S. government, for guidance. I think they provide some insight as to why people in this part of the world have always imported food. Itinerant indigenous people carried with them food raised (and hunted and foraged) here and elsewhere; pioneers filled their wagons with flour and beans and dried apples and jerky; settlers traded for sugar, coffee and many other supplies. When the trains came through, they hauled in fresh foods that contributed to the Harvey Houses' success.

Nowadays, many of us in these parts glory in the summer produce, but we know that meat, dairy, eggs, baked and preserved goods are the only local foods we're likely to see this time of year. It makes neither economic nor environmental sense to heat greenhouses for produce. No, I won't be buying Chilean blueberries or Brazilian asparagus in the fall and winter, but I will be buying and consuming citrus from Florida and Texas and green things from California, preferably organic. And I think that's OK.

The weather report

Here are the record highs and lows by month over 60 years in Topeka, Kansas, the closest major weather station to my house:

JAN

FEB

MAR

APR

MAY

JUN

JUL

AUG

SEP

OCT

NOV

DEC

ANN

74

84

89

95

97

107

110

110

109

96

85

73

110

-20

-23

-7

10

26

43

43

41

29

19

2

-26

-26

Look at that! The February high and low extremes are 107 degrees apart! And in April and May, key planting months, the range is 85 and 71 degrees. (You'd be even more impressed if you knew how much trouble I had getting that chart in there right.)

If you look at other tables at the weather link, you'll see that May and October days typically have days both below freezing and above 90 degrees or hotter. I can tell you from experience that those 90-degree days and subfreezing days often are less than a week apart. Makes it kind of tough on a tender plant.

Then there's the wind. Topeka is neck-and-neck with the Windy City of Chicago in many months, but the real windy city, Dodge City, Kansas, has average wind speeds exceeding Chicago's year round. The annual average of 13.9 miles per hour in Dodge blows away Chicago's average of 10.3 mph.

Agricultural hospitality

Don't get me wrong. I want and support a healthier, more rational food system than the one we have right now, but if you take a look at the weather (never mind details like rain), you will understand why these Great Plains were made for grazing and growing the sturdy grass known as wheat. We need to play to our environment's natural strengths, here and across the country. (We don't have a lock on weather extremes.) In our case, that means ready access to livestock and grains much of the year and summertime fruits (most years) and vegetables.

That also means that lots of places benefit from the flour grown and the beef raised here just as I savor the privilege of fresh produce in winter that has been responsibly raised in our country's warmer climes.

Drawing the line

I'm just not ready to live on canned and frozen fruits and vegetables for large portions of the year, and I think lots of other people aren't, either. The 100-mile diet sounds a lot more appealing when you live somewhere with a longer growing season and generally less erratic weather than around here. Or, maybe one day our local food systems will get sufficiently re-established that Kaw Valley farmers (large PDF) will again have such a plentiful supply that we can store more of the local stuff.

In the meantime, I'm not drawing the line at 100 miles. So where do I draw it? I'm going to go with what's in season locally, and when the weather excludes fresh local foods, I am OK with what's in season and abundant in other parts of the country---apples from Michigan or Washington when the local crop fails and citrus from Texas, Arizona, California. I'll seek North American coffee and the occasional fresh pineapple or mango.

And I'm going to hope that the enthusiasm for "eat local" doesn't turn into an orthodoxy that prompts people to jump off the band wagon entirely because someone says they aren't "doing it right" when they dig into their grapefruit.

7 Responsesto “The weather’s fine for nonlocal foods”

  1. Nat says:

    I'm not a 100-mile zealot, and when I'm in the produce section of the grocery store, I make the call then and there whether or not to buy Californian produce in the winter. But sometimes I do Mexican fruit also. Living in Oregon, I have a certain feeling that Californian produce is more "local" than Mexican, but coming from Kansas, might there not be too much of a difference? Might parts of produce-producing Mexico actually be closer to you than California's central valley?

    Nonetheless, I'm thankful that my grocery store of choice labels the point of origin on all produce. If my daughter wants a fresh mango, I just might buy it, even after I know it's from Peru.

  2. Steve says:

    I agree with Janet's sentiments.

    There are limits to local food’s utility. My home county (not too far from Janet's Kansas) has 25,658 people in the space of 440,000 acres (692 square miles). About 15,000 of them live in two towns with another six percent living smaller burgs. Of the 25,000, 35 percent live in rural settings.

