Utahns’ hearts are in the right place when it comes to local food. Last year of the 52,845 state residents who participated in the Envision Utah poll, answering questions about their ideal vision for the future of Utah on topics from schools to public lands to air quality, 98% said they would be willing to cut back on their own water usage, and would want to see less development on farmland, if it meant helping farmers raise more local food.
Agriculture is an important business sector in Utah. Production agriculture – livestock, livestock products like milk, poultry, feed and nursery products – accounted for $3.8 billion (3.1%) of the state’s GDP in 2012. That same year, according to the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food, 10% of Utah farmers sold directly to local consumers, who spent about $16 million on locally grown food products.
Raising even more local food would be great. And Utahns are spot on when they say that protecting our water supply is a critical part of that process. Despite significant rainfall last May, water remains a concern across the state, particularly for farmers. A story last month in Utah Business magazine reported that Tooele, Salt Lake and Garfield counties are so dry they have been declared disaster areas. As a result, farmers are switching from grain production to cattle grazing to save water.
But how much more water can we really give to agriculture? And would that water even be used to grow local food? Already agriculture in our state uses 82% of the state’s total developed water supply. Municipal and industrial water use combined is only 18%. Of all the water put towards agriculture, half of that is used for growing alfalfa hay for cattle, and some of that is shipped out of state.
Another problem is that saving water and saving farmland don’t seem to go hand in hand, at least according to Utah’s Legislative Auditor General. In a 2015 report to the state legislature, the office of the Auditor General warns that by 2040, demand for water in Utah will exceed supply. One solution proposed is urban development of farmland. “If we assume,” the report concludes, “that 100% of the agriculture water will be converted in the Weber River Basin (where development is expected), an additional 52,000 acre-feet of water will be available by 2060.”
When Utahns said they wanted to give more water to agriculture, they were likely envisioning more peach orchards and urban farms, not alfalfa. It’s worth considering how an increase in local food agriculture might be another solution to our water woes instead of pushing urban development. There are so many good reasons to produce and consume food locally. It’s good for the earth – fewer fossil fuels used in transportation. It’s good for our local economy – supporting businesses and farmers who live here. It’s good for our health – fresh food that is harvested and eaten at peak ripeness has more nutrients than food that ripens in transit. And food crops, even water-needy crops such as corn, almonds and grains, use less than half the water consumed by alfalfa. Tomatoes and potatoes use one tenth as much water as alfalfa!
Encouraging land and water conservation through developing our local food agriculture isn’t as easy as it seems. We’re going to have to see a lot more than $16 million spent annually on local food products. We’re going to have to shop at farmers markets, buy CSA shares (Community-Supported Agriculture) and patronize grocery the rare store like Real Foods Market (and some day the member-owned Wasatch Cooperative Market) that carry local produce and products year round. If all the 52,000 Envision Utah survey-takers started buying local today, that would be a pretty good start toward realizing their ideal future.
The Eat Local Challenge, part of this month’s Eat Local Week, is a perfect time to start making local eating an every-day habit. A little group support always helps. For one week, you can pledge to participate at a level that you may find challenging but not taxing: be a hardcore locavore and eat only food grown, raised, produced or caught in Utah (e.g. no olive oil or coffee—or you may prefer to give yourself one or two free exceptions); the less ambitious may commit to purchasing produce from a local farmer, along with some local eggs and cheese; or maybe just try to eat at least one fully locally sourced meal a day.
Of course, the definition of “local” is different for every person. Some may call local anything grown in the same state – even though for Salt Lakers, food from parts of Idaho or Wyoming probably travel less than food from St. George. Others like to designate local as anything produced within 100 or 250 miles. For an entire year, author Barbara Kingsolver and her family ate food almost exclusively grown on their farm in Kentucky (she wrote about her year as a locavore in her book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle). When Andrea and Michael Heidinger started Utah’s Eat Local Week in 2007, along with a few friends and acquaintances, they decided to stick with food produced within 250 miles of their home. Not only were they able to find enough food to eat, they found great food they hadn’t known about, things like Morgan Valley Lamb and Beehive Cheese. Since then Eat Local Week, and the Eat Local Challenge, has grown into a statewide event held at just the right time for Utahns to enjoy the best of the regional harvest season.
Katherine Pioli is CATALYST’s associate editor.