What if the Trucks Stop Coming?

At the small farm conference we attended on Wednesday, after the session I mentioned in yesterday’s post I attended a session led by Cindy Conner on Building Local Sustainable Food Systems.  It was a refreshing palate-cleanser.

One of the things she talked about was her experience teaching sustainable agriculture at a community college.  After pointing out that nearly all the food we eat comes from outside our communities, she challenged her students to come up with a plan for how they would feed themselves if all their food had to come from within 100 miles of their homes.  What if the trucks stop coming?, she asked them.

That is a question worth pondering.  These days the food on an American’s plate has traveled on average about 1,500 miles to get there.  Gone are the days when the food eaten by city-dwellers came from the farms in the surrounding area.  These days the food supply is controlled by the industrial food system, with its vast transportation and distribution networks.  Food is cheap and abundant, and the grocery store shelves are filled with just about any kind of food imaginable, at any time of year.

But the food in those stores would only last a few days without restocking.  What would communities do if the trucks stopped coming?

Cindy taught in Richmond.  Within a hundred miles of them, her students had the seafood of the Chesapeake Bay and rich farmland stretching from Maryland to West Virginia to North Carolina.  A locavore could find plenty of good food.  But even in a place like Richmond, there wouldn’t be enough food in the surrounding area to feed everyone for very long.  In places like Las Vegas or Phoenix, of course, the situation would be much worse.

So if the trucks of the food industrial complex stopped coming, would we all starve?

The question should seem ridiculous.  Here in Virginia we have a temperate climate and a long growing season.  There are green spaces everywhere that could easily produce an abundance of food.  There is no reason in the world the population should be dependent upon food trucked in from thousands of miles away.

Our society’s continued disconnection from food is discouraging.  Few people these take any responsibility for growing their own food, or supporting local food sources. Many have no interest in trying to be self-reliant for food to any degree.  Many, if not most, probably believe it’s not even possible for an ordinary human being to produce food.

No society can long expect to survive if it is unable to feed itself.

But there’s a lot to be encouraged about too.  Many folks are starting to take responsibilty for their food production.  Gardens are springing up everywhere–community gardens, church gardens, backyard gardens, rooftop gardens, guerilla gardens.  One of the presentations we attended Wednesday was on the proliferation of such gardens in the Richmond area.  It’s great to see that there are plenty of people out there unwilling to depend entirely on the trucks.

When the Soviet Union collapsed, Cuba’s industrial lifeline was severed.  Because of the U.S. trade embago, Cuba had come to depend upon the Soviets for the stuff necessary for industrial agriculture, such as fuel, synthetic fertilizer, pesticides and agricultural equipment.   Suddenly they found themselves without it.

But the Cubans didn’t starve.  Instead they began farming sustainably and organically. They embraced urban gardening.  Today over 90% of Havana’s food, for example, is grown in urban gardens in the city.

There are plenty of good reasons to prefer fresh locally-grown food over the stuff the industrial food system trucks in to the grocery stores.    When folks make the decision these days to take some responsibility for their own food production, and to support local food sources, they’re doing it because they want to, not because they have to. But is it wise to assume that we’ll always have that choice.

Maybe the trucks will never stop coming.

But what if they do?

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11 comments on “What if the Trucks Stop Coming?

  1. DM says:

    This post touches on one of the main reasons I am taking a second look @ raising meat rabbits…I finally figured out how to get them fed in the dead of winter w/o buying the $20 a bag rabbit pellets… sprout my own fodder. for pennies on the pound. Thanks for another timely post! DM

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    • Bill says:

      I haven’t raised them since I as a kid, but I know they’re a meat source that can be raised very efficiently in a small area. I guess it’s because they reproduce like…. Well, you know.
      🙂

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  2. El Guapo says:

    Thanks for the frightening thought. So much for napping peacefully at work today.

