Over the past year there have been numerous examples of how the current food system in the United States has failed us in the face of a pandemic. Empty store shelves, virus outbreaks at processing facilities and wasted food while many go hungry are just a few. We also continue to face the impacts of climate change daily, including more severe and unpredictable weather. At the same time, there were stories of success and glimpses of hope, too. Many direct-to-consumer farms experienced a boom in business as consumers turned to them when the larger system couldn’t meet their needs.

Beth Schiller, owner of Dandelion Spring Farm, cuts chard in a greenhouse. Before March 2020, her Bowdoinham organic farm sold 60 percent of its produce to restaurant accounts, mostly in Portland. Almost overnight Schiller transitioned to an all-consumer business. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Jill Agnew of Willow Pond Farm, Maine’s first community-supported agriculture farm, told me that after years of waning interest in her CSA, she suddenly couldn’t keep up with the demand. “People are looking for local food right now. People are realizing that supporting your local farm is an important way to be involved in your community,” she said. Farmers like Agnew stepped up to meet the increased market demand by developing online sales options, adopting contactless pickup and ramping up production. There’s an important lesson that can be gleaned from this: Local and regional food systems are not only better equipped to withstand the challenges of the day, but also act as an antidote to some of them. Now is the time to learn what worked and build upon these lessons to realize lasting change.

A recent study from the Organic Produce Network highlights where our region has room to grow our food production. Despite the pandemic, the study showed 12.7 percent growth in organic produce sales in the Northeast in 2020. Of the top 10 products with the highest growth, nine of them can be produced here, including packaged salads, berries, apples, herbs, carrots, lettuce, potatoes and mushrooms. While we witnessed an increase in sales for local organic producers in the past year, we did not see the significant shifts in land use within our state needed to support the growth in crops detailed by the Organic Produce Network report – suggesting that the food was produced outside our region. Farmers can, and should, grow those crops here, and it would be better for all of us from both nutrition and climate perspectives if the food we were eating didn’t travel so far.

What would it look like if we insisted that the organic food we’re already choosing to feed our families be grown closer to home when possible? Not only would we have access to the best and freshest produce, but our rural communities would also thrive. Fewer toxic chemicals would be used, local businesses would be supported and more carbon-sequestering farmland would be preserved. In turn, our urban communities would also benefit. They would be fed by a resilient food system less reliant on a brittle, fossil fuel-dependent supply chain.

Our region has the land base to produce more food, specifically the crops that consumers are already purchasing, and organic farmers who are willing to step up to the plate. That’s why the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association has set a goal of converting 10 percent of Maine’s agricultural land to organic production by 2030. This transition will ensure wider access to local organic food and work to combat climate change, while also leading to regional resilience for the Northeast.

The solution to many of the food system issues we faced in 2020 is clear and achievable. When consumers are willing to choose food that is both locally produced and organically grown – instead of local or organic – they are participating in the best solution for our broken food system. Over the past year, our farms have demonstrated how a resilient local food system can work – let’s be sure that we take this time to acknowledge that and invest in them.

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