    You begin to understand that there's plenty of land to grow local food. Indeed, there is:

    Of the total acres, 415,000 are in farms. Probably a bit much for local mouths. The closest market of size is Columbia, Mo. at 40 miles distance. She has better than 100,000 people, which, if my county grew only for the local fresh market, wouldn't equal supply. Next closest is St. Louis at about 120 miles.

    We also share the extreme Midwestern weather Janet mentions.

    Localvores are welcome. And a few people are gearing up to supply them, but by demographic and logistical necessity, we'll be growing commodity crops for the foreseeable future. Hopefully that won't make us lesser agriculturists to the growing local-food movement.

  3. Ed Bruske says:

    Janet, Eliot Coleman grows year-round in Maine using cold frames inside of unheated greenhouses. In other words, double insulation. I wonder if similar devices, wind breaks, heat from large composting operations wouldn't work where your area. I bet if push came to shove, people would figure out a way to produce more local foods throughout the year. Point is, as things stand now, they don't have to.

  4. Janet says:

    Nat--I'm not sure where they key ag areas of Mexico are, but I've assumed they're more westerly. If not, they may indeed be closer than California. I, too, am fortunate to have a store that provides source labels, at least on produce.

    Steve--Thanks for the affirmation. All choices are tradeoffs, I suppose.

    Ed--I checked with a farmer friend, Lynn Byczynski, who confirms what you say (she's done it herself) and says that there's a farmer in central Kansas with gorgeous hoophouse spinach. Lynn's written the Hoophouse Handbook for anybody wanting to try this. If somebody around here does it, I'll buy it, but it isn't likely to happen on a large scale. If push came to shove, most people in these parts wouldn't be growing local food year round; they would most likely be eating a lot more frozen, dried and canned food than they do now.

  5. We do buy our citrus - California and Florida. I must say that I do love and look forward to our winter canned goods. We put up a lot of soup, stews, chili, tomato sauce and other ready to eat meals from our summer and fall crops. These sustain us through the winter and spring when we don't have any fresh veggies other than squash, potatoes, onions and such. I love soup. It's a good hearty meal that warms us inside during the cold winter months.

    Of course, in an ideal world I would have a greenhouse - and more sunshine. :)

    Cheers

    -Walter
    Sugar Mountain Farm
    in the mountains of Vermont
    http://SugarMtnFarm.com/blog/
    http://HollyGraphicArt.com/
    http://NoNAIS.org

  6. Janet,

    I am a locavore, but it's not a religious obligation nor advice from a doctor. It's merely a choice about what to eat, and yes, I have been eating oranges this winter and I live in CT. I also refuse to give up coffee, spices, wheat (thank you for that, by the way), rice, and most nuts.

    For me, it's mostly about trying; not a half-hearted attempt, but a real effort. I am learning what actually grows in my region and I am getting back in touch with the seasons.

    I don't reject food that comes from elsewhere. In a restaurant the other night, I ordered a dish with fresh basil. What a treat! I don't know if I would have appreciated it in a different year.

    I didn't put up many foods this year--I only decided to go locavore at the end of the summer and only realized mid-fall that I should probably put something away for the winter. The things that I did put away are still delicious: applesauce made from Macouns. Yum yum.

    One thing that matters to me is if something actually does grow here, then I want to eat it from here. If it doesn't grow here, that's what fair trade is for. I will gladly exchange some of my divine apples for some of your magnificent wheat. It hardly makes sense for me to get apples from New Zealand during Pick Your Own season here. Not eating out of season food (for the most part) has forced me to experiment with some of the foods that are in season. And (for the most part), I am being delightfully surprised. I'm even learning to be grateful (for hoophouse hydroponic lettuce)!

    Everyone has their own rules. I've never found unyielding rigidity to work for me and so I'm working on a rule set that makes sense for me. I think that everyone should be free to decide what they want to eat, even if it's not what I would eat.

    Good luck!

  7. Janet says:

    Walter, I love soup, too. May you get your greenhouse and more sun.

    Sophie(Debbie), I agree wholeheartedly. Rigidity doesn't work for most people and turns a lot of people off. Last year's freeze that eliminated almost all local fruit around here (not exaggerating), made me especially grateful that I can get fruit from elsewhere. Perhaps mindfulness of our choices is the achievable goal that could move lots of people to choosing options that are healthier for the environment, the long-term economy and our bodies.