Brian Bates’ Keynote Address: Part 3, Why Bother With Local?

Editor’s Note:
 
This is Part Three of a three-part series from farmer Brian Bates of Bear Creek Organic Farm in Petoskey, Michigan. This essay was delivered as part of his keynote address to attendees at the Northwest Michigan Food and Farming Network’s annual Farm Route to Prosperity Summit on February 17th of this year. 
 
In Part One: On Becoming A Farmer, Bates describes some of the influences in his life that led him to become an organic farmer.  In Part Two: Scale and Perspective, he details an eye-opening journey that took him to a variety of farms around the world, learning what he could about the differences that scale makes in farming practices. Here, Bates concludes with the reward he finds-and thinks we can all find- in contributing to and celebrating our rich local food system.

Part 3: Why Bother With Local?

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I think prosperity is defined by a community’s well-being. At Bear Creek, we are invested in our community and hopefully our community in us. We won’t relocate our factory tomorrow, and in the meantime, we shop locally, bank locally, insure locally, employ locally. We teach others how to grow, and we welcome strangers to our farm. We celebrate the deliciousness of our food, and we respond precisely to the needs of our community. Growing food 52 weeks of the year is not easy this far north, but it’s what our community craves. So we do it. We work to weave our business and our livelihood into the fabric of our community. And perhaps most incredibly, it only takes a small percentage of our community to sustain our business.

We make choices every day. But one of the most important in my mind is being conscious about choosing to participate in the community food system or the country’s food system. We make this choice every time we go to the store or go out to eat. And I’m not saying one choice is more virtuous. This isn’t a matter of right vs. wrong. It just seems more important than ever to be conscious of which food system we are participating in at any given moment. This is not to stir guilt. Nor to increase self-righteousness. Just to be cognizant that our actions always matter. Indeed, we need both food systems. They are parallel systems that complement one another.

The average trip to the supermarket is $118, the average trip to our farmers market booth is $7.72.

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While you won’t find Anne or my’s smiling face at the supermarket, there is much more available. And it is much easier, and it is the way the vast majority of Americans buy their food. But if our average customer spending just under $8 at the farmers market can support our farm – our entire business. Think about how much untapped potential remains within our community. Imagine if we collected $12 at market, that would boost sales by 50% and barely make a dent in the weekly grocery bill. The golden ticket is finding solutions catered to our own community.

Community centric solutions are critical to a successful community food system. I’m going to offer an example of growing tomatoes in the winter as a smart solution to local food and climate change while feeding a nation and catering to a community. It seems paradoxical. Impossible, really. But it’s true. And it’s in Iceland.

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Iceland doesn’t have a Yuma in its back pocket. It is 63 degrees north and isolated. With rough volcanic soil and harsh weather, it’s not exactly a vegetable growing paradise. But realizing it’s nation’s dependence on foreign sources for so much fresh produce, Iceland doubled down it’s commitment to localized production of fresh produce with greenhouses. As you may or may not be aware, Iceland is covered in volcanoes and ripe with geothermal activity. Hot springs are popular tourist attractions, but next to each plume of steam is inevitably a greenhouse of some size.
This greenhouse pictured is 1 acre of tomatoes, and another acre of cucumbers, basil, lettuce, etc. It produces 18% of Iceland’s entire tomato crop. And it does so 365 days of the year. The heat is free, the lighting is cheap. The nation brought in consultants, paid for farmer training in Europe, and created a national branding campaign to celebrate local produce. And they do this with a very dispersed population and 4 hours of sunlight in the winter.

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Iceland answered its nation’s challenges with a local opportunity. It is in tune with the environment and employing locals in good jobs. Indeed, much like in Yuma, we have much in common with this farm. We, too, grow tomatoes in protected structures. We use similar trellising techniques, grow some of the same varieties, harvest the same way, and serve our local community. We just don’t happen to account for 18% of our nation’s tomato harvest because well, we have over 300 million people compared to Iceland’s 300,000.