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  3. Living on an island, even a largish one like mine, we are connected to “the truck” only by a ferry system, albeit a very large and frequent ferry system. According to some sources, the island produces only 10 percent of our own food. In stormy weather when a lot of ferry sailings get cancelled, the fragility of our mainland connection is very evident as shelves in grocery stores empty and a pump or two at gas stations are shut down. Many of us know that island farmers could produce more of our food, and things are changing slowly. There are many issues to work out – growing the food isn’t really the difficulty. Our problem is more around distribution, delivery, processing, packaging. In Canada, all eggs, chicken, pork and dairy are controlled by marketing boards. If you’re not a tiny scale farmer like me, you have to buy a quota in those products to be allowed to produce/sell them. The marketing boards control most of our food supply, since they control production quantities, the price, distribution, etc. Tiny scale farmers can absolutely produce quite a bit of food outside this system, and we do, but getting it into the hands of the mainstream consumer is a challenge.

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    • Bill says:

      Uggh. I was unaware that your government centrally managed food production like that. We don’t have to deal with marketing boards like that, but we have our own set of problems if we want to sell to grocery stores. The insurance requirements and food safety regulations generally make it impossible for small farmers to source to them, meaning everything they sell comes from the corporate megafarms.
      I’m sure those kind of things wouldn’t be so important anymore if the trucks (and ferries) stopped coming.

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  4. Tina Schell says:

    Oh my gosh, it might be a short-term crisis but what a relief it would be! Here in south carolina we have many farms and also urban gardens in and around Charleston. There is a huge movement for farm to table here but still the trucks roll in! Good, thoughtful post Bill!

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  5. shoreacres says:

    Let me be perfectly frank. In a city like Houston, if the trucks stop coming, there would be looting, rioting in the streets, murder and mayhem. Those who spend their lives laying around waiting for the next government handout and those who believe the world owes them everything necessary for life would proceed to take from those who had lived responsible lives and stored up enough to get them through an emergency.

    This is not racism, prejudice, or anything of the sort. It’s fact, born of a good bit of experience, observation and thought. I’ve been through the hurricanes, and watched what happens. I was in NYC in 1977 during the blackout, and watched as the looting started within an hour. Flaming tires in the street and the sounds of breaking glass do tend to focus the attention.

    I worry about this, a lot. While I’m not ready to move back to the cold and snowy midwest (there are problems there, too, for an old person, alone) I’m trying to figure out what to do. I’ve got my escape route out of town planned if some dastardly crew goes for the petrochemical industry. But the food issue? That’s much tougher.

    One of the problems, of course, is that if the trucks stop rolling, there’s going to be a lot more than food involved, I’d assume that gas would be in short supply, too – and escape to another location an iffy proposition.

    Ain’t I just the cheerful one? 😉

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    • Bill says:

      That’s a pretty ugly scenario. Of course riots, murder and mayhem don’t produce food, so they wouldn’t solve anyone’s problem, and neither would hoarding food. However that kind of thing played out, folks would eventually have no food unless they turn to production.

      I’d prefer to think that humanity would be resilient in a crisis and we’d respond as the Cubans have and as folks did during WWII. But no doubt if the shelves went empty for long there would be potential for the kind of nastiness you describe, even if only in the short term.

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      • shoreacres says:

        You’re exactly right about such things not solving anyone’s problem – but of course looting isn’t meant as a problem solving technique. It’s simply an emotional, almost reflexive response to unusual circumstances. Paroxysms of rage are pretty common around here, and everyone knows what they look like.

        I suppose my friends and I talk about things like that more than some people. Anyone who’s been caught in a really bad Houston commute knows how thin the veneer of civilization can be, even when the difficulties are trivial.

        Every now and then I end up at dinner in the midst of a conversation that leads someone to ask, “Well, what’s the worst that could happen?” At that point, we tend to sound like a bunch of Hollywood screenwriters crowdsourcing the next horror film. 😉

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