Local food proponents say policy changes could significantly increase the proportion of western Washington-grown food in area consumers' diets, but they concede the state's farmers will probably never produce enough squash, leafy greens or fresh garlic to meet local demand.
Among the most interesting charts included in the Western Washington Foodshed Study, released yesterday by the American Farmland Trust, is a table listing "region-appropriate food items" according to the percentage of current consumption met by local production. Snap peas, for example, are a thoroughly localized category, with western Washington growers providing 95 percent of the snap peas eaten region-wide. Cucumbers, milk, sweet corn and lamb have also crossed the 50 percent threshold.
But shoppers seeking strawberries, honey and carrots are likely to have trouble finding western Washington products. Area kiwi growers now supply just 10 percent of the subrtropical fruit consumed locally, although the numbers for squash, greens and garlic are even less impressive: Western Washington's garlic output accounts for only 6 percent of garlic eaten here.
"I suspect that Washington garlic probably can't compete price-wise with garlic from California, where it's grown in great abundance," says American Farmland Trust's Pacific Northwest director Dennis Canty.
As the study puts it, "The origin of strawberries bought at the local store is viewed as a personal choice and not a political one, and lots of people opt for the California strawberries."
Economic incentives also explain why certain crops grown in western Washington are more likely to be shipped out-of-state than sold locally. Although the area's output is the equivalent of 43 percent of the food eaten here, researchers estimate only 25 percent of food consumed in western Washington can be classified as local. The American Farmland Trust hopes to help double that figure.
"There will probably continue to be some local products like red raspberries that will remain widely exported, but at least we'll have a larger fraction of locally grown food stay in the community," Canty says. "Our aim is to have good outlets to bring food directly from local producers to local consumers at a price that works for both."
Despite hurdles posed by the loss of farm land and the industrial food system, the study holds there are numerous opportunities to strengthen local food's future. Suggestions include constructing "USDA-certified slaughterhouses and value-added food processing facilities that are accessible to both small and large-scale producers"; consolidating undeveloped lots on the edges of developed areas; installing greenhouses to lengthen the growing season; reducing food waste and encouraging local eaters to cut back on fats and sugars.
"Our future as farmers in this region depends a lot on finding reliable ways to get our food to local consumers," a release quotes Dave Hedlin, a Skagit County farmer who served on the study's advisory committee, as saying.