Sunday, October 4, 2015

Ten Percent Local Food

What would it mean to increase our local food production and consumption to ten percent?
            Currently 0.5% of the food we consume is farm to table
  • ·      Food Security – Reduced dependency on uncertain markets
  • ·      Quality:  Nutritional value, reduce food-born pathogens
  • ·      Protect, preserve and restore farmland and rural environment
  • ·      Water management and conservation
  • ·      Reduce agricultural nutrient loads:  Save the Bay
  • ·      Impressive ($50,000,000 per 100,000 residents) direct annual local economic benefit
  • ·      Strengthen local community
  • ·      Healthful, outdoor family activity

  • ·      Growing Population:  World food demand up 60 – 100% by 2050
  • ·      Marginal global food reserves
  • ·      One out of nine people suffer from chronic hunger
  • ·      Climate Change:  Droughts and storms
  • ·      Land development and deterioration
  • ·      Water security
  • ·      Pollutants and contaminants
  • ·      Viral livestock epidemics and food contamination
  • ·      Fishery depletion
  • ·      Food for fuel
  • ·      Genetic modification
  • ·      Rising cost of energy
  • ·      Political instability
  • ·      One-third or more of food production lost or wasted


Ten Percent Local food is about two issues:  Prosperity and Quality of Life.  It is about creating a resilient sustainable economy and a place we want to live and raise our families.

A stronger local food system is something a lot of people would like to see.  There is slow but steady progress in this direction and a lot of local organizations and individuals that support it.  There are many dedicated, hard-working, creative people who are trying to make this happen.  Some communities across the country have made real progress in this direction.  Bridging the gap between the present fraction of a percent local food and ten percent is, however, well, a leap of faith.

There are incredible opportunities presented by this model.  They include: good health, food security and a strong sense of community and place, preserving agricultural land and a major boost to the local economy.  Innovative agricultural systems could dramatically reduce nutrient loads going into our streams and the ultimate harmful effects they have downstream, e.g. the Chesapeake Bay.

The unique value of this approach is that it represents a distinctive program for repurposing valuable agricultural land, providing employment, developing the local food market and building a foundation for a vibrant local economy and strong community. 

There is a long list of potential threats this model ameliorates.  Not the least of which are those related to:  growing global population, increasing competition for scarce and declining land and water resources, rising energy cost, a far from stable global economy, the impacts of climate change and environmental degradation and others as listed.

The purpose of this document is to help clarify what it would take to dramatically expand our local food system.  “Ten percent in ten years” is a benchmark created by Transition Town State College during a series of public meetings to develop a sustainability master plan[1].  “Ten percent” is a scale that is not so difficult to get our heads around.  It lets us quantify what needs to be done and gives us achievable objectives. 

In essence, Ten Percent Local Food is a cultural shift and that can come about only through a “combined operation” of interested parties.  It is about developing a deeper sense of community, of place, of self-reliance and security.  It is also a change in our economy – a very positive change.  Ten percent local food could well be an annual $50 M per 100,000 population boost to the local economy and that is money that would stay home and fuel sustainable development.  Ten percent is only the start.  Once we have that we are on our way.

How much land will it take to achieve ten percent local food?

It all depends on how you use the land and what you like to eat.

Overall, the way we do business now, an acre of land can feed a couple of people.  According to the U. S. Department of Agriculture, the average American consumes 2,020 pounds of food per year.  That includes meat, dairy, vegetables, fruits, fats, sweeteners and beverage ingredients (it’s what we eat, not what is good for us).  There are some gardening and small-scale farming methods that can dramatically increase what can be produced on a little land.  Path to Freedom, in Pasadena, California, produces 6-7,000 pounds of food on a one-tenth acre urban lot, which equates to about 30 people per acre.  Will Allen’s Growing Power produces roughly one million pounds of food per year.  This includes the high density three acres in urban Milwaukee plus nine other sites: two farms with a total of ten acres and seven sites with hoop houses, or a total of about sixteen acres in cultivation.  They produce enough to feed about 500[2] people or about 30 – 35 people per acre.  This network produces fish and meat as well as vegetables (there is additional acreage in fodder). 

