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Erin Silva: Diversify Crops Regionally

For virtually every bag of salad greens purchased anywhere in the United States, the journey begins in California’s Salinas Valley. The fertile band east of Monterey bills itself as “America’s salad bowl”—and with good reason. Nearly 80 percent of the country’s lettuce and more than half its spinach is grown there.

But eating from one bowl has its risks, as Americans discovered after an E. coli outbreak on a Salinas County farm in 2006. Tainted spinach leaves sickened more than 200 people nationwide, causing three deaths, and bagged spinach virtually disappeared from American grocery shelves.

CALS agronomist Erin Silva says the spinach scare underscores one of the dangers of our current food system, which tends to concentrate production of many crops into small geographic areas. While economically advantageous for processors, the practice leaves significant portions of the nation’s food crops vulnerable to pathogens, plant diseases, bioterrorism and vagaries of weather. And consumers pay the price: when heavy rains hit central Illinois last fall, for example, the bulk of the nation’s crop of canning pumpkins was ruined, making a once-plentiful product instantly scarce.

These vulnerabilities could be fixed by thinking regionally, says Silva, who conducts and coordinates research on organic production systems at CALS. “If we diversified the crops we grow within our agricultural regions,” she says, “that would do much to improve our food security.”

The key, says Silva, is matching a region’s food-production capacity with its market demand. Silva is part of a team of researchers who are trying to do that for Midwestern vegetable growers. The project aims to assess the opportunities and limitations associated with expanding the region’s vegetable production systems, including the creation of entirely new systems for crops that have traditionally been in California’s domain.

“Obviously, we’re much closer to the eastern markets and our own markets here in the Midwest, so it would definitely have an impact in terms of reducing food miles, as well as helping to diversify these crops out of California,” says Silva. Regional food production also could be a boon to America’s struggling mid-sized farms, which are large enough to produce quantities of food desired by wholesalers but nimble enough to adapt to shifting demands.

So what makes now the time for change? Silva thinks the growing interest in local foods offers an opportunity for regional food systems to take off. Consumer interest in locally grown foods has been stoked by farmers’ markets and community-supported agriculture, but those outlets may not supply enough food to satisfy the demands of institutional buyers, such as schools and businesses.

“If we want to increase the number of people that local food systems reach,” says Silva, “we have to think in terms of bigger scale.”