An Isolated Idaho 

From harvest to home: rethinking how we eat

Idaho's borders have been sealed. Interstates 84, 15 and 90 were closed this morning at the Utah, Washington, Montana and Oregon state lines. All state highways have been blockaded. In- and outbound flights at Boise Airport have been grounded and all flights canceled until further notice. Lewiston's seaport has been shut down. Movement in and out of Idaho by road, air, rail, water and foot has been completely halted for an as yet undetermined length of time.

Choose your own far-fetched calamity to set up this hypothetical situation.

Maybe BW columnist Bill Cope has finally succeeded in convincing President Barack Obama to sell off a state to better the economy, and the president picked the Gem State.

Maybe Canada invades Idaho and kicks off a years-long occupation in an effort to establish political and economic influence in the Northwest region, and our intermountain neighbors figure better us than them.

click to enlarge ADAM ROSENLUND

Maybe the scenario is something more realistic like massive wildfires or Mormon crickets. Maybe bird flu finally mutates into a form easily transmissible between humans, and in an effort to stave off massive infection and widespread death, the federal government clamps down on all travel and orders states to seal their borders.

After rain pummeled the Seattle area in early January, these scenarios became a little more real when the three main mountain passes into the city as well as Interstate 5 were closed. Residents were left pushing shopping carts through aisles with slightly emptier shelves.

On January 8, the first line of a piece posted on the Seattle Post-Intelligencer's Web site read, "In terms of grocery delivery, Seattle became an island Thursday." In the online comments, readers marveled at how incredibly fragile their food supply system could be. Some more prepared readers boasted about their food stocks and derided other readers for being ill-prepared and without reserves. Others jokingly considered the social faux "paws" that could arise from having to choose between eating their pets or eating other humans.

The road closures were, of course, short-lived, and most Seattleites never noticed the grocery stores' diminished supplies, but the potential for catastrophe didn't go unnoticed.

At a recent community food forum in Boise, one surprising figure put a local perspective on Seattle's near disaster: Without access to their distribution centers, area grocery stores would run out of food in three days.

Whether Boise could face major grocery shortages in the event of any serious disaster is difficult to assess, said Michael Read, spokesman for WinCo Foods.

"Our stores, being large, have more product and inventory, so some things could last—even in an emergency—longer than three days," explained Read when BW presented him with the Idaho as an island scenario.

According to Read, if people were panic buying, the three-day projection could be a fairly accurate assessment, depending on when a store had last received a shipment of commodities. When and how often WinCo stores receive shipments varies by store, with some getting a single shipment a day and others more than that.

"It's certainly fair to say that store inventory would last more than a couple of days," stressed Read. That's days, not weeks or months, without access to the company's distribution center in Oregon (WinCo expects to have one built in Boise later this year).

Although Read indulged BW's request for a hypothetical answer to our hypothetical situation, an Albertsons corporate spokeswoman based in California was less forthcoming.

"We have a number of disaster responses and strategies in place that would allow us to direct food supplies and resources to our stores utilizing our parent company SuperValu," she said. End of comment.

One Boise store manager seemed to commiserate with Boise Weekly about the city's now stunted ability to communicate with those running the Albertsons show.

"This past winter we did have some issues with road closures partly from Utah and some from Oregon," said Greg Nightingale, assistant manager of the Albertsons on Parkcenter. "But we did business as usual."

SuperValu runs one large distribution center in Meridian, which services Idaho, California, Oregon and Washington, and when possible, said Nightingale, the company works with local producers, especially in late summer.

Let's get back to our disaster for a moment. Let's say that several weeks have passed since Idaho was physically sealed off from the rest of the country. Grocery distribution centers' shelves have been cleaned out, and grocery stores have run out of everything that's not produced locally. Costco is out of food. The Idaho Foodbank is empty. Even restaurant supply warehouses like Sysco and Food Systems of America are on fumes.

So, what are you eating?

WinCo's Read will likely be getting by. On the recommendation of his church, Read personally has enough food stored at home to survive for several months. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints advises its members to store enough food to feed their entire families for a year.

The Idaho Department of Agriculture's Dave Ogden might also being getting by just fine in the event of a sudden food shortage. Like Read, Ogden also stores food at home on the recommendation of the LDS church. He has a 72-hour survival kit ready to go in a backpack. He also has enough canned goods to eke by for several months and is in the process of updating his year's food storage supply to meet his wife's special dietary needs.

"The reality is, there's only so much the government can do for you, and then you have to do something for yourself," said Ogden.

