Eat local. Keep bees. Boycott feedlot livestock. Grow vegetables and sell them at public markets. Support your neighbors by buying their produce. Contain suburban housing by preserving green acres for farms.

Local, Simple, Fresh: Sustainable Food in the Boise Valley is available at Rediscovered Books on Boise’s North Eighth Street or via Boise State’s online catalog.

Writers in this volume include: Tonya Nelson, Angie Zimmer, Bryce Evans, Greg Randleman, Jennifer Shelby, Jeweldean Hull, Alyssa Johnson, Dennis O’Dell, Victoria Kazimir, Guy Hand, and Larry Burke.

Seeds of the “locavore” moment take root in a valley that once led the nation in irrigated agriculture. Locavores—like the carnivore natives who hunted big game during Boise’s Ice Age, like the omnivore Shoshone who once roamed southwestern Idaho, spearing salmon and digging roots—follow the seasons and forage within 100 miles of home. Coined by a chef in San Francisco, locavore was the New Oxford American Dictionary’s “word of the year” for 2007. In Boise it has come to describe a way of life. Local food tastes better, its proponents argue. It preserves biodiversity. Supports regenerative agriculture. Cuts greenhouse emissions from fossil fuels. “Food miles” has become the Idaho locavore’s measure of globalization’s impact. In Boise, locavores say, the average distance from farm to table is 1,500 miles.

Capital City Public Market

Paul BudgeCapital City Public Market, founded in 1994, crowds 150 vendors into six blocks of Boise’s downtown. Sixteen of the original vendors have since split off to a nearby farmers market exclusively focused on local food.

At once nostalgia and economics, and strong enough to override suburban land-use zoning codes, the locavore movement pines for the barns and rail fences lost to suburbia’s blight. “Agriculture is our heritage,” said the Urban Land Institute in its 2012 “Sustainable Farming” report on the Treasure Valley. Yet agrarianism retreats before the advance of asphalt rooftops. USDA census figures show a 14 percent loss of farmland in Ada County, 2002 to 2007. Canyon County lost 4 percent. Population, meanwhile, boomed. “If we have no land for agriculture,” the land institute continued, “we have no food. If we have no food, we have no long-term sustainability. For flat and irrigated land, agriculture may well be the highest and best use.”

In Boise the movement prescribes a transformative diet of communitarian values. A school for Boise Urban Gardens offers a seven-week summer program on food “literacy” and “a deeper understanding of nature.” An organic farm called Peaceful Belly credits “community” for its commercial success. The Treasure Valley Food Coalition, meanwhile, campaigns to end the tyranny of tasteless tomatoes. Stressing food security through food independence, the coalition promotes its “modest” ambition to double farming acreage. Its goal is to increase the valley’s consumption of local food from 2 percent to 20 by the end of the decade. Posters advertise a 12-part local meal of food in healthy abundance, of milk, wheat flour, beef, dry beans, carrots, peppers, tomatoes, potatoes, leafy greens, apples, strawberries and grapes. Twenty percent local consumption would add, says the coalition, 8,800 local jobs.

Not everyone accepts those numbers. Economist Steve Sexton of UC-Berkeley has argued that local food, being seasonal and small-scale, is inherently inefficient. Nationwide, says Sexton, if America’s top 40 crops were consumed within 100 miles, farmers would need to plow 60 million more acres of cropland. It would require 2.7 million tons more fertilizer and 50 million more pounds of chemicals. Nutrient-rich produce would be more expensive.

“Large operations are more efficient,” writes Sexton in the book Freakonomics. “Implicit in the argument that local farming is better is an assumption that a ‘relocalized’ food system can be just as efficient as today’s modern farming. That assumption is simply wrong.” The Idaho Potato Commission points out that some soils are better than others. Alabama, for example, yields 170 hundredweight of potatoes per acre. An acre in Idaho yields more than twice as much. To forsake that comparative advantage would be to destroy more habitats, use more chemicals and pollute more water and air. Economists wince at the locavore claim that food mileage is an obvious way to measure environmental impact. Trucking lettuce from California may require less fuel that heating an Ohio greenhouse. Potatoes travel by rail and sea in fuel-efficient containers. Small-scale farming relies more heavily on gas-burning vans and trucks.

Locavores brush back those free-market claims with the arguments that local food, being fresher, provides more nutrition; that free-range valley farmers treat their animals better; that growth hormones and preservatives poison the food chain; that organic farming cultivates tastes for unique products; and that conscientious consumption promotes citizenship. Evaluating those claims and assessing those expectations are the research questions that guide a new collection of student essays from the Boise State University College of Social Sciences and Public Affairs. Topics in the volume include farm subsidies, farm ethics, breweries, vineyards, public markets, refugee gardens, potato promotions, land-use patterns and locavore entrepreneurs.

The book is available at Rediscovered Books on Boise’s North Eighth Street or via Boise State’s online catalog at http://sspa.boisestate.edu/publications. Below are selected images from the latest volume in the Investigate Boise Student Research Series.

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The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University or the School of Public Service.