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Scale matters when we talk about the food system. But I feel like the people matter the most. The farmers, the customers, the storekeepers, the chefs. We all need food. And we all deserve a prosperous life. And we all benefit from each other’s mutual well-being.

The systems that dictate our world are vast, some problems seem overwhelming – but when we take care of our community, when we invest a few extra bucks locally, we see a good return on that investment. Not just in local economies, but in our resiliency. We are stronger when we aren’t acting as an island.

I used to think I wanted a self-sustaining homestead. We would produce everything we need!

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Live off of the land! Off-grid, no-till, divest, reject consumerism, and on we went. But it’s only in exploring that “ideal” that I realized how much we all need each other. I don’t know how to fix our tractor. And I don’t really want to learn. But I have a neighbor who knows a lot about tractors. He doesn’t grow any microgreens, but man his family loves them. It’s a simple exchange we have. But it has greatly increased our community’s resiliency by aggregating our collective strengths.

Anne and I started with a feeling of incomprehensible planetary destruction. And while TV shows about preppers make for good TV, I think they miss a major point. Everyone cannot retreat to their own bunker and hope for the best. In times of need, the community comes together. What’s even better though, is when communities come together in regular times. In the day to day. Just as our nation takes care of itself by producing crops in advantageous environments each winter, our community should take care of itself by sharing in its prosperity at every chance possible.

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Sometimes we get bogged down in the woes of tackling “systems change”. Indeed, our food system is a massive, complex beast – but it is comprised of many, very small actions and decisions. The cool part is, each one of us makes those actions and decisions on a daily basis. And we do so mostly subconsciously. So I want all of us to think about the small things we do, our routines, our habits, and think about how they could make a difference in our community. This is what resiliency looks like. This is also how local economies grow prosperous.

In my worldview, building a community appropriate food system that is just and good, must be borne out of that community’s needs. We do not construct new, better things by attacking old, bad things. I don’t think attacking Monsanto does much to help our local food system. And make no mistake, I’m not a huge fan of theirs. But sometimes I feel like effort spent attacking is a missed opportunity to spend effort building.
The problems of the world on a macro-scale are overwhelming. Literally beyond the limits of our brains to handle. And so, it is Anne and I’s belief that we want to spend our days celebrating what’s good, what’s working, and what we want to see more of.

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We want to be a part of positive change. Build it and they will come. Buy it and they will produce more. Enjoy it and more people will join you. Share it and more people will learn. But to do so in a positive light is the ultimate opportunity. It’s easy to make people afraid of GMOs and offer a non-GMO option. But I don’t want to be in the business of marketing the absence of things that people fear. I want us to be in the business of pitching things that contain attributes people love. That make them feel good, physically and emotionally. Celebrating local food feels good. Supporting our neighbors is something most folks can get behind. Sharing a home-cooked meal is a positive experience. Fresh fruits are hard to beat. Seeing your friends at the farmers market is fun. Looking your farmer in the eyes is a unique experience. Many people haven’t ever met a farmer – I hadn’t until I was in college. Now we get to have favorite farmers!

Many say local food and local farmers are having a moment. They’re heroes. Local celebrities. We’re getting invited to classrooms, library lectures, chamber events, featured on the news – heck, I’m up here! But why stop at a moment? I want us to celebrate this moment, and to make it last. I want a full life filled with great moments spent celebrating things that are good. There’s plenty of time for tackling the world’s problems.

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But I want us to make a conscious effort to build up our community. To understand that our little decisions make a big impact. That prosperity is a fundamentally local opportunity. We will continue to participate in the national food system, there’s no doubt about that. But we have a tremendous opportunity to celebrate the positive, delicious, and awesome food system within our community. And to make it last longer than a moment. To make it our routine. To normalize our community food system so that it has the stamina to grow and flourish into the future. That’s the kind of world I want to be a part of, and one very worth celebrating. Thank you very much!

This concludes the three-part series of Brian Bates’ keynote address. If you didn’t catch them, here are Part 1 and Part 2. You can contact Brian and his wife Anne at their farm, Bear Creek Organic Farm, on the outskirts of Petoskey, Michigan. Thank you, Brian!

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