Don’t take it

Many of us give the source of our food little actual thought.

In some parts of the world, a much higher percentage of a family’s income and of their day’s activity revolves around where their food for that day will come from.

In contrast, we routinely can expect to find strawberries, sweet corn and melons among a veritable cornucopia of other foods 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, at local grocery stores.

These products come from other parts of the country or world through an impressive production and distribution network, and while the price may fluctuate, the products are assumed to be fresh and safe to consume year-round. Amazing.

Does anyone take this for granted? Go ahead. Raise your hand.

Some of us choosing to keep some of our dollars closer to home to support our farmers and to know who produced our foods opt to make at least some of our purchases at local farmers’ markets, on farm markets, roadside stands and more recently online markets (hubs) such as the Hoosier Harvest Market (hoosierharvestmarket.com).

What shoppers who choose to buy local sacrifice in seasonal availability and convenience they feel they benefit from in freshness and confidence in the source.

None of these methods of sourcing our food is innately good or bad. Instead these methods are a sign that we are fortunate to have such bounty available to us and that we are able to have a choice.

What could possibly darken the skies of this food “utopia” that most of us enjoy?

At the risk of being labeled “Chicken Little,” proclaiming that the sky is falling, there are a variety of issues that in time can impact our current food bounty or at least the prices of the bounty we purchase.

Beyond the uncertainty of weather, we need to think about a variety of possibilities that can take a bite out of productivity.

First we might think of pests — insects, weeds and diseases — that are finding clever ways to become resistant to our chemical means to control them.

Also, consider pollinator losses due to pesticides, habitat loss, diseases and parasites, or some combination thereof.

Perhaps a more insidious agent of change is the evolving land use pressures that either take land out of production directly through construction “development” or render the adjacent previously agricultural use incompatible or undesirable as a neighbor to residential or commercial development.

And then there are the limitations of access to labor willing and able to toil in the fields to plant, cultivate and harvest crops. Also, there are the impending regulations that will impact the way farmers manage that labor and the production of their crops.

Are any of these going to have a dramatic impact on our food supply this week or next? Likely not, but I think we must remain vigilant and not take the convenience of our food or those who dedicate their lives to produce it for granted.

Rest assured that farmers and the support industries on which they rely are all working on a daily basis to push back against these challenges.

One issue to keep our eyes on over the next few years is not here in Indiana but in California (to which Hoosiers might say, “So who cares?”).

The most simplistic math looks like this: 90 percent of Indiana’s food comes from outside of its borders. Fifty percent of that (fruits, vegetables, nuts, etc.) comes from the historically productive central valley of California.

That particular portion of California has just experienced its driest “wet season” since the 1800s, which only adds to a mega drought. As a result of continuing dry conditions, surface water allocations to farmers have been cut, and groundwater in limited supply is filling the gap at some peril and with a finite supply.

It is thought by some that there may be a one-year supply remaining.

What will all of this add up to in terms of an impact to availability and/or prices in the marketplace? I have not heard any projections to date.

Perhaps it is not truly an issue, but on the other hand, it could be something to keep an eye on and to consider ways that we might reduce our dependence on production beyond our borders and keep our food dollars closer to home.

In the meantime, keep in mind the bounty we all enjoy because of the 1 percent of our national population that despite the odds and the daily challenges maintains that farming. Feeding the other 99 percent of us is a way of life that is beneficial to their families and a vocation that they feel is honorable.

Farming, despite its challenges, is a vital part of the quality of life that each of us enjoys whether we live our lives on or off the farm.

Roy Ballard is an agriculture and natural resources educator with the Hancock County office of Purdue Extension (extension.purdue.edu/hancock). Contact him at 317-462-1113 or rballard@purdue.edu.