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'Know Your Food' a blooming movement

By Erin Mills | The East Oregonian

A vegetable grower at the Hermiston Farmer’s Market, Gus Wahner, left, cools off with a lemonade. Farmer’s markets are a growing phenomenon in Eastern Oregon. In the past few years, markets have debuted in Condon, Heppner and Pilot Rock.
File photo

The benefits of choosing local food are many. One can know where food is coming from, add more fruits and vegetables to one's diet and support local producers all at once.

In years past, buying locally was not always easy or advisable. Local foods tended to be more expensive because the small farms that produced, say, fruits and vegetables for the farmer's market couldn't compete with large operations.

But the times are a-changing. Not only are people demanding more local food for a variety of reasons, but small farms now have a fighting chance in the marketplace, according to Bruce Sorte, a community economist for Oregon State University.

Sorte and other experts will explore the local foods movement, and how it could benefit our region Thursday from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. on the main stage.

Sorte recently completed a four-month study of farming in Umatilla County. The answer to his basic question - How many acres does it take to have a successful, persistent farm? - was surprising.

"Agriculture has changed quite a bit in terms of the need to be bigger to make money," he said. "Today, things can be scaled up or down easier than in the past."

For one things, the market is closer. Producers can sell their goods over the Internet or at one of the growing number of farmer's markets.

The other major change is that inputs are more "scalable," he said. Thirty years ago, merchants who sold products to farmers - irrigation pipe, say - would give big discounts to the large producer. That is not as true today, Sorte said.

"Now it's just, how many thousand feet of drip line do you need," he said. "Suppliers are better able to serve a broader range of producers now."

The small producer also has access to educational resources, such as those at the Hermiston Agricultural Research and Extension Center, that can help him or her solve problems and maximize profits, Sorte said.

And then there is the "local foods" movement itself, which is drawing more people to the small producer.

"There is a real emphasis on local food now, and intuitively, it's a really appealing thing," Sorte said.

The idea of being close to the producer and to the land is a draw, and not just for the culinary experience. One of the crops Sorte wrote about was blueberries. He noted that blueberry picking has become a fun family activity,

"It's become a recreational experience, just like farmer's markets," he said.

Karen Wagner, another presenter, is the community resource developer at Community Action Program East Central Oregon. She is helping to create the Columbia Plateau Community Food Assessment, which will identify all the different foods being produced in the region. With the assessment in hand, she said, local food organizers can better understand what the region is capable of producing and what the local population can sustain.

"We want to know, how can we keep more local food in the region so we're not so dependent on the outside world," she said.

For example, if organizers identify a need at a hospital or school for a particular food, a local producer may be able to satisfy that need through modifications in the distribution network or the creation of a new business.

"We could bring back a cannery, for instance, or develop a commercial kitchen to add value to the crops that are here," she said.

Wagner also is interested in tapping into the wealth of unused food all around us. She'd like to see more gleaning programs and community food inventories - there are so many fruit trees that are not picked, she noted - along with classes that bring back long-forgotten home preservation techniques.

"It's really going back to what our grandparents did," she said.

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