What if New England produced half of the food its residents need? Is such a vision possible? Based on the amount of acreage in farmland, our region currently produces only about 10 percent of the food we consume. The latest agriculture census numbers point to challenges to achieving significant growth in producing our own food. In New England, a farm operation’s average annual net income fell from $18,905 in 2007 down to $7,864 in 2012, a 58 percent decrease. Hobby farmers — whose primary occupation is not farming — account for some of that decrease, but not all of it. Only 8 percent of New England farms realize annual net gains of $50,000 or more. On the brighter side, the number of farms and the amount of land in farming increased slightly, bucking the national trend.
Taken together, these statistics indicate a need for concerted action to make our region’s food system more independent and resilient. Without such action we risk leaving behind the small but growing number of young and beginning farmers rising up in New England. What’s more, we risk becoming increasingly dependent on a food system that steadily depletes our natural resources and is unprepared to adapt to a changing climate.
Food Solutions New England (FSNE), a regional food systems learning-action network, has proposed a bold vision for our region’s food system in its new report, A New England Food Vision. The report envisions our region producing half the food we need by 2060. The report is neither a prediction nor a plan, but rather it offers projections on how New England could achieve this vision. It also suggests policies that could help us get there. A New England Food Vision’s aspiration and scope is “healthy food for all,” “sustainable farming and fishing amidst thriving communities,” “a tripling of land in food production, vibrant working water fronts, healthy ecosystems, viable food enterprises from farm and fish to fork,” and “no one going hungry.” At root, the report is meant to jumpstart a conversation about whether and how our region has the capacity to foster a more independent and sustainable food system.
A New England Food Vision is based on four core values: food rights, healthy eating, sustainability, and community vitality. The report envisions a scenario, called Omnivore’s Delight, where New England grows most of its vegetables, half its fruit, and some grains and dry beans; produces all its dairy, beef, and other animal products; and catches and harvests a larger portion of its own fish. The region would have at least 50,000 food-producing farms with 80,000 operators and about 52,000 full-time workers. This scenario requires increasing the amount of farmland in production from the current level of around 2 million acres to 6 million acres, roughly 15 percent of the land in New England. About 70 percent of the region would remain forested, a 10 percent reduction in forestland.
The report lays out another scenario, called Regional Reliance, where New England would produce two-thirds of its own food if food becomes even more scare and expensive in 2060. This scenario would require 7 million acres in farmland, with urban and ex-urban farmland increasing to 500,000 acres. An additional 750,000 acres of forest would be cleared to make way for pasture to support more grass-based milk production but less beef production.
Is either scenario realistic? As the report recognizes, farming and fishing have ecological consequences. Can New England support such a broad expansion of agricultural land, along with increased pressure on fisheries? Worldwide, agriculture consumes more water than any other industry. Forests provide many benefits, including protecting water, sequestering carbon, and ensuring biodiversity. The report briefly discusses the importance of conservation practices on farms, but does not grapple extensively with how such a large growth in farmland would be environmentally sustainable. This is another reason why the report should be seen as an important conversation starter rather than as a prescription for the future of farming in our region.
Getting all New England states to work toward this vision, let alone to work together on a truly regional food system, presents many challenges. But much good work is already underway, such as CLF’s co-authored regional food policy report. The policy suggestions in that report are vital in order for New England to see sustainable growth in farming. FSNE recognizes these current efforts; indeed, it intends to build off of them. A New England Food Vision encompasses more than just the recent report. Other activities include state food-planning initiatives, annual New England food summits and topical workshops, and related analysis and communication. Combined with the many other initiatives, projects, and activities happening around the region, FSNE’s work shows that a strong movement exists to change our food system for the better.
If you are interested in helping New England’s food system become more resilient, we encourage you to start by reading the report. As you do, think about how you would answer the question I posed at the beginning: what if New England produced half of the food its residents need? Whether or not you think this vision is attainable or even desirable, considering this question encourages us all to think harder about where our food comes from and the food choices we make every day.