Regional Food Analysis

My absolute favorite kinds of presentations to give (even though they are by far the most work) are the one's I've been doing increasingly often, giving analyses of regional food security.

I focus on both present and prospective food issues in a lower energy, less economically stable and warmer future. in them I set out both the historical crops and food source of the region, and what is currently produced there, and explore what steps a community or a bioregion might take to enhance their food security. I examine underutilized resources, and what else might be brought into play. I consider how climate change, energy depletion and economic volatility may affect the region. I examine lines of transport and connections to other regions and consider what might be brought into the area. At the end, sometimes I issue a formal report (if an organization has asked me to) or I give a talk that provides and overview and some suggestions for the most effective ways to leverage what you have to ensure security in the present, the near-term future and the longer term future. We talk about distribution, processing, food justice and current issues of food security as well, so that there's a full understanding that the issue is not just amounts, but access and infrastructure.

Doing these talks or writing these reports is incredibly demanding but one of the most fun and fascinating things I've ever done. The research is incredible - to do a good job I need to have an in-depth understanding of a variety of agricultural and related industries (fishing, wildlife management, shipping and water transport, rail, etc...), detailed maps with land-use policy in place, a long term agricultural, cutlural and political history of the region, as well as information about current crop trials and possible future models. I need to understand how climate change may impact that particular area, how energy is used, generated and transported in the region, what projected rainfall and flooding may bring, and what the historic sources of income have been. Getting to know a place like this is a true joy.

I did my first one for my own home region, and am still refining it as I get to know it more closely. While I've done a couple of local talks on this subject, I am hoping to issue a formal report soon, and do some more. I've done others for towns and cities or regional Transition or food security groups.

Why do I do these? Part of it is the food geek in me who enjoys a really good research project - I want to know whether it will be economically viable to re-open the Erie Canal to barge grain transport, or how coastal regions historically dependent on fishing stocks might have the best outcomes as ocean acidification continues. I want to know what crops grow best in what places, and how to adapt those crop choices to global weirding.

More importantly, however, almost no one does this kind of synthesis in any coherent manner. For most agricultural researchers, the idea that the just-in-time delivery system and our oil intensive agriculture could have to change is alien, so modelling doesn't take energy meaningfully into account, even if it address climate. Even though the Stern and Hirsch Reports respectively make the credible case for major economic instability as energy supplies get tighter and climate change eats up more of our resources, most models simply don't imagine a world where we aren't growing and getting richer.

From 2006-2009, Cornell University researcher published papers in Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems that explored the question of whether New York could feed itself right now. The conclusion was fascinating, New York can feed about a third of its population - and slightly more when very moderate consumption of animal products is included, mostly milk and beef raised on land suitable only for grazing.

This was not a projection - and adding it to my collection of other studies, both of what New York has produced historically during various times, and research on how land utilization might proceed, this set me on the path to trying to understand what other resources could be brought to bear in New York state. How would that change if and when we had the incentive to bring in almost universal home gardens? How will it change based on climate projections? How might it change if urban food wastes were shifted to livestock production? How will population centers in New York draw food off from producing areas - what will stay in farming regions and what will go? How do we think about the relationship between city and countryside?

After working on this for various regions of New York for some time, I was asked to apply it to other regions - North coastal Massachusetts, Central Connecticut, parts of Western Pennsylvania and around a major city in Illinois (I'm being somewhat opaque here because not all the reports are done). My hope is to not only do these reports, but also to begin to help other people do even more in-depth regional food analyses. If I can (mostly from outside) see parts of the historic picture that maybe aren't obvious to people who have always lived there or who have not taken the time to ask "What did native peoples eat?" or "What were the economically productive crops of the past and why?"

Too often, I think the models and thinking about this have been too simple - either they fail to take into account the real and serious challenges we face because of an excess of optimism, or they leap, in an excess of pessimism, to disaster. The fact, for example, that New York City can't feed its present population or itself at all does not mean that New York City will cease to exists in a lower energy future. And yet, many analysts have stopped there, or allowed a long-term conclusion (ie, eventually we might find some kinds of shipping and transport interrupted by shortages of fossil fuels) to lead them to skip over the nearer term likelihoods (period interruptions, higher prices, less refrigerated shipping) and assume "we're all doomed."

