Conflicting Priorities

Even though NOVA is home, the northern Virginia and DC seminar gave me a lot to think about. For me, the visits highlighted conflicting priorities.

Making money and feeding people

They are not mutually exclusive, but they are sometimes in conflict. Endless Summer Harvest served us the best lettuce I’ve ever eaten. Wegman’s has a special place in my heart as an upstate New Yorker. Up Top Acres is a really cool business making use of urban rooftops. All of these businesses have the common thread of being able to sell to a large, wealthy customer base.

Profitability is essential to a sustainable business so access to customers who can and will pay a premium is great for a successful business. The business owners and employees have a positive impact on the local economy and in their communities.

However, if all ag and food businesses cater to this high-end market, many will be left without food. Too many are left without food today. There are children and men and women in my community who will not eat enough nutritious food today. Probably in your community, too. They don’t have enough money or they can’t access it or other barriers are getting in the way. I want everyone to be able to eat. It is the most basic need for life and humanity depends on it.

How do we go about making affordable, nutritious food more accessible to those who are hungry? Emily Johnson shared about some of the initiatives of the DC Food Policy Council to help improve access to food in many poor DC communities. The DC Central Kitchen and numerous other non-profits throughout NOVA and DC are working to end poverty and help people access food and other necessities. James Faison with Partnership for a Healthier America (and VALOR alum) pointed out that we can’t harm one vulnerable population – farmers – to serve another vulnerable population – low income people. He’s right. In thinking about solutions to the challenge of helping low income people eat, we should not do anything that would harm farmers and ranchers.

Feelings and facts

Emotions and facts are competing priorities in the decision making process. People feel good about eating local lettuce, but it has a huge environmental impact due to the light and heat needed for the hydroponic greenhouses to be productive year-round. It’s possible the environmental impact is greater than transporting lettuce from California. But since the lettuce is local, people feel good about eating it.

I visited with the American Horse Council and Cliff Williamson (also a VALOR alum) shared that 85% of the horse industry is recreational. Horses are treated more like pets than livestock in many cases, making for very emotional decision making.

Like it or not, most people make decisions based on emotion far more than facts. It creates a challenge in communicating about agriculture and science in general.

Land use

Loudoun county highlights urban sprawl taking over farmland. People are competing for space to live and work and farm – and land prices reflect that competition. While high population in Loudoun county has been a challenge for those trying to farm, the Heritage Farm Museum took advantage of an opportunity for education and engagement. The museum helps show the county’s agricultural roots and hopefully helps visitors appreciate the value farmers bring to the area.

This seminar left me with more questions than conclusions, but I am optimistic about solutions to these challenges because we all need each other. People (most of which are located in urban areas) need to eat and farmers need people to eat their products.

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