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Local food has many meanings, but all involve agriculture

Release Date: 
May 21 2012

Written by Katie Nickas for AgriNews online.

Local food, no doubt, means different things to different folks.

But to the community of people in central Indiana that is slowly taking root and branching off into all corners of the city and state, from cracked concrete corridor to gleaming avenue, it imparts many of the same values that farmers involved in production agriculture hold dear: Growing healthy food, making money, building connections and, ultimately, creating something where a bare space existed before.

The Indiana University School of Medicine, the Department of Public Health, the Center for Urban Health at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis and Improving Kids’ Environment recently came together for the 2012 Indiana Environmental Health Summit, an event held at IUPUI to recognize projects including the Butler University Campus Farm, a project begun on the school grounds in the fall of 2009.

Tim Carter, a professor in Butler’s Center for Urban Ecology, said local food has many implications for all of agriculture, not just urban communities.

“Globally, we do have a lot of terrestrial land taken up by agriculture,” he said. “If you’re converting a natural ecosystem into agriculture, it can have major impacts on soil health.”

He was not alone in voicing his support for building soil organic matter to restore topsoil — a major vulnerability for all farmers and the industry as it evolves.

The Butler Campus Farm now has a farm manager to help with its expansion and the addition of a permanent shelter. It’s also chockfull of cover crops and other tools designed to grab the soil and hold on, preventing runoff.

Water is another important and challenging issue facing agriculture, since the resource is so important to agriculture and will double in demand for the future.

“We’re growing a hundred different crops at the Butler Campus Farm, and we’re doing a lot of work with integrated pest management,” Carter added.

He said the use of nitrogen and discharge of nitrates into water systems could lead to future risks of nitrate transfer to the ozone layer, exacerbating energy problems.

“We have to think about energy as part of the food system. If we look at the actual energy it takes to produce the food we have, we’re not doing a good enough job,” the ecologist and farmer said. “Per capita, the food energy consumed essentially is stable, but why are we not doing a better job of using that energy?”

Carter challenged guests to do all they can to reduce energy spent through household storage. Refrigerators are the No. 1 culprit for high energy expenditures, and everybody has one, he said.

“The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service shows we’ve increased our energy use in every stage of production — carbon emissions from household energy usage is nearly double what comes from driving,” he said.

All in all, despite the diverse ambitions of many local food enthusiasts and burgeoning growers, no one can seem to agree on a definition of local food, and the 2008 farm bill’s definition, that it be transported no more than 400 miles from the farm or state where it was produced, can seem quite remote.

“Local needs its own definition beyond just a buzzword,” Carter said. “It can be spatial. It can be direct from the producer to the consumer. From a market perspective, it can be about people at farmers’ markets telling you how it’s prepared.”

“I think we can learn a lot by asking farmers how they grow their food,” he said. “We also could stop talking about our energy and agricultural expenditures as waste and start looking at how we can use them to improve soil quality.”

“We can talk about agricultural ecosystems and improving the soil so that it stays on the farm,” he continued. “It’s being done all over the country, and when someone asks whether we can do it in our city, the answer is yes.”

The cogs of the local food movement in Indianapolis have been turning for some time, and it sounds as if the stitches are starting to come together on several projects, including an Indianapolis Food Fund, designed to help catalyze people in need of starting their own farms and, eventually, an Indianapolis Food Council.