Feeding 20 people per acre[3]

We need to produce food near where people live.  Near-urban land is costly. Consequently there is merit in a more intense food production model, say, conservatively, to feed twenty people per acre.  At the rate of twenty people per acre, ten percent local food would require roughly 500 acres per 100,000 people served. 

Land use

The place I live (Centre County, Pennsylvania) covers 1,112 square miles and has a population of 155,000.  Two-thirds of that population lives in an “urban” center surrounding Penn State University.  Students represent 45,000 of the population.  Population increased 13.4% between 2000 and 2010 and continues to grow and that growth comes at the cost of building on prime agricultural land.

Centre County is in the Ridge and Valley area of the Appalachian Mountains, mostly “ridge.”  Seventy-five percent of the land is forest, ½ percent surface water and fifteen percent agriculture.  Agriculture land declined nearly ten percent between 2002 and 2007.

The Centre County 2007 Agricultural Census reported 997 farms producing $69.7 million dollars of agricultural products on 148,000 (rounded) acres; of which $17.5 million was non-dairy crops (including nursery and greenhouse) on 86,000 acres of cropland.  Dairy production was $52.1 million on 62,000 acres.  The average Centre County farm is 130 acres.  The average farm income was $59,879.  Major non-dairy cash crops included:

Corn silage
Forage hay
82,005 (dry tons)

A large share of Center County crop production goes into animal feed and biofuels.

Fruit and vegetable production came from roughly 700 acres (0.5% of total).

An estimated less than one-half of one percent of food moves locally from farm to table. 

Local Food Economic Potential

At a national average of $3,400 worth of food per person per year, retail, we estimate the expenditures on food in Centre County at $527,000,000 per year.  Based on USDA estimates, more than 99% of this food is grown elsewhere and shipped to retail outlets in the county.  In other words, most of every food dollar leaves the county.  Farmers retain only 16 cents on every dollar worth of crop they produce.

Ten percent local food would, arguable, produce better quality, healthier, food and keep a majority of $52,700,000 in the local economy. Research indicates that every dollar spent on local food multiples to $1.45 to $1.66 in economic activity, or a total of roughly $80 million[4] of immediate economic benefit.

Of greater importance is that money kept in the local economy is used again and again.  It creates jobs and local investments, generates revenues for local governments, can be used to enhance infrastructure, support quality schools and libraries, promote the arts and civic activity.  An economy controlled by local interests promotes a quality community.
A local currency (let’s call it the Centre Dollar) helps insure money stays in the local economy and promotes local businesses.  Every time that dollar changes hands it creates economic benefit.

Every dollar invested in the local economy produces long term and continuously circular benefit; potential an average of $2 to $5 return on investment. 

According to the local Chamber of Commerce, banks in Centre County hold $2,500,000,000 (yes, billions) in local deposits.  They have no strategy for local investment.  It is clear we need an alternative finance system and a local food system is a great start in that direction.

800 Acres

Producing ten percent local food for 155,000 people, at the level of 20 people per acre, gives us a figure of just under 800 acres.  That is less than one percent of the available non-dairy agricultural land.  The focus of this first ten percent is vegetable production.  We do not advocate a vegetarian diet but it is clear that a reduction of meat in the diet, especially beef, would dramatically enhance the potential of pasture lands and reduce environmental impact.

The retail value of food produced in this model comes to roughly $70,000 per acre.  This is more than the average farm in the county earns.  This level of production is both realistic and, potentially, economically feasible for near-urban, high land cost, micro-farms[5].

Current Non-Dairy Cropland in Centre County, PA
86,000 acres
Ten Percent Local Food, Intensive Production
800 acres
With Multiplier Effect


Using just one percent of current local non-dairy cropland at this level of production could double the economic value of this county’s agriculture.  Participating farmers could earn double or more current market share (even more if they direct market through cooperatives).  One hundred percent local food would demand but ten percent of available cropland.  Turning additional acreage into high-intensity, integrated food production would produce cash crops that could boost the revenue from sustainable agriculture and feed nearby cities.