We add in additional layers of complexity - how can present sustainable agriculture increase the food security of people who are ALREADY hungry in the region? What about the cost of food in the near term? How do we keep land protected for wildlife habitat and human pleasure? How do we create reciprocal relationships between cities and surrounding suburbs and rural areas? What can we do to restore topsoil and fertility? What are likely factors affecting population and migration in the region? I bring into play a mix of tools from permaculture, demography, social welfare and a whole host of things to ask a question that is necessarily too big for a perfect answer but still needs one - what's the best we can do?

I work from the assumption that while every region has stresses and strains, every region also has strengths that can be channelled and used. Some of these are universal - the capacity to divert urban and suburban food waste now going into landfills to fertility and small animal meat and egg production, for example. Some are regional - the reinvention of historic agricultural trends like wool and lamb production in the cold, rocky places where there is underutilized grazable land, clothing and meat on land, or the recreation of barley and hop production in some other places where local beer may provide calories, good cheer and a primary tradable resource that is likely to be desired, Some involved exploration of potentials - what kinds of corn or new crops should be grown in places where summer rainfall is likely to dry up?

It isn't an exact science, and it never will be - but it is both fascinating and necessary. We can't be blinded to the real and functional food challenges facing us, but neither can we despair based on those challenges - if only because if we don't act, we will create the disaster we fear. There is much to be hopeful and optimistic about as well, and what we really need is a clear and honest picture of what can and can't be accomplished, and where we can create the greatest impacts and best infrastructure now to pass down in an uncertain future.

My hope is that my work on this will also inspire other people to begin gathering and doing this work - some people already are, as in the area around Totnes in the UK. But every area where people live needs this kind of analysis, and a plan for the future and the present. While I enjoy doing this work for others, love the in-depth exploration of regional food systems and meeting the people taking the steps for their place already, the people who will do it best are those who live in the places doing the analysis already.

The learning curve on this is not small - my own background in demography, food, agriculture and energy has been stretched here - but then again, what's life for if you don't stretch yourself. I'm thinking about ways to share my experience here, and hopefully enable others to do this work for their place. I'd love to see every local sustainability group putting together a real sense of what their place can contribute to the larger project of keeping people fed. In that interest, I wonder - would there be enough interest in a class on how to do such analysis for me to run one?


More like this

I might be interested, but it would be a couple of years before I could take it and make good use of the info, most likely.


I have a lingering concern over scrap iron. Currently prices are high -- and being exported in vast quantities to China and other nations.

My first concern is about the energy drain. America in the recent past has expended a *lot* of cheap energy to mine and smelt that metal, energy that would have to be replaced with much more expensive energy to replace that metal today.

I watch old field implements, old vehicles, wire fencing, etc. hauled to scrap yards, daily -- there is a thriving theft business going on, people sneaking into places and groves, scavenging saved wheel weights, window sash weights from old houses, implements still in use, etc.

And I look at the vast amount of plastic being used for garden tools, garden buckets, garden nettings and containers. Plastic that relies on cheap oil, cheap transportation, and an intact economy.

I also look at garden and yard fencing. I recall a time when sheep were moved about the house a couple of times a week, to keep the lawn down and to feed the sheep. the fencing needed was quite sturdy, and on the bottom sufficient to keep out rabbits, neighbor dogs, allow chickens and other poultry to use the garden space, in season when warranted. TSC only sells lighter guage wires and fences now. Fences intended to keep predators and dogs at bay, to keep small livestock safe, have given way to the open look -- of the affluent neighborhood.

When I was growing up people still understood the "good fences, good neighbors make" saying. My neighbors today have a cow and calf in their "pasture". They won't let me cut out the trees growing through the fence, won't fix the fence, and won't let me clear the fenceline and string the barbed wire needed to keep livestock in place. The cow they bought was available, I believe, because it was a habitual fence-jumper; cows if let to develop a vice for escaping can be incredibly versatile. I have had to follow cows up a nearly vertical 12 foot dirt bank; they can move surprisingly fast, and recall they have been used for long years as oxen. The bull calf (why it is still intact is a question I dread asking them) has taken to fence jumping, now, and likes to meander down the busy blacktop.

My garden fence isn't proof against the neighbor's livestock.

Scrap metal selling offshore drains the energy reserves they represent. How much energy will be required to replace the iron, let alone to produce the fencing needed for present and future gardens, groves, and pastures? The energy needed to maintain gardens and small livestock will *not* be as cheap as it has been.

