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Eating Local When the Dog Days Come Early

By Anna Madrona, July 3, 2008  |  Meet the Blogger  |  More Posts by Anna Madrona

About the only things sprouting up on lawns this summer in central Texas are "Alarm Stage Drought" signs. The grass is crispy, some trees feature the yellow hues of autumn, and county officials and parents will be closely monitoring the few fireworks used by neighborhood kids this year. Our typical blast-furnace-August weather started in mid-May this year, and we've not had more than a flirty little spatter of rain since. Our June was the hottest recorded in Austin since 1854, with an average high of 99.4 degrees. Even our scrappiest cur-dogs won't go out in this year's noon-day sun. My CSA farmer, Tim, told me last week that until it rains again, he had no more veggies to offer his customers. Most of his crops were withered, dried-up, kaput. As a dry land farmer in a challenging season, Tim was saving what little stored water he had for his own family's food. The remainder of the week I worried about what this was doing to his family's income, since he operates by a pay-by-the-week model. Many CSA farmers use a subscription payment system; in other words, people pay up front for a share in the season's crops. It is more of a shared fate situation between grower and consumer. If Tim employed this model, each of his families would be out $40 per month maximum, in contrast to his family's loss of $1,600+ a month. When the rains come again, we would have our organic, heritage produce, as always. In the meantime, Tim could continue to pay his bills and slowly make improvements on his farm. And we would keep him farming in the community. What's more, the 43 local families who rely on Tim's weekly bags of heritage produce have many other options for obtaining our fruits and veggies (although far fewer right now if we want locally-grown food). Conversely, Tim's options for additional income when the crops fail are not so plentiful. Family farming in many parts of the country is a tremendously risky business, even when a spouse works a "regular" job to procure insurance benefits and steady income. My concern over Tim's family is yet another revelation in the process of tracing where my food comes from and matching a face with the source. When the food source literally dries up, and the loss affects families I know, my connection to the situation becomes more tangible. I think about water a lot these days. Other local growers still have produce available, but to a farm, each is irrigating heavily-when they can. They're still nursing their crops to market, but their yields are lower and costs are much higher than last year. For example, the small local harvests of heritage tomatoes are selling for $6.99 a pound, whereas last year you could eat your fill for $2.00 or $3.00 a pound. Another farm family I patronize at the Sunset Valley farmer's market had their second well run dry. They likely can't afford the financial gamble of boring another $15,000 well in a region where water tables are held hostage by the political and economic tension between existing agricultural and new residential demand for limited water sources. Leaf lettuce at $4 a bag doesn't pay all that well. And the competition for agricultural vs. other kinds of land use is far from unique to central Texas, isn't it? My own tomatoes and peppers are too heat-stunned to set blossoms, yet I still have a few things coming on in my garden, mainly chard, herbs, and a few cucumbers, only because I'm carefully and selectively watering. I'm trying to be more aware of my water use in general. I can still turn on a faucet as easily and mindlessly as ever, but I'm deliberately wearing clothing items one or two more times-when prudent-before I wash them, taking much shorter showers, and saving the dishwater to carefully haul out to my fruit trees. In other words, I'm living as if I depended on a rainwater collection system. It is a game I play with myself to help entrain my own "mindfulness of my hand on the faucet." I don't have to do this, but what if I did-like millions of people around the world? With summer starting three months early this year, I'm grateful that our distributed food system allows me access to summer's much-anticipated bounty, even if my local food system is struggling with the combination record heat and lack of rainfall. I'm mentally expanding my definition of local by an order of magnitude. I thumped at least 30 Georgia watermelons before choosing the most resonant for my 4th of July celebration. Perfect ears of Georgia sweet corn and cheerful yellow squash from Florida sit in the fridge for supper tonight. I'll fry the squash quickly with some Texas-grown Baby Bella mushrooms in olive oil, along with an onion and four tiny peppers from the final batch of local veggies Tim delivered. To complete the yellow-themed meal, an omelet comprised of "the world's best eggs" from a humane producer in nearby Manor and basil from my own garden will round out my plate. I consider it a "transitional local meal". Although I don't care for much meat in this heat, I may just have to sample a bit of Texas-style barbecue while celebrating the 4th of July this year. We're having a cookout in front of our flagship store in Austin as the sun begins to sink on Friday afternoon, just before the fireworks over Lady Bird Lake take our breath away once again. Y'all come on down and join us!

Category: Food Issues, Local