When President Biden remarked at the G-7 Summit in Brussels in late March that the war in Ukraine could result in global food shortages, the connection he was drawing caught many Americans by surprise.
Could disruptions in the production of wheat, vegetable oils, corn, and fertilizer in Russia and Ukraine really impact supermarkets in the United States?
But Andrew Rodgers, farm manager at Clark Farm in Carlisle, could have made the same comments himself.
“A geopolitical event can disrupt the entire world’s food supply,” Rodgers said. “When Russia invades Ukraine, it results in Brazil and Colombia running short on fertilizer. Less fertilizer means there won’t be as much grain to feed livestock, who in turn won’t weigh as much, and meat prices then go up. The ripple effect is amazing.”
It’s not only the war in Ukraine, with its associated grain shortages and fuel price increases. Supply chain problems, labor deficits, and the overall anxieties associated with shopping during a pandemic are taking a toll on food costs as well.
But to Rodgers and many of his colleagues in the community farming movement, the answer is simple — and familiar. “Buy local, and support community supported agriculture,” Rodgers said. “Not only does it keep money in the local economy, but CSAs offer a set price for the year, established in advance. You won’t see any roller coaster of inflation in your CSA.”
CSAs, or community supported agriculture, are an increasingly popular model by which consumers purchase shares from their local farms, then pick up their allotment of produce weekly. “With CSAs, you’re investing in your local farm and receiving dividends in food,” Rodgers said.
This model grew in popularity during the pandemic, as contagion-wary shoppers saw the benefits of avoiding large indoor supermarkets. But even with many people now comfortable returning to old shopping habits, new factors have underscored the value of local agriculture.
“There’s the supply chain. The Canadian trucking strike. The increase in fuel prices due to the war in Ukraine,” said Greg Maslowe, farm manager at Newton Community Farm. “All of those are reasons that the price of food is going up. Any kind of large disruption, whether a war or pandemic or massive fires or record heat waves, highlights the fragility of a global economy that relies on goods being transported long distances.
“In the past, that’s been an effective system because it makes things cheaper for consumers, but it isn’t a particularly resilient system if there’s any sort of large-scale disruption. Local economies, on the other hand, have built-in resilience.”
According to a Consumer Price Index summary released by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics on May 11, the “food at home” index rose 10.8 percent over the last 12 months, the largest 12-month increase since the period ending November 1980. The index for meat, poultry, fish, and eggs increased 14.3 percent over the last year, the largest 12-month increase since the period ending May 1979.
By contrast, the price of a growing season share of produce at Clark Farm increased 5 percent in 2022 over the previous year, at $38 per week for 24 weeks. Pork shares at Clark Farm showed no price increase this year (full share is $350 for over 40 lbs.), and egg shares ($8 a dozen) grew 2 percent — proof, said Rodgers, that “the CSA model is a stabilizing force against inflation.”
A growing season share may include lettuce, strawberries, blueberries, onions, carrots, spinach, potatoes, summer squash, cucumbers, cooking greens, broccoli, and tomatoes.
At Brookwood Community Farm in Canton, a three-season vegetable share has risen only $22 since last year, from $746 to $768, and barely over $50 since 2019.
“This year more than ever, our CSA is a great bargain,” said David Dumaresq of Farmer Dave’s in Dracut. “The price is locked in for the year and has gone up only 4 percent or 5 percent, much less than the [supermarket] food inflation this year which seems to be well over 10 percent.”
Buying directly from a small-scale farmer has numerous benefits, Dumaresq explained.
“You can eliminate the cost as well as the environmental impact of the shipping and most of the packaging,” he said. “Also, local farms tend to use less fertilizer and pesticide than products getting shipped in. In the wholesale world, produce has to be big and perfect. At smaller farms, we can allow for blemishes and imperfections because our products don’t have to pass muster with a supermarket buyer choosing among five different pallets of goods. As a result, we provide better flavor, even if our goods are not as picture-perfect.”
And even if CSAs can’t produce food more cheaply than large-scale supermarkets, they often give consumers more confidence in the product. Community farms — whether selling through CSAs, farmstands, or farmers’ markets — generally involve fewer hands in the pot, with most items going from picker to consumer, rather than through several stages of gathering, packaging, transporting, and selling.
In addition, local farmers like Rodgers who are personally acquainted with most of their customers hesitate to sell anything they wouldn’t want their own friends to eat.
“I don’t let my workers pick lettuce if they see bird poop on it,” Rodgers said. “Sure, it may waste a couple of bucks for us, but I don’t want some kid I coach in baseball getting sick from my CSA. If I wouldn’t feed it to my own children, I’m not going to sell it to a neighbor’s mom. I can picture the people who eat the food I grow, and that gives me a sense of very direct responsibility.”
“In general, we as a society are not conditioned or trained to see the true value of food that is being produced,” said Hannah Helfner, interim farm manager at Brookwood Community Farm in Canton. “The grocery store model means that there’s a disconnection from the process of growing food. Every year, some customer will say to me, ‘I can’t believe kale costs $3.50.’ But I’m not sure what they think it should cost, or why.”
With the Ukraine invasion and other factors that contribute to inflation, “it’s becoming more important than ever to understand the importance of spending locally,” said Erin Baumgartner, cofounder and CEO of Woburn-based Family Dinner, a local delivery service that sources produce, meat, fish, and grains from a wide network of community farms and delivers directly to subscribers.
“Typically when you spend locally, about 70 cents on the dollar stays local,” Baumgartner said. “In addition, there’s more certainty in your local economy that workers are being paid and treated fairly, and that land and animals alike are receiving ethical treatment. Buying local isn’t only a matter of a warm and fuzzy feeling. It is genuinely impactful.”
“People should value and invest in local agriculture at all times, not just in times of crisis,” echoed Helfner. “Pandemics, wars, natural disasters, tension and conflict, overpopulation: All of these problems are going to persist. Investing in your own local community, in your own local food system, regardless of what else is going on, will only continue to benefit all of us.”
Nancy Shohet West can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.