But Boise Weekly didn't contact Ogden to talk about his personal food supply. Ogden is a section manager at the Idaho State Department of Agriculture, overseeing the warehouse division, working mostly with commodities dealers. In most of those warehouses, said Ogden, you'll find wheat.

"From harvest time to the next harvest time, there's usually lots of wheat in store, but that wheat usually belongs to somebody," explained Ogden. "It either belongs to the farmers who are storing it and waiting for better prices, or it belongs to the people who bought it and want to make it into something else. So it's not like it's [the Department of Ag's] wheat or the government can seize it or anything. It's commercially owned."

According to the Department of Ag, in 2007 (numbers for 2008 won't be released until August), Idaho recorded almost 1.2 million acres of harvested wheat. A brochure put out by the department states that if Idahoans had to consume all the wheat produced in Idaho that year, every resident would have to eat 195 slices of bread each day.

On average, Idaho exports more than half of its harvested wheat. Ogden reiterated that it's difficult to gauge how much of that wheat may or may not be available in the event of a long-term food shortage in Idaho like the scenarios Boise Weekly set forth.

"Most of the wheat is grown on contract," Ogden said. "It's sold before it's grown or at least before it's harvested for the most part. There would be some around, but whether we'd have enough to feed everybody, I'd doubt it."

Ben Gisin thinks given the volatilities in food production, the fact that the United States has neither public food stores nor a benchmark for food storage is a serious problem. Gisin is the publisher of an agricultural magazine called Touch the Soil, based in Idaho Falls. Incidentally, he, too, has a personal food store that he thinks could sustain him for at least a year, though not comfortably. For him, however, personal storage is merely a "bumper," but it's a bumper he thinks is important for the country to have as well.

"Particularly now with climate change, we should have 90 days worth of certain staples strategically placed," said Gisin. "At any given time, there may be some potatoes in storage, there may be some onions in storage, and there may be some wheat in storage. But to move these commodities into the kinds of foods that people are used to eating and get them distributed could take a whole lot longer than [three days]. By the time you figure you're out of food, it's too late."

In other words, even if Idaho residents could get their hands on every last grain grown in Idaho, would it happen soon enough?

Maybe not, but Idaho grows a lot more than just wheat.

Also listed under those 195 slices of bread Idahoans would have to consume each day is a list of seven other Idaho-grown and raised products: 50 potatoes, one pound of cheese, 41 glasses of milk, one burger, one 8-ounce steak, three onions and two cups of beans. And don't forget, those are per day estimates.

Given those numbers, it's hard to argue food would be in short supply if Idaho were forced to rely on only in-state products.

"Definitely, we produce far more in Idaho than we can consume," said Laura Johnson, section manager of the Department of Ag's marketing development division. "Between beef, dairy and potatoes, we're not going to go hungry, but we might get tired of eating the same thing."

It also depends on what time of year such a hypothetical disaster occurs, said Johnson. Should Idaho be cut off in mid-March, we'd have protein and dairy, but we might find the variety of produce available at the tail end of winter—potatoes, onions and apples—a little bleak until the summer yields are ready.

But some argue that Idaho's veggie patch isn't diverse enough.

click to enlarge Farmer Janie Burns has drawn a series of cartoons to illustrate what Idaho grows for itself and what it imports from other states. In another drawing, she demonstrates that Idaho consumes 16 million pounds of carrots each year, 99 percent of which is trucked in at the cost of $3.5 million. 
Burns estimates that it would take 632 acres, or less than one square mile, to grow all of  the carrots Idaho consumes annually. - JANIE BURNS/MEADOWLARK FARM
  • janie burns/meadowlark farm
  • Farmer Janie Burns has drawn a series of cartoons to illustrate what Idaho grows for itself and what it imports from other states. In another drawing, she demonstrates that Idaho consumes 16 million pounds of carrots each year, 99 percent of which is trucked in at the cost of $3.5 million. Burns estimates that it would take 632 acres, or less than one square mile, to grow all of the carrots Idaho consumes annually.

"While Idaho may have some commodities, it is really lacking in a diversity and for the kinds of diets we're used to," Gisin said. "The only way you're going to get that diversity is through an increase in local and sustainable production."

Johnson jokes that in a fully Idaho-based food economy, we'd have to go without bananas and coffee, but some proponents of a more localized food system think Idaho is missing the boat on more than that.

Like Gisin, a group of people in Boise are also talking about Idaho's lack of agricultural diversity. It's what some refer to as the "monoculturing" of our farm system.

In 2007, Idaho exported more than 86 percent of its lentil crop, which means, when it comes to some foods, Johnson is right on the money: We grow far more than we can eat.

