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"North East Food Poverty" by Josh Trought, published January 2007

Spring is the time of year to take steps towards a sustainable food system in New Hampshire. The New Hampshire Center for a Food Secure Future reports that over 90% of the food consumed in New Hampshire comes from out of state. Grocery stores are full of apples from Chili and produce from California and Mexico. If we do not have a source of local food we lack a most basic element for our survival. We must plan and implement a strategy for a sustainable food system in this region or we will not attain Food Security.

When the colonists arrived in this country and set up permanent settlements they also set up an agricultural system. They harvested wild perennial fruits like cranberries and blueberries. They ate native turkey and grew vegetables with a long storage life for the winter ahead. The traditional Thanksgiving dinner we enjoy has persevered not only as a tie to our nation's history, but because it is composed of all the foods that are available that time of year in New England.

Colonists set up a system based on what they learned from the Native Americans and the technology and science they had brought from Europe. Because of the time and cost involved with shipping materials from Europe the settlers were forced to develop a self-sufficient system for acquiring food, clothing and shelter. Food security gives our culture stability today as it did for settlers two hundred years ago. If we can produce our food and other necessities, then we gain freedom and build community. Freedom and community self-reliance are the virtues of traditional New England.

Are there options available?

There are many perennial foods that are underutilized in our society. The notion that we need bananas and oranges to survive in New England is a marketing smokescreen. We need to accept that a sustainable New England diet is seasonal. Summer is the time for zucchinis, snap peas, cucumbers, tomatoes and sweet corn. In the fall we harvest and preserve the garden's bounty for the long winter. By understanding the cycles of New England grown food, we can learn to enjoy foods by the season. Root cellar storage and preservation techniques like canning, smoking and fermentation are the tools that make this possible.

People wonder where can we grow all the food that we need in this region. The answer is everywhere. Instead of azaleas, rhododendron and burning bush - which are poisonous - we can plant blueberries, Nanking cherries and hazelnuts. We can identify and utilize native edibles like serviceberry and elderberry. We must re-investigate perennial tuber crops like Jerusalem artichokes and ground-nut that were quintessential Native American foods. There are also many edible plants such as hardy kiwi, Asian pear, and jujube (Chinese date) that have been cultivated in cold climates throughout the world. These perennials provide added aesthetic pleasure as all fruits begin as flowers.

Plums, cherries, nectarines, and even peaches can be grown in this climate. Paw-paws, medlar and persimmons are large fruits that can be grown in sheltered areas. The nuts adaptable to this climate are impressive in number. Black walnuts, heartnut, hazelnut and filazels all thrive in this region. Other nuts such as chestnut and butternut are being bred to overcome disease problems.

Of course we would be remiss if we failed to mention the staples of New England perennial agriculture. Apple, asparagus, rhubarb, pear, plum, blueberry, and cane fruits like raspberries and blackberries are historical food sources for this region. Other notables from New England tradition include cranberry, currant and mulberry. Fruits that were common in the Middle Ages such as medlar have been overlooked because they were not commercially viable. In the backyard they can be a rewarding addition to the perennial edible landscape.

How did we get here?

When shopping at the grocery store it is difficult to truly understand our food insecurity unless you notice the distance that food has traveled. The shelves are stocked with commodities, but nearly everything has been produced thousands of miles distant by underpaid laborers and transported using oil-dependent, refrigerated tractor-trailers. Varieties of produce have not been chosen for nutritional value or freshness, but for shelf life and appearance. The lack of nutrition in a Washington state Red Delicious apple is tangible by its poor taste and texture; the apple might look good on the shelf but flavor is lacking. Iceberg lettuce ships and stores well from California but lacks the nutritional value of New England grown crops we can produce year round.

A small number of species out of hundreds of edible foods have been selected as the industrial perennial crops that monopolize our grocery shelves. The most commercially viable varieties are popular because they are the easiest for industrial producers to harvest, store, and ship on a global scale. The Red Delicious variety is not the best tasting apple but it stores well and the appearance is saleable even if it tastes rotten. Another masquerade involves oranges with thick skins for shipping, which are tasteless and dehydrated.

This food system in place today is based on cheap available energy, particularly oil. Oil powers the tractors and other farm machinery, and is used to transport the final product. We use up to ten times the caloric energy to produce and transport food as we get from eating the food itself. The ends do not justify the means. We need to find solutions to produce food locally without using vast amounts of imported energy.

What can we do?

We need to start thinking about food with a perennial perspective, not just what is available at the moment. Fruit and nut trees take many years to establish but once they begin producing they are much more useful than a lawn or a hedge of rhododendrons. So plant today. The strategy is to use the energy and focus we have put toward non-functional lawns and ornamental landscaping into food production. Instead of mowing the lawn spend time pruning your orchard. Instead of hiring Chem-lawn to poison the groundwater hire an organic fruit specialist to help with potential pest problems.

We need to consume these natural treats as well. We must make the effort to eat what is seasonally available and try the unusual and unique. The variety of local food possibilities can bring richness to our lives. By consuming and producing at the local level, we can strengthen the locally grown food system. Seasonal recipes need to be revived and become a part of our regional rhythm. This yearly cycle can once again be a part of the cultural character that defines each region's climate and agriculture system.

This Saturday April 29th from 1-4pm, there is a workshop on Converting Lawn to Garden at D Acres Organic Farm & Educational Homestead. The fee for the workshop is $24. There is a 25% discount for D Acres members and 25% for Grafton county residents. Local members receive a total 50% discount on D Acres workshops.

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