Home and Community Gardens

Gardening is a surprising and little-known variable of our local food equation.  According to studies, in the US, home and community gardens produce roughly 6 – 8 % of the nations vegetables.  Gardens thus produce an order of magnitude more local food than farm to table suppliers.  I should point out that “Ten Percent” means ten additional percent of local food production.  Increasing local food production, as will be explained below, includes gardening.  There is a huge potential here.  At the end of World War II, Victory Gardens produced 40% of the nations vegetables.  Russian gardeners, compensating for a chronically unstable economy and high food cost, achieve that today.

Centre Local Food:  The Institute

How do we get this job done?  How do we blow the lid off a national average statistic that tells us only that only a fraction of a percent of our food can be grown locally?  This brings us to part two of making this case. It involves creating a Local Food Institute.

A Dream

The form the Local Food Project will take must ultimate come out of the combined creativity of the people involved, but here is a vision to guide it.

I propose acquiring 10 acres upon which to found a Local Food Institute to create a high-intensity farm incubator, demonstration homestead and models of community and high production home gardening.

We don’t start from scratch; there is a vast literature and many pilots to draw upon. 

A second objective is a model for preserving urban and near-urban agricultural land. Our proposal is an updated version of, again, existing models, in particular one designed by School of Living founder and back-to-the-land pioneer Ralph Borsodi[7].  Borsodi was a much sought after advisor during the Great Depression as an advocate of homesteading communities that would enable unemployed families to achieve self-sufficiency on three acres of land.  Finding the New Deal administration less than helpful (to put it mildly), he established a small private community near Suffern, New York that today, in more affluent times, is an idyllic neighborhood.  The Bayard Lane residents occupy sturdy stone house built during the 30s, surrounded by beautiful lawns and trees.  Some still, honoring the legacy of the original community, cultivate fine gardens.  Both the three-acre, self-sufficient homestead and a modified one-acre homestead parkland community estate, on land retained in agricultural zoning, are offered as models for preserving urban and near urban agriculturally land.

An intermediary level is a three to five acre high intensity production family micro-farm.  A century ago small family farms (80 acres), using draft animals, produced food for the family plus enough for about 20 other people, mostly in local towns (where there were fabulous kitchen gardens).  An expanded homestead, using intensive agriculture could meet the same need on a small fraction of the acreage.

Achieving an addition 10% local production of foods is not only farm operations but also includes innovative models for community and home gardens.  As stated, current estimates suggest that as much as 6 – 8% of the vegetables consumed in the United States are grown in home and community gardens.  That is great but it is a fraction of the potential. 

Home gardens average 600 square feet.  They produce an average of $100 per hundred square feet, or $600 worth of vegetables; a small but significant share of the family’s food.  A community garden plot averages 150 square feet.  These small plots also produce about one dollar worth of produce per foot.  There is always a waiting list of people who want space in community gardens.  We need more of them and that involves getting them organized (self-managing) and, for members who need it, necessary training in gardening.  Neighborhood gardens are a wonderful way to build a sense of community.

A suburban home garden could produce a quarter to a half of a family’s annual food.   That is a significant, non-taxable, addition to the family budget[8].  Increased home garden production must be achieved without tedious and exacting effort or drudgery.  This component would benefit from training[9], tool libraries, community facilities and other support services.  Food banks and low-income groups could be well served by this model.

Ten Acres

The proposed Local Food Institute ten acres could be utilized as follows:
  • ·      High production greenhouse environment, one acre
  • ·      School of Living demonstration urban homestead, three acres
  • ·      To include a homesteaders bungalow built of local materials and off-grid
    • o   Garden will be permaculture design
    • o   One acre of this site will be orchard/food forest
    • o   One acre pasture
  • ·      Support – composting, renewable energy generators/charging station, water and wastewater treatment, etc, one acre
  • ·      Model community garden, one acre
  • ·      Institute office, library, meeting space and parking, one acre
  • ·      Green space/pond/woodland, three acres

The Institute will ideally be located within or close to an urban area.  It has been suggested that a location should be sought with local bus service and preferably bike lane access.  The land could be leased from local educational institutes.  Ideally it would be donated or acquired by generous contributions and the land put under trust.

