The challenges of a 50-mile diet

By David Parkinson

Seeds of the red orach, one of the surprise hits of the Edible Garden Tour

Seeds of red orach, one of the surprise hits of our garden during the Edible Garden Tour

We learn from our gardens to deal with the most urgent question of the time: How much is enough?
(Wendell Berry)

We’re just about halfway through the 50 days of this year’s 50-mile eat-local challenge, which goes from Sunday August 9 until Sunday September 27. On August 9 we held the first ever Edible Garden Tour, which showcased thirteen gardens from Lund down to Lang Bay where people are using a variety of techniques to grow food in a variety of conditions. From backyard lasagna gardening experiments to a demonstration garden and a community garden, and with all kinds of gardens in between, it was a really good opportunity for gardeners and would-be gardeners to see how other people are tackling the eat-local challenge by eating as locally as possible.

This is the third year that I’ve been involved in organizing the eat-local challenge; in fact, the famous ’50-mile diet’ was one of the first things I knew about Powell River before I moved up here in late 2006. And one thing I’ve noticed is that there are far more people eating locally than you might know from the number of people who sign up. In fact, quite a lot of people, when asked if they want to sign themselves up for the eat-local challenge, say something along the lines of, “But I eat locally all the time!” I’m sure that many people out there reading this can understand that response, since the idea of eating locally is really a part of the culture here, at least for a significant chunk of the regional population who have homesteading in their personal or their family’s history — or for those like me who moved here with the intent of getting closer to the sources of our food.

Another theme which has really jumped out at me this year is the number of people who feel that the eat-local challenge needs to be kicked up a notch. After all, just about anyone can go 50 days in the height of summer eating something like half of their daily food from sources within 50 miles of where they live; this is not entirely without some challenges and a certain amount of effort, but it can be done and it’s not a terrible hardship. But just try doing it in the winter! In the summertime, you can go to the Open Air Market, to numerous farmgates, and you can find local food at the fruit truck and at some of the grocery stores. In the winter, though, if you haven’t taken steps to put food by, you’re going to have a hard time finding local produce at any price. The upshot is that a wintertime eat-local challenge has to start in the summertime, while fresh food is abundant and while there’s time to plan and plant a winter garden. Of course, many people are busy right now canning, freezing, drying, and pickling, which are age-old techniques for preserving the harvest for leaner times. But if we were serious about eating local food year round, we’d all have to be doing this, and in serious quantities. Instead, we rely on the grocery stores to get us through the winter.

And this doesn’t even touch on all the foods that we don’t grow here, or grow in such small quantities that it barely counts:

  • Meat, dairy, poultry: I’m putting these at the top of the list, because — although we can obviously produce them here and in pretty serious quantities if need be — the government in its wisdom has seen fit to clamp down on small-scale production of animal products. This situation is still unresolved, and constitutes on of the most serious obstacles to a local food economy. What are we supposed to be doing about this situation? Will the grocery stores always supply our needs?
  • Grains: Imagine the amount of wheat, corn, oats, and other grains consumed here every day. Should we even be trying to grow these here? Many people are interested, and I am seeing some interest in a local grain CSA. Is it feasible? Can we produce these grains at anything like a reasonable cost?
  • Beans: A similar situation, except that beans are pretty easy to grow here. Although the amounts required are enormous. How can we approach the sort of commercial scale required to make a real farming enterprise out of this? Again, can it ever be economically realistic to do so?
  • Oils: Sunflowers certainly grow well here, and of course animals can provide oils for some uses. But again, imagine the amount of production needed to supply the needs of the region. How did people handle this in the days before importation of almost all food? I’m guessing that lard and other animal fats were pretty much a staple.
  • Spices, tropical/sub-tropical fruits & cocoa, coffee, etc.: There are some foods that we cannot grow here. That’s always been the case and always will be. We can try to find substitutes, or we can accept that no region can ever be completely self-reliant.

When you take a look at a list like this, imagine the amount of food passing through the tills of the grocery stores in the region, and then contrast that with the puny amounts of food produced locally, it’s enough to make your head spin. Are we even producing 1% of our local consumption? I’m not sure it adds up to even that minuscule percentage. But just because the task ahead of us looks Herculean, that’s no reason not to tackle it. The question you have to ask yourself is: why should we care? Why not continue to rely on the amazing global food industry, which brings us food from around the world at all times of the year?

What motivates the people who commit to eating locally, whether for 50 days at the height of the summer or all year round? I believe that for many of the people who make a commitment to local food, it’s worth growing, preserving, and hunting down local food for many reasons. But not the least of these reasons is the pure satisfaction — which is at heart an aesthetic pleasure — of connecting in the most primeval way possible with our surroundings. A strawberry from the garden certainly tastes more delicious than a strawberry from the grocery store, protected during its world travels by a pathetic plastic clamshell. But the strawberry also tastes better, and pleases us on a deeper level, because it is the fruit of our very own soil. It is as much a part of the place we live in and care for as we are. There is something genuinely spiritual about this connection to our food, and sadly this is a connection that many people have lost or have never had. The fight to save local food (and it is a fight, make no mistake) comes from the desire to save something whose passing from the world can never be replaced: the wonder of bringing our food into being, caring for it, harvesting it and preserving it, and creating meals that sustain our bodies and our spirits. The cultural importance of these activities is huge, but like so many things in our world, they get swamped in discussions of economics and efficiency.