Yes! Very interested! It sounds absolutely fascinating. I have thought about this topic often, living on the drought-prone (especially with recent climate change projections) prairies, traditionally home to nomadic peoples and now home primarily to giant mechanized monocultural farms.

Very interesting post. Lately, I've been asking the question, "Can Winthrop (my town, which is in Maine) feed itself? If you ever come as far north as New Hampshire with that presentation, I will make an effort to attend.

Definitely interested - we started a "could Powell River Feed Itself" project last year but it got overtaken by other projects and has been on the back burner since.

Rather than a class though, I'd be more interested in an outline or framework or checklist to work from: questions to ask, aspects to consider, what to look for, where the connections are, that kind of thing.

maybe a how-to book(let) with an outline/spreadsheet, suggestions as to how to locate needed info, sample questions to ask, etc.
say, when is your new book coming out?

I would be interested in a sample analysis, resources used and questions to ask. Are you going to publish any of your analyses?

By Eric Smith (not verified) on 04 Apr 2012 #permalink

I would be very interested in a class, provided it were done online. An interesting outcome would be a collection of case studies for a variety of regions - that would make a wonderful public resource.

Would love to participate! If it were a couple weeks on, and a couple of weeks off to do the research would be great. I'd love to know the resources you used and the kinds of data you collected. So much of SE PA is monoculture fields of corn it would be nice to do have data on what it needs to be to actually feed people.

Do you cover transport issues beyond stuff like the waterway? You might find some resiliency interest at Strong Towns ( They are based in Brainerd, MN (a bit south of Minneapolis) and food security will be an issue there, too.

By Sophia Katt (not verified) on 04 Apr 2012 #permalink

Before I got to your last paragraph, I was thinking "If Sharon could make notes on how she does all this, we could each do this in our own regions." So yes! I'd totally be interested in paying for a class to learn how to do this kind of analysis.

SIGN ME UP!! (chuckle)

But only if it's online--I'm too far away to attend in person . .

Yes! This would almost perfectly mesh my urban planning degree and my interest in food security. I would take a class. I would form a group in my own county, to do our own study. (Rather than a half-assed government-funded study that went to the lowest bidder, was prepared by people that don't live here and don't believe in global climate change.)

I am planning on doing something like this myself and would love to have guidance in doing it. I don't know if a class or a book would work better, and it will be several years anyway before I'll be able to start in earnest.

Yes, ma'am, please do offer this. I am beginning to think you are one of the zeitgeists of our age. I will definitely sign up.

By Stacy Canterbury (not verified) on 04 Apr 2012 #permalink

Yes! I'd be very interested in an online class on how you do this kind of analysis. I know there was quite a bit of food-growing in my area in the past, but for a variety of reasons (economic, legislative) there's not as much food-growing now. But I'd welcome the chance to dig in deeper if I had a structure and knew where to begin.

By GreatBlue (not verified) on 04 Apr 2012 #permalink

Count me in.

While I know precious little about this area (not really my field at all), it's something that I'd very much like to expand into, even if that expansion requires some stretching along the way. I'm sure there are other local people who would also be interested in doing this kind of analysis, if only we could get some direction and guidance around where to start, what to look for, who to talk to, and so on.

In whatever form your knowledge and information finally appear, it will be valuable to folks all over the country. Just as an aside, with regard to comment #8 - Brainerd, MN. is actually about three hours north of Minneapolis.

Sharon, I don't know if this will be of any use for you in your research on central Connecticut (or if you've already looked at it), but there are two old seed companies located in Wethersfield, Comstock Ferre which dates back to 1811 and Hart Seed, 1892.

I'm so excited to see so much interest. I don't think it will be a book in the very near term - I actually have another book I have to write first, although that's an interesting thought. I was thinking a class would be a way to disseminate as much as possible - maybe even an ongoing, once-a-month class so that everyone could have enough time to do the research.

I will publish the one I've done for my region - the others were commissioned by groups in other places and will belong to them - I think several have plans to publish them and make them available, but that's up to them. I'd like to do some more open source ones for other areas, or better yet, help other people do them and then make them widely available.

And yes, Karen, that's useful - I did know about them, but seed resources are really huge.


I'd be interested. I've been looking into some pieces of this for my county. The soil surveys for this area were done in the 1970s, but they are still useful, and there are still "old guys" around who remember when the land along where Dallas Highway runs now was a "major" sweet-potato-growing area.

