By Robert Turner
Imagine a large dome over Asheville, and all our food grown within that dome, as if we were on Mars. How big would that dome need to be for this city to become truly self-sustaining and independent without any food imports from outside the dome? The grow-local, farm-to-table movement is big in Asheville, but how far can we take that concept, really? The average American eats 1,996 pounds of food per year (that’s about five and a half pounds per day, per person, according to the USDA). As an exercise in resilience thinking, I asked, “Could we possibly grow enough food to feed everyone in Asheville from the surrounding region, from our ‘food shed?’”
Currently, 35 percent of our produce comes from another country, and the average vegetable in your grocery store traveled 1,500 miles to get there. A recent USDA report suggests that in less than a decade more than 75 percent of our fruits and half of our vegetables will come from a foreign country.
To become more self-reliant we’d all have to learn how to can and store food for the winter, and we’d need facilities for grinding wheat and butchering livestock, but as an organic farmer, it seemed like a reasonable question for me to ask: How big is that dome?
Researchers have analyzed the American diet in order to determine how much land would be required to feed the average U.S. citizen. They came up with an average 20,000 square feet, or .45 acres, with the bulk of it necessary for cattle and meat production. A vegan diet would require significantly less land at about 7,000 square feet, or roughly one-sixth of an acre. More agriculturally intensive farming (organic) would require even less land.
Based on these numbers, Asheville, with a population of nearly 90,000 people, mostly meat-eaters, would require 40,500 acres of farmland to support all of its citizens if no food were imported into the city. Because most of the city has been developed, and there’s not much farmland left within city limits, and certainly not enough to support that population, we need to move our dome a little farther out.
Buncombe County has 253,000 residents and so would need 116,321 acres of farmland to support its food needs. It falls short with just 71,400 acres of farmland. According to the 2012 USDA census of agriculture, Buncombe has 1,060 small farms that make up that acreage. However, 38 percent of what is considered farmland is actually woodland, leaving just 32 percent as pastureland and 24 percent as cropland. Taking out woodland, Buncombe has just shy of 40,000 acres in pasture and cropland. We must go a little farther out with our dome, beyond county lines.
While Buncombe County is roughly 35 miles wide and 25 miles in length north to south, by expanding our dome out to a 50-mile radius, and certainly at 100 miles, with more rural and agricultural land available as we move away from the city, we could likely achieve a local, self-reliant status as far as food is concerned. The product mix and what we grow and eat would likely change a bit, and we’d be eating more seasonally like the old days, but it’s fair to say (and most local growers would agree) that a 100-mile radius is still considered ‘local food’.
It’s difficult for a community to be fully self-reliant and self-sufficient. But, on the other hand, we don’t really need to import so much of our food from faraway places. In addition to the numerous small farmers and backyard gardeners around Asheville, we have a few farmers like Danielle Hutchison that grow food at scale in our area. Danielle and her husband Mike own Beacon Village Farms and farm organically on more than 70 acres in Black Mountain and Old Fort. Danielle says, “It’s a lot of work growing food for people, but it’s a labor of love and I’m always thrilled when I walk into a grocery store and see our kale or another product there on the shelf and I think, ‘Hey, we grew that’, and I love that feeling I get.”
I’d try to make sure our dome fell over Danielle’s farm.
Robert Turner is director of the Creekside Farm Education Center and the author of Carrots Don’t Grow on Trees: Building Sustainable and Resilient Communities. To learn more, visit EatYourView.com.