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Farming on the cutting edge

The Baltimore Sun

Would the gentleman with the property on Joppa Road near the Baltimore Beltway please get back in touch? You called a couple of weeks ago - something about turning your sprawling property back into farmland - and I know people who would be interested in talking to you. You might be, literally, on the edge of an important new trend.

It's called "urban edge agriculture," and some in farming believe it's the next big thing. (Note: These are not the same people who predicted that emu ranching would be the next big thing. Urban edge agriculture is not about creating a new market; it's about sustaining one that's already there but threatened in the long term.)

Here's the deal:

The rising cost of fossil fuels inflates the cost of food and causes shortages in some parts of the world. Those who see and think globally believe we cannot sustain a food-production system based on natural gas and petroleum - that is, petrochemicals for fertilization and pest control, as well as diesel for the operation of farm equipment, and for the trucks that transport food across the nation, and for the ships and planes that transport it around the world. Add in the cost of food processing, packaging and refrigeration.

"Researchers and industry experts estimate that food products typically travel 1,500 to 2,500 miles from point of origin to grocery store," says a report prepared for the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission, which is developing the Philadelphia Foodshed Study to evaluate food production and distribution in that region. The current system, the study says, uses "more calories of fossil fuel energy than they supply in metabolic energy."

David Allen Pfeiffer, author of Eating Fossil Fuels: Oil, Food and the Coming Crisis in Agriculture, is even more specific: It takes 10 calories of hydrocarbon energy to produce one calorie of food, he says. Pfeiffer notes that without petroleum and natural gas in agriculture, the United States could sustain only about two-thirds of its present population. The picture is even bleaker for the rest of the world, complicated further by the shift to commodity corn production for an emerging biofuels market.

Food security is twinned with energy security. Changing the way we produce food - specifically, shortening the distance from farm to fork - is essential.

It's a huge challenge that will take years to meet, but it can be done, starting now, if political and business leaders, along with agriculture educators, tap into the growing buy-local sentiment among consumers.

The number of farmers' markets operating across the country has nearly doubled since the early 1990s. There were more than 4,300 of them in 2006, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. A survey by the University of Baltimore's Schaefer Center for Public Policy found that 78 percent of Marylanders were more likely to buy produce identified as having been grown by a Maryland farmer, and 44 percent said they were willing to pay a little extra for state-grown food.

Obviously, the message is getting out there. Being a locavore is a good thing, though it still takes more effort than it should.

There are many parts to the solution, and one will be "urban edge agriculture," farming reborn or expanded in the very areas where farming has been dying for the last 50 years, along the borders of cities and suburbs and, farther out, in the exurbs, where continued housing development will become impractical.

Here's how authors Gary Matteson, a flower grower from New Hampshire, and Robert Heuer, a marketing consultant, defined urban edge agriculture in a report for the Farm Credit System: "Transitional agricultural areas located on the outskirts of metropolitan regions nationwide where farming is shifting from lower-value commodity production to higher-value direct-marketed products."

Matteson and Heuer believe farming at the urban edge is ripe for growth: "Urban edge agriculture is the new frontier for young, beginning and small farmers."

What's needed, they say, is a new business model, investment in the infrastructure of food processing and distribution, and creative retail marketing. They want Congress to allow the government-sponsored Farm Credit System to help finance businesses one step removed from farming.

"Business planning and private sector finance are needed to cultivate the development of supply chains that will shorten the geographic distances between the farm gate and dinner table," the report says. "The lack of processing, storage and distribution infrastructure hinders efforts to ramp up the supply of locally sourced foods."

Future-thinkers in the Philadelphia region are working on this.

The Philadelphia Foodshed Study is assessing the food supply within a 100-mile radius and looking at an expansion of agriculture and supporting businesses for economic development. The study considers a farm-to-fork plan for the region. "An increased reliance on local food sources will aid the region in energy conservation, economic and work force development, and improved public health," says a summary of the study.

We should be doing the same in the Baltimore region - conducting a comprehensive inventory of agricultural resources, assessing the possibilities for expansion of farming along the urban edges and streamlining the farm-to-fork process here. Bring back the canneries! The governor could coordinate a full-blown strategic plan for sustainable food in our region. It would be smart and progressive, and look real good on the resume.

Dan Rodricks can be heard on "Midday," Mondays through Thursdays, noon to 2 p.m., on 88.1 WYPR-FM.

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