Should we become self-sustaining farmers following the coronavirus pandemic?

Alaina Perdon

Elm Staff Writer

In 2018, the New York Times wrote that a majority of our food in the United States was imported, a shock to many who view the country as a self-sustaining entity. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), more than half of the fresh fruit and one third of the fresh vegetables in U.S. grocery stores are imported from elsewhere.

Global produce trade helps circumvent seasonal growing restrictions, allowing us to enjoy fruits and vegetables regardless of what is “in season” in our area. It also allows us to diversify our diets: we are largely dependent on South American countries for favorites such as limes, avocados, grapes, and artichokes.

But now, the coronavirus crisis is threatening global trade at large.

“The coronavirus pandemic will create pressure on corporations to weigh the efficiency and costs/benefits of a globalized supply chain system against the robustness of a domestic-based supply chain,” Politico Magazine said in a March 2020 article speculating about changes that will succeed the pandemic.

Shutdowns are hurting businesses big and small, meaning the country will have to be more frugal in the coming years to recover from this economic blow. Politico predicts a shift to more goods manufactured in the United States to stimulate our economy.

Moreover, the rapid spread of this virus has caused skepticism towards interactions with other countries. Food, especially, is a topic of concern because of its direct impact on consumer health.

It is not unreasonable to anticipate the United States importing less food in the future. However, even domestic food trade is being impacted by the pandemic.

“Stories abounded in the agricultural press about farmers unable to find enough workers to harvest their crops or care for their animals,” Stephanie Mercier, columnist for AgWeb Agricultural News, said. “It is too early to prognosticate about the farm labor supply for 2020, but it is difficult to imagine that more working-age immigrants will be coming over the border this year.”

The USDA reports that 99% of United States households are fed by large-scale agriculture operations. If these farms cannot find labor, there will simply not be enough food to sustain the population.

The solution could be a resurrection of backyard farmers.

“As a response to our current crisis, I think many more people will begin to cultivate their own foods again, or at the very least think about looking for food sources that are not dependent upon a global, and easily disrupted, food network,” Washington College sophomore Lanning Tyrrel said.

Tyrell is an intern with Washington College’s Eastern Shore Food Lab, studying permaculture and sustainable food production.

Farming one’s own food eliminates reliance on the global food network. A self-sustaining farmer remains unaffected by changes in market prices, food safety, or food availability.

A change will not come immediately, but grocery store shortages are already nudging consumers in the homesteading direction. My own family is beginning to lay garden plots as our favorite produce becomes increasingly difficult to find.

“That is not to say that I think a majority of people will suddenly be growing their own carrots two months after this is all over,” Tyrrel said. “I just think that it will get people to start to think about where their food comes from, and how they can get it.”

A grandiose backyard farm is of course not feasible for everyone, nor is it appealing to many, but the current unrest globally has certainly shed light on insecurities within our food systems.

Could a silver lining to this crisis be that we will harken back to a simpler time in human production? The allure of sustaining oneself by living off the land only seems greater now in the face of uncertainty.

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