It turns out that my neighborhood has "highly eroded" soil with pretty much zero organic matter in it. I had already figured that part out, but seeing it confirmed in the soil survey made me feel better about having imported so much organic matter to start my garden beds.

"Here is a synopsis of Brian Donahue's presentation on âLeading a New England Home-Grown Food Revolutionâ

Let's look fifty years into the future and ask, if New England were to do about as well as we can imagine at providing its own food through sustainable farming, what might we best grow here?"

Sharon, this gent came and gave this talk in Amherst last year - it was there, in fact, that John Gerber and I got the idea of shang-hai-ing you to come talk as well ;) Thought you might like to see what some other folks are doing in this field.

Would love a class but given the time difference (I'm five hours later here in England) that would be rather challenging. Unless the class was sometime between mid April and mid June when I'd be back in the US and then I'm in the same time zone as you!

By Kerri in AK (not verified) on 05 Apr 2012 #permalink

Sharon, I actually would not be interested in taking a class, I don't have the time. I would however been interested in reading the results, especially for western Pennsylvania. If the people who hired you will let you, please let us know when that is done if it is available.

I enjoyed the Cornell study when it came out. What I remember is that the optimal results were for 4 ounces per person of meat or eggs per day.

I also read a different interesting study about whether Pennsylvania could grow all the biofuel the state needs. The answer was yes -- at a cost of losing all food production in the state.

And Brad -- look into living fences. Osage orange can make a very effective spiky fence.

I would be very interested in such a class, and I know others who I think would also sign up. You're the one, Sharon! -- Zeke

By Zeke in Alabama (not verified) on 05 Apr 2012 #permalink

Sharon - as layers of data for the research you are doing check out David Swenson at Iowa State University and for some of the best check out Ken Meter at Crossroads Resource Center. If you ever take this on the road - please come to Iowa!

By Nightengale (not verified) on 06 Apr 2012 #permalink

Sharon, if you are planning to publish maybe you would at some point consider routing the material to the National Good Food Network:

They are well-regarded and do a quality webinar and distribution process.

What a generous use of your time--Thanks!

By Sophia Katt (not verified) on 06 Apr 2012 #permalink

Sharon, I am interested in learning more about regional food analysis. We have recently started an analysis like this here in the Gainesville, FL area. As you said, this work is very interesting and challenging. Any help I can get from others who have done this work or a lead to a class, a book or a published regional food analysis would be very helpful. Should I continue checking this site to find the regional food analysis you said you would publish?

Thanks for all you do! Ed

Very interested in a class - please keep me posted! :)

Hi Sharon,

I'd be really interested in reading a report of your analysis. I'm an academic at a university in the UK and supervise a part-time doctoral student looking at the question "Can Wales Feed Itself?". It would be interesting to see how much of your method would transfer to the setting of a different country.

In terms of the question by the way, the answer seems to depend on what food people expect and how it's to be grown. Obviously, in the cool, damp climate over here many of the foods people eat now can't be produced at any reasonable cost, but how will people get on with switching to the alternatives of what can be locally produced with lots of seasonal change in diet, much less meat and much of the food preserved by various means? And if a region is to live almost entirely off it's own produce, it's not going to be growing it with fuel-intensive systems - there's only going to be a need for local self-sufficiency when that's not an option. As you've said in your books, that means many more people working at growing food and that means living in places where there's room to grow it. That brings issues of housing them in areas that have been depopulated over decades and all the infrastructure that goes with the homes. Hopefully someone will be looking at these things too!

By Robert Morgan (not verified) on 06 Apr 2012 #permalink

when you say "New York can feed about a third of it's population" you are talking about the state, not the city? The very large state of New York cannot feed more than one third of it's current population? You mean, that's what it can do with current usage if nothing were exported, or that's what it could maximally do if all land were pressed into use?

There is an outfit called the Northwest Earth Institute that has developed a series of study guides many of which I have enjoyed. One that is close to your reader's interest is: "Discovering a Sense of Place." As I remember, it focused on one watershed in Oregon (?) or Washington (?): Its history, pre-history, geology, soils, biology,present foods, livelihoods and more, in 7 or 8 easy lessons -- maybe a half dozen short readings for each. It encouraged participants to make similar investigations into their own locals. The whole idea got me very excited. I was collecting readings about central Alabama, etc. but then I got "Shingles," and old and so on... I love the stuff you're doing, but I'm reduced to observer status these days. :-{ Northwest Earth Institute study guides might help folks and hold them til you can do a focused account. Google can find them.