Eating locally is an act of cultural preservation. And I think that most of the people who are drawn to the eat-local challenge understand this on some level, even if they’re not easily able to express it. And that’s why it is not going to stop growing, getting a little bigger and more visible each year. It’s a long game, but we have nothing to lose but the best food in the world.


6 Responses to “The challenges of a 50-mile diet”

  1. 1 Freija Fritillary September 1, 2009 at 13:22

    Great questions to ask David. We’ve looked seriously at the potential for growing small scale grain CSA’s. It would require either a few dedicated grain farmers, or a multitude of smaller gardeners. From what I percieve of Powell River, there’s possibly more potential for the mulitude of cooperatively working gardeners. We have grown our own grains with rudimentarly tools. It is relatively easy to plant, cultivate and harvest the crops, but it gets very inefficient when it comes to threshing and milling our own grains and legumes. And it is surprising how little acerage it takes to actually feed yourself for a year. So I do believe it is feasable to work toward local grain and legume production without necessarily depending upon the commercial farming model.

    I ran some quick numbers for curiosity’s sake… Looking at legumes, since as you say, the local climate is more conducive to legume production than cereal grains…. On average, you can expect about 1500 lbs of legumes per acre (lentils, soybeans, beans, peas, chickpeas), this is a rough average. And let’s use an average of 1 pound of legumes a week per person, some may eat more, some less. That works out to 1 acre feeding 30 individuals for an entire year. If Powell River has about 25,000 people, it would require 866 acres in legume production. Does the Powell River area have that much land in agricultural production?

    Of course these numbers are pure excersise, not everyone is eating locally, and eating habits are highly variable, but… it does give one a scale for perspective.

    A small farmer/gardener could easily work perhaps 4 acres of legumes into the vegetable rotation, which would require 216 of these small farmers in the Powell River area. A cooperatively run processing facility, and cooperatively owned appropriately scaled machinery would cut the costs of legume production to a scale that a small farmer could afford, and a CSA could feasably support.

    But how many people in Powell River are currently and actively interested in locally grown legumes, for instance? Perhaps a few hundred, maybe a thousand? So really, a few intrepid small farmers/gardeners could supply this immediate demand. And there’s always room to grow.

    Anyway, I find it helpful to work the numbers when talking about grain production. We tend to think of grains on the scale of Prairie farms, 10,000 acres at a time. But an acre of wheat will feed 20 people for a year, averaging 2 lbs wheat per week.

    All told, a population the size of Powell River would need 3-4,000 acres in grain and legumes to feed itself. Is this possible, it is an important question to ask.

  2. 2 David Parkinson September 1, 2009 at 14:29

    Thanks, you two.

    I don’t know how many acres total are in production around here. Numbers are hard to come by, as many farmers prefer to work off the info-grid, if you know what I mean. But in 2007/08 we fought to preserve 547 acres of ALR land in the city proper, which is still in the ALR and now on the market. (Whether or not it’s good for legumes or grains is another matter: this land is pretty rocky, dry, and topographically challenged.) So there is the potential for some mid-scale production within city limits. The thing is to get started, unless it’s clear that we can never reach the end point. There is currently a lot of untapped potential, but the hitch comes in making additional agricultural activity worth people’s time. Right now it’s s stretch, especially when the primary business model is for each farmer to carry her/his risk in isolation from the community of other farmers and consumers. I’m convinced that we need to explore cooperative approaches, even though they can be harder to work out, since people’s opinions vary so much (and farmers are notorious for not even agreeing with themselves!).

    More discussions like this one — and questions like the ones you’re asking — are exactly what we need.


  3. 3 margaret September 1, 2009 at 15:48

    I just received notification about your comment on my blog, as I was reading your post. Hah!

    I’m a regular follower of “Grow the Change” as well. I’m so impressed with Freija and the work she does, she keeps me motivated.

    You wrote exactly what I was thinking…but better.

  4. 4 David Parkinson September 1, 2009 at 15:58

    Thanks, Margaret. Ssh, don’t tell anyone, but I’m trying to lure Freija and Beringian here. 🙂 I completely share their values of local food as an instrument of self-reliance & social justice (although maybe that’s not how they would put it). They’re a bit further along the path than I am… but I’m trying to catch up…

  5. 5 Tom Read September 2, 2009 at 21:51

    Excellent post David, and great comments everyone, thank you!

    The 50-mile diet could be brought closer to reality if we find a way to grow locally adapted oil crops. Thus, I’d like to suggest taking a look at camelina as an oil and food crop for our area. There’s a post at Oil Drum here followed by several interesting comments. This post is the first I’ve heard of camelina, so if anyone is growing it in our region please let us know how it does here.

    The thrust of the Oil Drum post by HO is using camelina as a biofuel. I’m more interested in its food value, because it’s especially difficult to get productive oil crops in a cool maritime climate. Hazelnuts are one possibility, and I’m sure there must be others (maybe meadowfoam?), but this camelina, which is part of the mustard family, also looks promising.

    Your thoughts?


  1. 1 “Its origin and purpose are still a total mystery.” « Slow Coast Trackback on May 31, 2010 at 18:08
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