A food movement for the future

Tuckaway Farm, a three generation family farm operated by the Cox family, has been dedicated to organic farming for customers around the New Hampshire Seacoast for the past 50 years. But during the last decade, that practice has focused to include new farming methods, such as water storage, irrigation and an increased use of cover crops, to combat and adapt to what may be the Seacoast’s biggest threat: climate change.

“First and foremost of importance is soil health,” said Dorn Cox, owner of Tuckaway Farm. “Increasing the biological capacity for soil to function is the least costly but most productive way to adapt. A lot of it has to do with managing water.”

Tuckaway, located in Lee, New Hampshire, is one of the local farms working with a much larger organization, Food Solutions New England. The organization aims to increase local agriculture in New England, a long-term strategy that may help local farms adapt and thrive in the face of a changing climate.

As air temperature rises globally, scientists predict the Seacoast will see more drought, flooding, and decreased water quality – all factors threatening independent farmers.

The Food Solutions program calls for the region to produce 50 percent of its own food supply by the year 2060. This is a monumental task, as 90 percent of the food consumed in New England comes from outside the region.

Food Solutions is an example of an organization whose mission is centered around what local farmers like Cox are making a reality. Cox is a part of Food Solution’s Network Team, a group of representatives from New England’s food system that are testing and representing the vision.

Cox is working on building what he calls a “biological system” for his farm. The system aims to tighten the carbon cycle and reduce production costs, while promoting self-sufficiency. The mission at Tuckaway is to support regenerative energy, as well as a healthy food system through diverse agricultural products and practices. The family of farmers is particularly focusing on soil, habitat, and community.

Cox speaks of “tightening the carbon cycle” in order to adapt to the changing climate. The carbon cycle is a biological process through which plants have the ability to absorb carbon dioxide that is found in the atmosphere and store that carbon. The carbon, known as biomass, is stored in plant material such as leaves, stems, and roots. Carbon dioxide gets passed through the food chain by animals that are consuming the plants, and through decomposition the carbon reenters the atmosphere. Carbon that is not consumed or fully decomposed increases the nutritional value of the soil.

Cox is also the executive director of GreenStart, a non-profit organization encouraging a more sustainable local food system for New Hampshire residents. The organization focuses on educating the community through technical and practical agricultural examples.

“Having farms be more active through farmers giving feedback to each other is also an adaptive process. Communication, open data systems and farm collaborative systems are part of the key adaptation that should take place,” Cox said. “Some of these things happen fairly quickly, but some of the plans we have are really longer term adjustments.”

Cox described the new adaptive methods as “more knowledge intensive.”

The Seacoast is also full of such sayings – Farm-to-Table, No Farms/No Food, Eat Local – from the backs of laptops in hipster coffee shops, to signs in front of restaurants and grocery stores. The eating local movement is surely a trendy one, but also a crucial one to keep alive in order for the New England Food Vision to be a success.

Support for local farmers has even made its way into the three dining halls at the University of New Hampshire and regional grocery stores like Hannaford. UNH’s annual Harvest Dinner this academic year brought in food from nearly 40 venders all farmed and sourced within 150 miles of the campus.

Tom Kelly, director of the Sustainability Institute at UNH, calls the New England Food Vision “a story about the future of our region.”

The New England Food Vision shows, through research and predictions, the possibility of New England producing 50 percent of its food by 2060. The organization itself calls the vision “bold,” but those involved believe it to be possible.

Even with all the focus on locally sourced restaurant dinners and efforts to support small businesses through purchasing from regional farmers, recent studies show that 10 to 15 percent of people living in New England today are hungry and do not have enough food to eat on a day-to-day basis. Because of problems such as childhood hunger and the cost of food, the New England Food Vision has what the authors behind it call a “story.” The story shows the possibility of eliminating food scarcity, in turn promoting food security, and doing so by producing 50 percent of all the food that is consumed in the region.

The New England Food Vision calls for a large increase in regional farming, but it is not clear how climate change will affect this initiative and at the same time how this initiative may actually pose threats in increasing climate change itself.