By Ruth Busch (not verified) on 06 Apr 2012 #permalink

Sharon, I'd possibly be interested if it would be feasible to do from the UK and applicable to countries outside the US too. If not I'd be interested in reading about how it's going anyway.

By Louise Doughty (not verified) on 07 Apr 2012 #permalink

I'm very interested in these sorts of models, and potentially interested in a class. Let me know if you ever think computer models might be useful for these types of studies, because I'd be interested in working on them.

I'd like to conduct a similar analysis for my area, the Big Bend region of North Florida, and in fact suggested that as a project for our local Transition group. We have a vibrant local organic farming community, including local organic & humane pork and beef production, but it's not near big enough to feed everyone, and of course grains (except sweet corn) come from elsewhere. In particular, I'd like to include likely future developments, such as a hotter, drier climate, and transport dominated by rail and ships. So, I'd welcome a course - if you go for it, let me know.

Oh, I'd take that course in a heartbeat!

If you decided to create a book or handout, I could see our local co-op board members using the outline to create a report for our community. There's huge interest here in "eating local", and I think some data to back up the passion would be a way to show others that we're not such kooks after all!

Several thoughts:

1. Just saw a fascinating post on the percentages of food grown in Russian home gardens and the steps taken by the government to fortify this sector--contrast with LA for example.

2. In addition to soil surveys and ag. records, very important to survey and incorporate the remains of human expertise with agriculture and/or gardening, orchards, whatever in these areas.

3. Where I live in Costa Rica the locals are not that removed from their self-sufficient past so the knowledge base AND the ability to perform arduous physical labor is still here. Add in some more sustainable techniques and we hope to withstand the crunch-time rather easier than areas who have many more rungs to move down on the ladder.

While I agree about the fencing, metals and lost energy issues that have been raised, don't forget that humans have raised livestock without fencing. Herding dogs can assist with this. Co- selection of livestock, especially sheep, and dogs brought about a style of stock keeping where the livestock were moved from barn to field daily, and the dogs then acted as a living fence to keep the sheep protected while also keeping them out of crop fields. This type of work allows for field rotation and division without fencing. There have been increases in the number of people working to preserve this type of herding instInct and ability. Local terrrain and environment helped to shape the traits of the livestock and dogs; a awareness of these sorts of traits will be useful in selecting for the livestock end of food production to match local conditions just as we do with plants.

I'd be interested in taking the class!

I've been meeting with a few climate change folksâresearchers from different disciplines, a scenario modeler, and an educatorâover G+ hangouts, and I'm interested in expanding it to include others. I've been trying to bring a food security perspective to the meetings as well. Having a solid background in how to do this kind of analysis would be very helpful.

Yes. A series of templates, and a commentary. A wiki for the methodology do others can input. Etc...
The Soil Association in the UK have a spreadsheet tool looking at now much of what staple crops are required for a given population size. May be able to dig out a copy...

This is probably the most important area for research and public policy is human use and distribution of energy. One large part is agriculture - how to grow more food in harsher conditions. Another is how to mine energy from the environment in a sustainable manner. My personal efforts are going to be in the latter aspect, but there are many interconnected and interdependent facets to global energy problems, which are all fascinating.

By Captain Quirk (not verified) on 12 Apr 2012 #permalink

Yes, please, a class, examples, a how-to book, anything you want to offer, please do so!!

Your example has crystallized some of my vague ideas on the types of projects that it would be truly useful for groups interested in sustainability to do to influence public planning and policy, and I intend to propose doing something like this to every local (I live in western Washington) sustainability group that will listen to me, and see what comes forth.

I'm with Zeke in Alabama (actually I'm not really with Zeke, Judy is,I'm with Daryl, and we are all in Alabama ) but I share his sentiment.

I have been thinking about doing something like this for my local village and my county for awhile now. I loaned several copies of the Transition Handbook out to folks in the area, even the director of the local chamber of commerce.

I would prefer a how-to, as I am busy enough with my ducks, herbs and farm.

Sara (in Alabama)

By Sara Rose in Alabama (not verified) on 23 Apr 2012 #permalink

I'd love to read the report and am interested in the course (though I'm not sure I have the background to quite take advantage of it).