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Posted: May 28, 2010 12:01 a.m.

Local farming better for health, environment

Local agriculture experts say until Americans are willing to spend more money, they’ll have to continue to make do with less healthy and less flavorful food and small to medium locally owned farms will continue to vanish.

A group of Atlanta and Morgan, Newton and Walton county agriculture experts discussed the future of organic and sustainable farming at the sixth annual Land Talks event, May 20 at Hard Labor Creek State Park.

Farming is big business and the size of the average commodity farm, those that produce row crops like corn, soybeans and wheat, has been increasing for decades. But in the midst of the big-business mentality, a counter movement has been in the works for years. It’s gone by many names, including organic and green, but the most recent iteration is local, sustainable farming, said Alice Rolls, director of Georgia Organics.

It’s represented in the town farmers market, the country roadside stand and the u-pick strawberry fields and fruit orchards. While these operations are increasing in frequency, they’re also battling against an increasing number of supermarkets and the constant threat of new developments eating up available farmland.

As populations increase and health concerns continue to grow, Rolls said that the topic of food is beginning to find its way into the conversations of cities and counties. A recent Harvard-based study in the Pediatrics medical journal demonstrated a link between phosphate-based pesticides and the development of ADHD in children.

"The motivations are taste, fresh food and personal health. A lot of mothers gain entry (to the sustainable food movement" with their first child," Rolls said.

Many other diseases are linked to food including heat disease and 40 percent of cancers. Despite the fact that Georgia is the 6th leading domestic producer of vegetables, the state is still obese overall. In addition, traditional farms produce a lot of greenhouse gases and are the No. 1 water polluter.

The goal of sustainable farming is to use as few resources as possible. Buying local feed and fertilizer uses less gasoline as does selling food locally. Using compost, composed of food scraps and yard waste, is much healthier and cheaper than using synthetic fertilizers.

"How do you help build soil fertility? Use feed, not fertilizer. Don’t kill the soil," Rolls said. "What will happen to agriculture when gas prices go up? All synthetic fertilizers are petroleum based, so they’re heavily dependent on oil. That leaves farmers vulnerable."

In many ways, sustainable is the term used to describe much of what organic used to mean. But because organic is now an official government-regulated term, it can’t be used as widely. Also, while organic food is shipped all around the country and available in grocery stores around the county, sustainable farming is tied into local farming.

Buying from local farmers also keeps money in the local economy. Every $1 spent in a supermarket circulates through the local economy an average of 2.5 times, while every $1 spent at a local farm circulates the local economy seven times, said Craig Page, director of PLACE, or Promoting Local Agriculture and Cultural Experience, an Athens-based non-profit.

In addition, selling local is a boon to farmers, and is necessary to their survival. When a farmer’s goods make their way to a supermarket, that farmer makes only 19 cents per every $1 of goods sold. That’s because the other 81 cents pays the distributors, the processors, the marketers and others in the process chain. When a farmer sells his fruit and vegetables locally, nearly the entire $1 is profit.

This small margin of profit, particularly in commodity crops, is why farms must be so large to survive," said Jeffrey Dorfman, professor of agriculture and economics at UGA.

However, in order to sell locally, farmers must have customers, and when farming on a small scale, they can’t compete penny for penny with supermarkets. Farmers’ market and u-pick operations are helpful, as are community supported agriculture operations, where a resident can order a box of produce from a farm every month. Depending on what’s in season, the resident will have a variety of different produce every month. Several Oxford residents receive monthly vegetables from a CSA farm in Walnut Grove in Walton County.

These are all effective, but they’re can’t guarantee the stability of a contract with a restaurant or school. These are the two avenues that local farmers are still trying to break into. The largest barriers remain cost, but being able to buy sufficient amounts of products is also troubling for restaurants and schools.

A local farmer at the talks said the Decatur City School System had approached him about supplying milk to them. He told them he couldn’t compete on prices, but he said the system said it had set aside money specifically to buy local. In addition, another attendee said Jasper and Putnam counties’ school systems were contracting to purchase strawberries locally.

Some restaurants are buying locally, but most of those are in Atlanta, as well as specialty supermarkets, said local organic farmer Corey Mosser, who runs a fairly new farm at Burge Plantation.

Rolls suggested that local farms need to from co-ops in order to meet production needs and also form relationships with business owners and local school officials, like nutritionists.

However, there may not be enough farmers if counties don’t take steps to protect agriculture land. Newton County’s 2050 growth plan specifically outlines measures to protect agriculture land. Dorfman said farms are important, because similar to industries and other businesses, they cost less to service, than they pay to counties in taxes.

"If all the farmland is converted into residential property, then either the government will be broke or government will have to raise taxes a lot," Dorfman said.

For a world and county that’s going to have to find a way to double food production during the next 30 to 40 years, that would be a troubling proposition. If residents are willing to pay an extra dollar or two for a pound of local tomatoes and other produce, they may be able to stem the tide.

"I believe that quality of life is even more important to youth than amassing a fortune. I hope more people will start small farms to sustain themselves," said Sandy Morehouse, owner of Burge Plantation and its new organic farm. He said he hoped the future may see more people telecommuting and working from home and being able to go out and garden every day.

For more information on how to support local agriculture, contact Smart Growth Newton County by visiting smartgrowthnewtoncounty.com and The Center for Community Preservation and Planning by calling (770) 788-0484 or going to 2104 Washington St. in Covington.

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