Partners and Network

Most communities are richly endowed with potential partners.  Local higher educational institutions are treasure troves of expertise.  There is often a network of sustainable farming organizations.  Many have an established but struggling local food network of farms and markets.  Local businesses and governments should readily see the benefits of this model.  The list of potential major partners includes dozens of organizations, projects, programs and individuals. 


Ten Percent Local Food is an achievable goal.  It is not, however, an easy thing to do.  The benefits, and the challenges this model ameliorates, are substantial.  It is not just a good thing to do, and it is a good thing to do, but one with an incredible impact on economic well-being and the quality of life of the community.

Many communities are making slow and steady progress in this direction.  There are great models in abundance.  However, we seem to lack programs with sufficient impact to accelerate the evolution of sustainable economies, to get them ahead on the curve of necessary change, that is mandated by the challenges all peoples face today.  Local food is the foundation of a sustainable economy and society.  Ten Percent Local Food is a model that has evolved out of our community’s dialog.  It is something that a dedicated team could put into motion.

Many have a compassionate concern for the condition of peoples around the world who live in poverty and experience chronic food insecurity.  We would argue that unless and until the US develops a viable local food system (and our proposed model is one that should work in any country) we will make little progress to correct this imbalance.

Feed back and participation is most welcomed. 

You can contact Bill Sharp at  

 Appendix:  School of Living and Transition Towns

“Ten Percent Local Food” was developed in association with two organizations:  The School of Living and the Mid-Atlantic Transition Hub.  Following are brief descriptions of these two organizations.  We propose a working partnership between them.

School of Living

The School of Living was founded by Ralph Borsodi in 1936 at the depth of the Great Depression.
Borsodi was an established financial expert in New York City with Wall Street clients.  Influenced by Henry George and Bolton Hall, he moved his family to a homestead in Rockland County, New York in 1920 where he established a homestead on which he developed the idea of back-to-the-land self-reliance and appropriate technology.  He wrote books critical of the American industrial economy and anticipated the Great Depression.  In 1933 he published the popular Flight From the City.  Following the economic collapse he founded a homesteading community on a land trust near Suffern, New York and became a much-sought speaker and homesteading consultant.  He was visited by Eleanor Roosevelt and influenced leaders of what has become the sustainability movement.  Following World War II he published a series of books on quality education, traveled extensively, worked closely with Gandhi supporters in India, established an alternative university in Florida, created and got Federal approval of a local currency and promoted his land trust model to the end of his life.  His assistant and successor, Mildred Loomis, established a School of Living community in Ohio before moving to Pennsylvania, settling near York.  The School of Living continues as a land trust organization with six communities, headquartered at the Heathcote community in Maryland.  A full story of Borsodi’s life and work can be found at the NewSchoolofLiving blog site:  The School of Living website is at:

Transition Towns

The Transition Towns movement was formed in the United Kingdom in 2006 as a response to climate change, rising energy cost and global economic instability.  The mission of the movement is to establish self-reliant sustainable communities with the resilience to provide security and quality lives despite the challenges of our day.  Founder Rob Hopkins is a noted permaculture leader.  There are nearly 500 Transition Town initiatives around the world and approaching 160 in the United States.  State College is a formal Transition Town (TTSC) initiative, founded in 2010.  In 2012 the Mid-Atlantic Transition Hub was formed to promote a regional support system for Transition Towns in seven states.

Transition Centre (, founded in 2009, served as the parent organization for TTSC and promotes the Transition model within the US Northeastern region.  Our mission is to promote an integral design for strong, self-reliant and sustainable communities that have the resilience to overcome the inevitable challenges arising from Energy, Environmental degradation and Economic instability.  Our tag line is:  Prosperity and Quality of Life.  Ten Percent Local Food is a project of TC/TTSC.