“If something like the New England Food Vision was carried out, it would have some positive impact on climate change,” Brian Donahue, a professor of American Environmental Studies, said. “But on the down side, we’d have to cut down forests for pastures and you’re not really going to beat the natural process of the forests. You have to compare the pros and cons, much like with anything else. I guess you could call it us owning our own environmental mess.”

Donahue’s claim about forests getting cut may seem counterintuitive in fighting climate change and global warming, yet the land that is currently forested is going to be necessary farm land if the vision is to be carried out.

“There will absolutely be roadblocks. Let’s call them challenges,” Donahue said.

“I am completely optimistic that we can accomplish what the vision calls for and exceed that even,” Cox said.

“I think we can do so faster than anticipated because it’s happening faster than I myself anticipated. We, farmers, are pretty adaptive and our agriculture system can handle it. We are still getting water, it’s just not evenly distributed.”

Amanda Beal, President and CEO of Maine Farmland Trust and a co-author of the New England Food Vision, agrees that there will be challenges in changing the region’s food system to produce more local food. However, much of the region’s land that is under forest cover can be physically brought into production.

“We probably will experience drought again,” Beal said. “Most of the predictions regarding drought show that we will get water, but that water may come in the form of snow or even flooding. We have to consider collecting and storing water at times that we do get rain — irrigating and infiltrating. We can’t depend on the water being like it has been in the past.”

Collecting water is exactly what Cox has in mind for Tuckaway.

“Going forward, water storage is our big plan,” said Cox.

Tuckaway has a man-made pond that was used last farming season and a water pumping windmill that allows Cox to capture large amounts of water in a short period of time. Cox also dramatically reduced hay crop and irrigated constantly due to the drought. Tuckaway’s fruit crop was severally affected. Blueberry production was down by 50 percent, while apples and peaches did not grow.

“There was no spring bloom,” said Cox.

Clearly adaptation is not a choice anymore, especially if the region wishes to see an increase in farming. New farming methods will have to be implemented.

The region also needs more farmers to farm on new farmland in order to produce more food for the region, though Beal said there has been a recent increase. According to her, the average age of farmers is also coming down in New England and more young people are taking on the role of the local farmer.

El Ferrell, Project Coordinator at the Sustainability Institute, thinks the food vision is achievable.

“The food vision will not solve hunger by itself,” Ferrell said. “The food we produce locally is going to cost more and it will truly only help if we address all the problems at the same time. We can certainly do it, don’t get me wrong.”

Farmers are not the only ones that will need to change their relationship with food. Food consumers will need to adapt. Regional Reliance Diet and seasonal eating will need to take place. A Regional Reliance Diet is what the food vision is modeled after. Consumers must transform their relationship with food and consume mainly food that is being produced in their region during any given season.

People’s dependence on meat, particularly red meat, must decrease and there must also be a balance between the local and regional food production and the national and global imports. The livestock sector produces nearly 18 percent of greenhouse gases in the world, and the US has one of the largest levels of meat consumption, according to a report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. The term “food miles” comes up often when discussing the consumption of red meat because not only are cattle themselves producing greenhouse gases, but so are the transportation methods prior to the meat reaching the consumer’s dinner table. Shifting towards a diet with less red meat would improve the current food system and allow for the food vision to have a more likely future success.

“The idealist in me thinks it’s a great intention,” said Jennifer Purrenhage, a professor of Environmental Conservation and Sustainability at UNH. “We, in the Seacoast, have a really strong food community. Our network is farming. It’s what we know best, and it’s great to know that human beings were growing the food you’re eating for dinner.”

On the other side, Dr. Purrenhage expressed some concern. “Most people say that that it is the max of what we’re going to do,” she said, on the topic of the New England Food Vision.

Certain foods that people all over the country have grown to love and depend on, such as pineapple, mangos and other tropical fruits, tea, and coffee, are simply not possible to grow in this region of the world due to the region’s climate.

“Farmers are not the only ones that need to make changes,” Beal said. “Policies, policy makers, and consumers of food need to also be willing to change. It’s a cultural question that we need to answer, and it sort of rests on everyone’s shoulders.”

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