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Originally published May 23, 2005 at 12:00 AM | Page modified May 23, 2005 at 12:41 PM

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Neal Peirce / Syndicated columnist

Time is ripe for urban agriculture

Is America ready for a metropolitan agriculture policy? Is the time ripe to take some of the billions in subsidies now flowing to big commodity-crop...

Is America ready for a metropolitan agriculture policy? Is the time ripe to take some of the billions in subsidies now flowing to big commodity-crop operators and focus instead on sustainable farm production in and around the citistate regions where 80 percent of us live?

Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., and the man who founded Congress' Livability Caucus, argues that with half of federal farm subsidies currently "flowing to six states to produce 13 commodities that in the main we don't need, like corn, wheat, cotton, and rice," there's a dramatically superior alternative.

We should, says Blumenauer, "use that money to build sustainable agriculture, create a farmer's market in every community, help farmers protect our land and water, preserve our viewsheds, foster land banks and control erosion."

Historically, he argues, our metropolitan regions weren't just centers of commerce but areas of fertile fields, often in lush river valleys. Even today, they have some of America's best land for sustainable agriculture. "With small diversions from the agriculture bill," argues Blumenauer, "we could provide grants for communities to develop year-round farmers' markets" and help local producers provide fresh vegetables and fruits, high-quality cheeses, honeys, nuts and more.

It's not hard to dismiss Blumenauer's idea. Small-scale agriculture has been losing out to big (and increasingly subsidized) farm operations for decades. This winter, the Bush administration quickly retreated from its proposal to significantly trim payouts to the mega-producers.

As for our food-raising-and-distribution system, the story is familiar: Big agribusiness processes commodities often high in sugar and fat, raises poultry, beef and pork in factory-like facilities, ships the shrink-wrapped products up to thousands of miles to supermarkets, and relies heavily on flashy packaging and advertising. How could anyone even loosen that hammerlock?

A bunch of reasons, it turns out.

First, millions of Americans are looking for fresher and more flavorful food alternatives — the very kind of product, from fresh East Coast summer corn to Montana cherries to South Dakota's new organically raised cattle on state-certified farms — that local farmers most reliably produce and deliver.

A second factor driving the fresh-foods drive: health concerns. It's true, not everyone catches on: a May 13 USA Today "cover story" celebrated such fat-drenched excesses as Hardee's 1,420-calorie burger. The article's explicit, unproven assumption: French fries, greasy burgers and heavy cheese-laden pizza please the tongue; salads and fresh vegetables and similar foods don't — and therefore don't sell well.

What's missing from that argument, aside from the horrendous health-system costs of fat-laden diets, is how delicious healthy "thousands-mile fresher" foods can be. Against the trend of chains such as McDonalds, Domino's or Taco Bell taking over school-lunch operations, several hundred school districts throughout the nation have adopted forms of a "farm-to-school" program to introduce locally grown farm products. When combined with nutrition education, farm visits, school gardens and classroom instruction, reports the Community Food Security Coalition, "children can develop healthy eating habits that will last a lifetime."

Matching that trend is the fast-growing national interest in organic foods free of artificial fertilizers and pesticides. The economic secret to building up local agriculture, says Schumacher, is some form of prepaid contract that schools, hospitals, government cafeterias, restaurants, even private individuals can enter into with local farm producers. The challenge — even beyond retargeted farm subsidies — is a way to deliver economic security to small producers adrift in a world of industrialized, high-risk agriculture.

The famed Wal-Mart slogan notwithstanding, says Blumenauer, lower prices for consumers often incur alarming costs in terms of transportation, congestion, air pollution and security. "What happens if your food supply chain is trucks that have to travel 2,000 miles? And then diesel prices triple, or there's a security issue? Or you're relying on such a few huge meat-processing factories and there's a tainted meat problem? How secure is that?"

The smart regions, says Blumenauer, will be those that get their act together to promote local food production, a critical step in a perilous global economy to bolster physical health, conserve open lands, save dollars and assure new self-sufficiency.

Neal Peirce's column appears alternate Mondays on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is nrp@citistates.com

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