On March 19, 2014, the Ozaukee Treasures Network hosted Brad Leibov of the Liberty Prairie Foundation, who spoke about what his organization is doing to help protect and create more farmland in the Lake County area of Illinois.
Coming from Ozaukee County, the first thing you might think is, “We don’t have that problem here—we’re surrounded by farmland.” However, it is exactly that type of thinking that continues to create a shortage of local food.
Much of the farmland you see around you, even here in Ozaukee, is used for conventionally farmed monocrops (primarily corn and soybeans) that are shipped out of state. The majority of the produce in our grocery stores, on the other hand, is shipped in from California or Mexico, even when we have them here in season, because that is the way our food system is designed. But this is a broken system, that relies on cheap oil and subsidies to work, and is a wasteful use of resources throughout the cycle. It is a system that Liberty Prairie Foundation is working to correct, by proving that a local system can not only work, but work better than the conventional one. How they accomplish their goal, though, isn’t really farming at all; it’s simple economics.
Local food is big business; the demand is never ending, but the supply is short. While a field of conventionally farmed corn is worth very little to the local economy, and is terrible to the ecosystem to boot, a sustainable farm with good biodiversity (a range of produce) means big money to the local economy, as well as being restorative to the soil and water, which offers even more economic benefit. In fact, their studies show that a farm of conventionally raised grain has a value of about $224/acre, while a farm of sustainably raised food crops is valued at $7,000-$10,000/acre!
Now you will ask, “If that’s true, why aren’t all these conventional farms switching to sustainable agriculture?” The answer is not simple, but conventional, large-scale farms represent a large investment in that system. In order to make a profit, they need far more acres, so the land investment alone is enormous. Then, to farm that much land, there is a significant investment in equipment and seeds It is likely that their farm represents gennerations of investment, in the only way to farm that they know. Furthermore, it is a system in which they are easily trapped in a cycle of debt; dependent on the very system that keeps them there.
So, if we can’t convince conventional farms to switch, the obvious answer is to develop new farms. While there are certainly people who are interested in trying their hand at sustainable farming, land prices and availability are the largest barriers to new farmers. This is where Liberty Prairie Foundation comes in.
They noticed that while lots of land was being set aside for restoration, none of it was being reserved for agriculture. They knew that sustainable agriculture was a better economic and environmental use for some of the land marked for preservation, so they used the economic benefits of local farming to convince landowners and land trusts to dedicate their unused space to agriculture—leasing the land at lower rates for longer periods, which allow time for the sustainable farms to get established. Not everyone believes in the importance of farming, but show people the dollar signs, and that was convincing.
There has been a long tradition, especially in Wisconsin, to preserve and restore open space. We have an abundance of parks and preserves, as well as public land that is marked for such endeavors, which, of course, is wonderful; however, not all of this land is best used for trails, camping and preservation. In fact, sustainable agriculture can, in some cases, be a much better use of the land, and have a better environmental impact on the land, than just leaving it to sit.
Public land and land trusts can be tricky, because of the various laws governing them. Also, the preservation only mind-set has been so long developed, it will take time to change it, but change it must, if we are to develop a healthier food system. Luckily, food is the great common denominator; after all, we all have to eat, and we all want access to healthy food. By beginning to have these conversations with community leaders, land preservationists and government leaders, we will start to bring change to our broken food system.
Some landowners have already gone ahead and solved this sustainable agricultural land-shortage themselves. Paul and Linda Thomas have a large farm in Fredonia, and they have leased it to young farmers who want to test their skills. By allowing their land to be sustainably farmed, they are restoring their land, as well as acting as a sustainable farm incubator and a grower of the local food economy. This was how Wild Ridge Farm, Ozaukee’s newest CSA, was born.
In urban areas across the country, blighted homes are being torn down to make community gardens, and a “grow food, not grass” movement is building momentum, even in the suburbs. As the prices of fuel climb, food that has to travel great distances will become more and more costly, giving more people the determination to grow their own food. These are all important developments but, particularly for urban areas, it is not enough.
How we use our public land needs to be rethought in order to establish a dependable local food system, and it’s a conversation that is long overdue.
For more information, visit: www.prairiecrossing.com