As we are all presently discovering, there are inherent risks built into the industrialized food system with its just-in-time delivery. In the last 150 years we have migrated away from growing our own food to relying on distant production facilities and long supply chains. This arrangement is highly efficient and profitable when times are good. But it leaves little room for disruption: redundancies are expensive, and therefore avoided.
We didn’t always used to live this way. Not so long ago, our grandparents and great-grandparents grew much of their own food. The supply chain was short: between the garden and the kitchen.
People who did not grow their own food knew people in the community who did. Around 30% of the population were farmers in 1920 (when the last major pandemic hit), so it wasn’t too difficult to find an alternate source of food if your default supplier had a disruption. With empty shelves at the grocery store and closure of meat processors, many are beginning to realize the value of home-grown, or locally-grown alternatives.
I will go out on a limb that is getting sturdier every day and suggest it’s time for folks to start building their own supply chains, at least for food. What do we have to lose? If the grocery stores are fully stocked, we are still eating healthier food, investing in our local communities, and supporting a sustainable system.
So how does one go about building a food supply chain? It doesn’t happen overnight. But there are some very practical things we can be doing that will make all the difference. Here are a few:
There is a big disconnect between the way food has been historically produced and the way it is currently consumed. We are used to buying food the week (or minute) we plan to eat it. But food doesn’t just happen; it takes many months to make the trip from seed to table. When someone orders a lamb share from us, it takes 9 months to grow to maturity, with plenty of care along the way. If the seeds are not planted in April, there will be no harvest in August. Building our own supply chains means planning far into the future.
When our great-grandparents thought about food, they thought about the next twelve to twenty-four months of food. Which brings me to my second point:
Revisiting the Larder
Nothing is more stable than a winter’s supply of food in the basement. And that’s how most humans lived for all of recorded history. Our forebears had larders, root cellars, smoke houses, and attics where they stored vegetables and meat for the winter. Many of us remember grandparents who stored shelves of canned produce from their gardens. They had lived through disruptions and understood the importance of dedicating a small fraction of their house to stored food.
Building our own supply chains requires ample food storage space, an idea that is foreign to most consumers. One of the most frequently cited reasons people do not buy chicken, lamb or pork from us is because they don’t have the freezer space. We are more accustomed to buying individual cuts of meat, not half a lamb or a dozen chickens. But food is a basic necessity; we can afford to carve out a little extra room for it. So invest in a deep freezer, clear out a pantry, and stock it with food.
Knowing your local farmers
The most critical step in building our own supply chains is finding suppliers. Unfortunately, few Americans ever meet the farmers who feed them. Today’s farmers are buried behind layers of distribution, warehousing, and transportation.
Michael Pollan (Omnivore’s Dilemma) suggests that we “shake the hand that feeds you.” Despite the fact that less than 2% of Americans feed the other 98%, there are still plenty of small-scale local farmers who would be glad to have your business. Get to know them. Search for local farms on Instagram and Facebook and start commenting and asking questions. Develop a relationship before you need to eat.
Farmer’s Markets and CSAs are a good place to start. Co-ops are also a way to connect with local farms. Sustainable farmers associations and growers’ directories can also guide you to local farmers.
In our neck of the woods of Southern Minnesota there is a great association called Cannon Valley Grown. All great local farms with sustainable farming methods. There is also the Minnesota Grown Directory, a statewide, searchable directory of CSAs, farmers markets, and local farms.
Keep in mind there are many small family farms (like ours) who would be happy to hatch an extra dozen chicks or raise another hog for your enjoyment. Look for opportunities to be part of the process, to have a hand in raising your own food.
Growing your own
Of course the most resilient food supply is the one you grow yourself. Gardening is fun but it’s not just a hobby. Humans were actually created to be gardeners—it’s in our DNA. It’s not too late to start a garden this year, even if only a few container pots on an apartment balcony (that’s how I started). Add to your gardening a little bit each year. Then add chickens (but not in the apartment).
And please, comment or write us with any questions, or if you get stuck. We have been trial-and-erroring our way through home food production for many years and love to share what we’ve learned (see our series on Starter Gardens). After all, the more of us there are out there doing this, the healthier, more stable, and more resilient we will all be.