But local farmer Janie Burns is among an increasing number of people who think we could be growing more of what we eat rather than what we don't. Burns has been digging up historical agricultural census data to examine how Idaho's farming practices have changed over the last 60 years.

In 1950, Idaho farmers grew 144,523 acres of potatoes, but by 2007, that number had grown to 349,000 acres, which provides Idahoans with about 8,000 percent more potatoes than are consumed within the state each year. Onion production in Idaho has quadrupled since 1950. Today, Idahoans consume about 30 million of the 680 million pounds grown in Idaho. The remaining 650 million pounds are shipped out of state, resulting in about $17.5 million dollars in profit for Idaho farmers.

That's great economic news, but in the last decade, Idaho has lost about 1 million acres of cropland, bringing the total to less than 6 million acres. That means Idaho has dramatically increased the production of certain crops while simultaneously losing farmland. The result is farms that grow massive amounts of a single crop rather than diversifying.

Since 1950, Idaho has quit growing lima beans, cauliflower, celery and sweet potatoes, although only about a total of 500 acres was dedicated to these crops 60 years ago. More substantial losses include 1,600 acres of lettuce and 3,000 acres of green peas.

So what's wrong with a system in which Idaho eaters rely on other states for carrots, lettuce and broccoli while, in turn, providing those states with potatoes and onions? Nothing so long as it remains more cost-effective to transport, for example, the 260 semitrailer loads of broccoli it takes to feed Idaho's habit. For the record, Burns estimates that it would only take about 1,300 acres to grow all the broccoli Idahoans eat and the result would be $5 million in revenue.

"We have to start growing food that we eat rather than food that we feed to animals and that we ship to places," said Dave Krick, owner of Bittercreek Alehouse and Red Feather Lounge in Boise. "A lot of that would be basic items like carrots; we don't grow any carrots here, and it's a pretty basic part of the diet. Lettuces. We don't grow a lot of lettuces here even though they grow beautifully here."

Krick and Burns are among those leading the charge with a recently formed local food coalition that's taken on the task of ramping up the local farming movement.

"We're trying to create another food system while there's already one in place and, to all outward appearances, is working," explained Burns. "To most people, they go into the supermarket, there's food on the shelf, it's what they want, it's a price they might gripe at but it's a price they can afford and as long as it's there, what's the problem? It's incumbent upon those of us who see the fragility of the system to move into the system and undergird it."

The reason Idaho doesn't grow more of what it eats rather than what the rest of the nation, and in some cases, the rest of the world eats, is due to a number of factors, said Burns. Geography lent some areas advantages for certain crops, but perhaps more importantly was the location of processing facilities, inexpensive transportation methods and downright peer pressure among farmers.

The reason to start reassessing our food system as a whole seems to be because we may not have much choice.

Even in the hypothetical food system that could isolate Idaho—a system in which food is plentiful—the system would be predicated on our ability to physically get food from the farm to the plate. It's the same problem that the residents of Seattle faced earlier this year: the simple inability to transport food.

But what happens when food isn't plentiful? Krick recalled last year's worldwide rice shortage and sky-high flour prices, adding his restaurants ran out of both. Drought in Australia and energy costs were both cited as the main culprits. Rice shortages were blamed in large part on the record high prices of oil, but flour prices increased fourfold in about a year because many farmers chose to give up wheat for corn in the hopes that ethanol would be the next big thing in energy.

And, of course, last summer, when oil prices topped $147 a barrel, consumers not only felt the pinch at the gas pump but in the grocery store as well when food prices began rising due to increased transportation costs.

For Gisin, localizing the food system is necessary for food security. For Burns, resolving a number of large-scale issues related to the economy, environment, health and climate change requires a change in our food system. For Krick, it's the world's affair with oil.

"We literally are eating fossil fuels," said Krick. "Oil was a very cheap and plentiful energy supply ... and farming has been the beneficiary of this cheap energy."

"We've spent 60 or 70 years getting us here," said Burns. "And we're being challenged to answer this question that took 70 years to create, in a short time."

Krick thinks the answer is the family farm. Burns would agree, and added that reintroducing livestock on the farm (so as to naturally re-instill fertility) is one small but essential way to begin getting back to where we need to be.

Gisin stressed that it's important to start somewhere. Maybe we're growing 10 percent of our food locally today, he said. Can we get to 20 or 30 or even 40 percent, he asked?

"The important thing is we have to begin down that path. Today, we're certainly not at 70 or 80 percent, but never mind. We just have to be brave enough to start going down the path and then see what comes up."

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