I was invited last Friday to speak briefly to the Spokane Ag Bureau about our experience in local foods and more generally about the local food movement in Spokane. The group was heavily weighted toward people involved in agricultural lending and financial services. They were all very gracious and warm in their welcome. I especially appreciated Jay Allert, president and co-owner of Aslin Finch and current president of the Ag Bureau. He has been a voice of advocacy for the local food movement and even helped sponsor the chicken coop tour last year in Spokane.
There were a couple of things that stuck out to me. In the financial status report on the ag industry the category name for meat from cows, chickens and pork was titled "Protein". The animals and the processes that bring them to market had been reduced to a chain of amino acids. It was reported that the dairy industry is really struggling right now because of deflated pricing. So much so that a major dairy farmer could lose half a million dollars per month. There was concern expressed about the aging of knowledgable farmers. The average age right now is 57 years old. They mentioned in passing, as if they mention it every time they gather, that this demographic reality will some day bring a reckoning in the ag industry. They also acknowledged that unless someone has a foot in the door throught family land or connections, the barriers to entry in the ag business are inusrmountable.
I told them that if the local food movement is going to really innovate changes for the good, then organizations like the Ag Bureau will need to be conversation partners. My bias is not so much that they need to come to the table, rather that the local food advocates need to come to the table of the large suppliers and financial oragnizations. Farmers markets and food coops need to be members of groups like this. For real change, superficial sabre rattling and shaking fists at big industrial ag needs to be replaced with some pragmatism. After all, they sold more protein in the last minute, than all the farmers markets in the Inland Northwest will sell over the next five months combined.