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McKibben speaks about food, politics and community

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September 22, 2006

By Erin Post

During his winter of eating local food, Vermont-based author Bill McKibben said he missed one thing the most: oats.

The problem isn't that oats won't grow in the Champlain Valley watershed, he said to a crowd gathered at the Big Picture Theater; it's that the machinery necessary to hull oats can no longer be found within 100 miles of his home in Ripton without some serious searching.

Processing has been centralized in far-off locations on a scale that makes it nearly impossible for small, local producers to compete.

 

And it's not just oats; poultry slaughterhouses, milk processing, all types of agricultural business that used to provide the basis of a local economy are now run by huge, industrial operations: operations that depend on cheap fossil fuel to survive and often have little regard for long-term stewardship of the land.

It doesn't have to be that way, McKibben said.

He encouraged Mad River Valley Localvores to bring lessons they learned during the weeklong Eat Local Challenge to politicians in Montpelier.

Write a letter to the secretary of agriculture, he urged. Ask government representatives to take action to rebuild the regional agricultural infrastructure, so that next year during the Eat Local Challenge products like local oats, chicken, and milk won't be so hard to find.

It's one step towards shaping a radically different future.

"Food is a perfect place to start throwing sand into the gears of this machine that is careening out of control," he said.

McKibben, author of <MI>The End of Nature<D> and a scholar in residence at Middlebury College, appeared at The Big Picture Theater Thursday, September 14, as part of the Mad River Valley Localvore's Eat Local Challenge. He discussed his own experience eating locally-chronicled in a story for <MI>Gourmet<D> Magazine-as well as larger issues surrounding the food supply.

He said that 100 years ago about 50 percent of Americans farmed. Now, the U.S. Census Bureau doesn't even have a category for farming as an occupation. Eating is in many ways now dependent on a cheap supply of fossil fuel, one that may be coming to an end, according to some predictions. Add that to the changing climate-at a pace that appears to be faster than models once predicted-and the time is ripe to rethink how the system works, McKibben said.

"Everything we've learned in the last couple of years leads us to believe that the problem is worse than we thought," he said.

While the rate of climate change may be accelerating, McKibben pointed to some hopeful developments, signs that citizens are ready for change. The Mad River Valley Localvores and similar groups across Vermont are examples of this shift, he said.

"What you're doing is big and growing," he said. "It's not an isolated effort."

He said farmers' markets across the country are seeing a boom in business. Tens of thousands of people frequent the farmers' market in Madison, WI, on any given day, and a strong local foods movement in Oregon has led to the number of farms in that state doubling over the last decade.

"Here in Vermont we see some of the same kinds of things," McKibben said.

He pointed to the Intervale-120 acres of land outside of Burlington that supports a number of small farms-as a success story that deserves more attention than it gets. The total number of farms in Chittenden County increased by 19 percent over the last 10 years, bucking trends.

These small farms may help to rebuild the sense of community that has been lost in an era of cheap energy and industrialized agriculture, he said.

McKibben cited research that shows America near the bottom of a list of countries ranked according to the happiness of their citizenry. Americans say they have fewer close friends than prior generations and report an alienation from neighbors and community members.

Rethinking how Americans get their food-by frequenting farmers' markets, where conversation is plentiful, and creating relationships with neighboring farmers-builds connections, McKibben said. These connections seem to be the foundation of living truly happy lives and may bolster Americans for the challenges to come.

"We're going to need better communities than we have now," McKibben said. "Belonging is going to be way more important than belongings."

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