THREE DECADES AGO, my then wife, Anne Banks, and I began clearing 3 acres of overgrown farmland in Hillsdale, New York, that my family had sold to us. Our goal was to grow our own food organically, then try to sell whatever was left over. At the time, standard fare in rural areas hadn’t advanced much beyond meat, potatoes, and iceberg lettuce. Of course, there were a few families with home gardens, but vegetable farming targeted to the local market had all but been replaced by importing produce from farms far away. Times are different now — with the popularity of local and organic foods sold at Whole Foods, farmers’ markets, and CSAs (community supported agriculture) — but not different enough.
By August 1983, Anne and I were harvesting many more leafy greens, roots, and fruits than we could eat. I started knocking on the door of every restaurant and food store in the Berkshires and Hudson River Valley that might buy what I was selling. At first, chefs and owners thought I was just a strange hippie hustling vegetables grown in horse manure. If they even knew the term “organic’’ — and few back then did — they could not care less about it.
And yet some prospective customers began to notice that our vegetables were fresh and unusual. Chefs in Manhattan and Boston, influenced by Alice Waters of Chez Panisse, had become curious about what was growing in their own areas. At our farm, Earthborn — 2½ hours from both cities — I was obsessed with growing plants I found in obscure seed catalogs from all over the United States and Europe. Our assortment of French and Italian lettuces, Asian greens, opal basil, purple fennel, and assorted baby vegetables got us going with some of the most innovative chefs in the country.
By 1990, New England, as elsewhere, had a full-fledged organic and local food movement — one that’s continued to grow enormously. Sales of organic food in the United States went from $1 billion that year to $31.5 billion in 2011. Now it seems like organic food is everywhere, from local farmers’ markets to the aisles of Walmart.
But there’s a catch: There’s not nearly enough of it. For all the money paid for organics, it represents only about 4 percent of our total food spending in the United States. The demand is there — 78 percent of US families are buying it, according to a 2011 study by the Vermont-based Organic Trade Association. But because demand far exceeds the locally produced supply, much of what we eat has to be trucked in from elsewhere. That should change. New England doesn’t have the vast arable acreage of places like California, of course, but we can grow more of our own organic food than we do now.
This could be good for farmers. In my home county of Berkshire, thousands of acres are devoted to commercial dairying, with much of the land set aside for growing genetically altered corn for feed. Even with government subsidies, I find it hard to believe that dairy farmers cannot make a better living redesignating at least some land. An acre of organically grown vegetables can feed hundreds of people with potential net per-acre returns to the farmer of at least $15,000.
If this sounds impossible, look no further than famed Verrill Farm for precedent. The farm straddling Concord and Sudbury started as a dairy business nearly a century ago. But the Verrill family sold its dairy herd in 1990 to make way for a produce and farm-stand operation (that employs “a combination of organic and conventional techniques’’), one that has become very successful.
More important, growing more of our own food will be good for consumers. Organic produce remains unaffordable for lots of people, but that could change with competitive pressure. Meanwhile, the prices for food produced in our current system — so dependent on petroleum and faraway growers — are bound to go up. Better to choose to grow local now than to be forced to later.
Ted Dobson owns and operates the 20-acre Equinox Farm in Sheffield. Send comments to email@example.com.