You are what you eat header image 2

Weather’s great for nonlocal foods

January 14th, 2008 · 1 Comment · Food selection, local food

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about food—particularly local food—and weather, as the last week or so has given us temperatures in the teens and in the 60s, sunshine, rain, ice and snow.

Local is the big word in food trends these days, and for good reason. Our food system has gotten out of whack to the point where many people don’t have a clue where their food comes from or how it grows. (A local grocer’s story comes to mind, of a woman who asked for local peaches and upon learning there were none, asked why the farmers didn’t plant a second crop.)

Limits to local availability
I am here to say, however, that as much as I love local food, I am not in a hurry for the day when everything I eat is locally grown. Weather is the reason why.

I offer up some statistics, courtesy of the U.S. government, for guidance. I think they provide some insight as to why people in this part of the world have always imported food. Itinerant indigenous people carried with them food raised (and hunted and foraged) here and elsewhere; pioneers filled their wagons with flour and beans and dried apples and jerky; settlers traded for sugar, coffee and many other supplies. When the trains came through, they hauled in fresh foods that contributed to the Harvey Houses‘ success.

Nowadays, many of us in these parts glory in the summer produce, but we know that meat, dairy, eggs, baked and preserved goods are the only local foods we’re likely to see this time of year. It makes neither economic nor environmental sense to heat greenhouses for produce. No, I won’t be buying Chilean blueberries or Brazilian asparagus in the fall and winter, but I will be buying and consuming citrus from Florida and Texas and green things from California, preferably organic. And I think that’s OK.

The weather report

Here are the record highs and lows by month over 60 years in Topeka, Kansas, the closest major weather station to my house:








































Look at that! The February high and low extremes are 107 degrees apart! And in April and May, key planting months, the range is 85 and 71 degrees. (You’d be even more impressed if you knew how much trouble I had getting that chart in there right.)

If you look at other tables at the weather link, you’ll see that May and October days typically have days both below freezing and above 90 degrees or hotter. I can tell you from experience that those 90-degree days and subfreezing days often are less than a week apart. Makes it kind of tough on a tender plant.

Then there’s the wind. Topeka is neck-and-neck with the Windy City of Chicago in many months, but the real windy city, Dodge City, Kansas, has average wind speeds exceeding Chicago’s year round. The annual average of 13.9 miles per hour in Dodge blows away Chicago’s average of 10.3 mph.

Agricultural hospitality

Don’t get me wrong. I want and support a healthier, more rational food system than the one we have right now, but if you take a look at the weather (never mind details like rain), you will understand why these Great Plains were made for grazing and growing the sturdy grass known as wheat. We need to play to our environment’s natural strengths, here and across the country. (We don’t have a lock on weather extremes.) In our case, that means ready access to livestock and grains much of the year and summertime fruits (most years) and vegetables.

That also means that lots of places benefit from the flour grown and the beef raised here just as I savor the privilege of fresh produce in winter that has been responsibly raised in our country’s warmer climes.

Drawing the line

I’m just not ready to live on canned and frozen fruits and vegetables for large portions of the year, and I think lots of other people aren’t, either. The 100-mile diet sounds a lot more appealing when you live somewhere with a longer growing season and generally less erratic weather than around here. Or, maybe one day our local food systems will get sufficiently re-established that Kaw Valley farmers (large PDF) will again have such a plentiful supply that we can store more of the local stuff.

In the meantime, I’m not drawing the line at 100 miles. So where do I draw it? I’m going to go with what’s in season locally, and when the weather excludes fresh local foods, I am OK with what’s in season and abundant in other parts of the country—apples from Michigan or Washington when the local crop fails and citrus from Texas, Arizona, California. I’ll seek North American coffee and the occasional fresh pineapple or mango.

And I’m going to hope that the enthusiasm for “eat local” doesn’t turn into an orthodoxy that prompts people to jump off the band wagon entirely because someone says they aren’t “doing it right” when they dig into their grapefruit.

Tags: ··

One Comment so far ↓