[1] Completed and available at
[2] At ten percent, these sixteen acres would provide for 5,000 people.
[3] This is a hypothesis we will test.
[5] By extrapolation, we have enough farmland in Centre County to many times meet the food needs of the entire population.
[6] Dairy and animal products represent an additional local food market that can be developed.
[8] See John Ball’s The Self-Sufficient Suburban Garden
[9] For example:  ClearWater Conservancy’s Garden Starters, a project supported by Transition Town State College, Pennsylvania.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Thanksgiving Story

Early American Food

This traditional American holiday is centered on a myth of the Puritan settlers in New England.  It is a celebration of the harvest, of survival in a new world, and of friendship between the settlers and the First People.  Thanksgiving became an American tradition only during the American Civil War (c 1863) and a Federal holiday as America began to emerge from the Great Depression and on the eve of our entry into World War II (1941). 

The traditional foods of this celebration are indeed largely from the Americas:  Turkey, sweet potatoes, pumpkin and cranberries.  But there is much more to the story.

The early settlers were certainly not castaways although they did face extreme conditions, a new climate, and had much to learn in order to survive.  The Pilgrims came on a small ship but they did bring tools for farming and building, seeds, animals, cookware and such.  Unfortunately they arrived at the onset of winter in a northern clime and that first winter was so harsh that half of their party perished.  Eventually, unlike a number of previous settlements in North America, they did survive, and the harvest the following year was abundant.  From the fields, both English and Indian, came corn, beans, pumpkins, squash, peas, carrots, cucumbers, lettuce, onions, sweet potatoes, radishes, cabbages, beets, turnips, bread from European grain; and from forest, sea and stream came wild turkeys, ducks and geese, fish, lobster, clams, oysters, deer and wild berries, cranberries, walnuts, chestnuts, acorns.

Europeans settled along a wide climate range from New England to the Carolinas.  For their part, they introduced cows, sheep, goats, pigs, horses, rabbits, and chickens.  Europe also supplied walnuts, almonds, apples, apricots, peaches, pears, oranges, lemons, olives, black pepper, tea and coffee, sorghum, sugar cane, bananas, wheat, barley, rice, rye, millet, oats, beets, asparagus, cabbage, cantaloupe, cucumber, carrot, eggplant, garlic, lettuce, okra, onions, peas, turnips, watermelons, and cotton.  Found in the Americas were beans, bell peppers, blueberries, chili, cocoa, huckleberries, maize, peanuts, pecans, potatoes, pumpkins, squash, sunflower, sweet potatoes, tobacco, and tomatoes.

One of my favorite planting methods inherited from the First People is the “Three Sisters” where three vegetables (corn, beans and squash) are planted in a single hill.  The corn serves as a climbing pole for the beans, and the squash provides cover to block weeds and grass and the prickly vines deter animal pest.  The beans provide nitrogen for the corn.  On this one small mound, these three plants produce all the amino acids of a complete protein — tasty and highly nutritious.  The picture to the right is from the garden at the Old Manse in Concord, Massachusetts; one of the early Pilgrim settlements.  Ralph Waldo Emerson lived in that house when he first moved to Concord and there he wrote his first book, Nature.

A mixture of European and American foods were readily adapted to colonial agriculture.  Crops depended upon climate and soil, and growing seasons and soils varied greatly from New England to the Carolinas and from the coast to the mountains inland beyond the fall line.  Those pioneering farmers readily adapted.  Our early economy was founded on grown exports.  Several crops were cultivated primarily for export, such as tobacco and cotton.  Lumber from the endless forests was harvested for shipbuilding and the European market.  Molasses (sweet sorghum) and corn were converted into rum and whiskey, respectively, for both trade and local consumption.  Fish were abundant along the coast and many thousands of tons were salted and shipped to Europe.  We have much to be grateful for from our fruitful land and from the agricultural heritage of two great cultures.

The American Food System Today

Over the centuries, agriculture has flourished in America.  Our land has provided a rich bounty of foods and a livelihood for generations of families.  Industrialization has had a major impact on our food system.  Climate change is having an even more profound impact both here and around the world.  We are in urgent need to closely examine and correct flaws in the food system.  That starts at home, both in terms of the local community and local foods and, yes, in our own back yards and community gardens.