From food to fodder

Growing up, every August meant going out to our family farm in Ridgefield to help with the pear harvest. The farm was the family gathering place, purchased by my grandparents in 1960. They planted nearly 30 acres of pear trees on the land, and dubbed it Baur’s Bartletts.

Outside of pear harvest, there was plenty of work to be done on the farm. There were also plenty of stories retold over the years, like who knocked over the pump house with the tractor; the load of pears that went sprawling across the road on the way to the cannery; and which chemicals did what to whom.

The farm was a great family adventure up until twelve years ago when we bulldozed and burned all but 30 of the 4,500 pear trees. At the time, I was in eighth grade and remember asking my dad why we were burning the trees. “NAFTA,” is all he said.

NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) is a trilateral trade bloc between the U.S., Canada and Mexico that aims to eliminate tariffs on exports within this region. Although it has greatly affected many sectors of agriculture in a number of ways since 1994 when it came into force, most of the pears imported to the United States are from Chile and Argentina. More than anything, NAFTA set a precedent and started a trend of multilateral free trade agreements around the world, including one between the U.S. and Chile.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, imports and exports of pears have been approaching the same level since 1995. The fact that we are shipping out nearly the same amount of one commodity that we are taking in seems absurd. Why don’t we just consume those pears locally rather than shipping them around the world while we wait for others to ship the identical product to us?

Another concern regarding the sustainability of our food system is the rising price of oil. Not only will this greatly increase the cost of transporting pears, but it also increases the cost of petroleum-based fertilizers and other agricultural inputs. The low price of oil has enabled our extravagant back-and-forth transport of goods, but it makes you wonder what producers will have to do to keep food affordable in the future.

Aside from projected food costs, we should also look at what our agricultural land is becoming. What was once a family-owned pear orchard employing more than 50 people during harvest and producing nearly 600 tons of pears each year is now a field of grass. This field produces grass seed for industrial lawns such as baseball fields and golf courses. Straw from the field is then shipped to Japan where it is ground into a powder and used as filler for feed in Japan. This changing landscape represents a shift in our values and priorities from food to fodder.

Fueled by my desire to shift things in a more local direction, I now coordinate a pear harvest and organize my friends to help prune the trees. I also tilled up a good chunk of lawn at the farm for a vegetable garden, the surplus of which is sold through the Backyard Bounty Co-op at Oscar’s Market and at farmer’s markets in Salmon Creek and Vancouver.

Kelly Baur currently works for Baur’s Bartletts and is a member of the Backyard Bounty Co-op. For more information about the co-op, visit www.facebook.com/BackyardBountyCoop or backyardbountycoop.org.

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