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1/7/2008

EUGENE 2020

The Sustainable Business Initiative (SBI) Task Force gave its report to the Eugene City Council in August of 2006. Along with twenty-two recommendations for creating a sustainable Eugene, the SBI report also contained two pages describing a vision of what Eugene could look like in the year 2020 if the city fulfilled the promise of those recommendations. The vision is an optimistic one. It draws a pleasant picture of a Eugene that has done all the little things to diminish its carbon footprint, achieve zero waste, and make a "crystalline" Willamette River the center piece of the city's renaissance.

For some, this vision might seem a bit too rosy. It reads more like a chamber of commerce brochure than a sustainability report. There is no mention of peak oil, no mention of possible food insecurities, and no mention of the likelihood that gasoline prices might double and then double again by 2020. Along with preparation for climate change, energy prices and food concerns are why the SBI was formed. Regardless of business prospects or economic wish lists, no vision of Eugene in 2020 should gloss over these issues.

One of the primary elements of sustainability is food security, and with rising petroleum prices, food proximity is part of the equation. The SBI vision mentions hopes for increased business for organic and sustainable farms in the Eugene area, but a larger vision of local agriculture is not fully articulated. Freight costs will change the dynamics of food pricing worldwide, and we are likely to see economic advantage given to food sources that are closer to home. This has the potential to reshape the agricultural economy of the entire Willamette Valley, and it is crucial to anticipate and facilitate this as part of Eugene's sustainability plan.

For quite some time, there has been a movement in Eugene to buy locally. This means in all realms of Lane County commerce, but the accent has always been on food grown locally or within 100 miles. Using the farmers' market, taking part in community supported agriculture subscription plans, and frequenting grocery stores or restaurants that buy from local growers have gradually become more and more a part of Eugene life. Unfortunately, even with this growing awareness, well less than ten percent of what Lane County buys is grown locally, meaning more than ninety percent of what we eat in Lane County comes from outside the Willamette Valley. Considering the natural bounty of the region, this seems almost impossible.

Not that long ago Willamette Valley farms produced a wide variety of food crops. There was a cannery in Eugene and infrastructure in the valley for a complete local food industry. In the last twenty years, however, this capacity has been slowly dismantled. With the price of grains stable and predictably low during the 1980s and 90s, local farmers cut back on growing food and opened more acreage to lucrative landscape nurseries and grass seed farms. Today sixty percent of what is grown in the Willamette Valley is grass seed or ornamental plants. Less than twenty percent is food. Despite living in Eden, we buy from elsewhere to feed ourselves. With the impingement of peak oil economics and climate instabilities, there will be increasing incentive to address this imbalance.

Currently we spend about $600 million annually in Lane County at retail food stores, buying products from all over the world. This convenience has evolved during an era of cheap oil. As petroleum prices rise and the labor advantage of distant markets is minimized by transportation costs, this will change. It is not unreasonable to imagine a time when freight costs alter the market. We could be buying as much as thirty percent of what we eat from local farmers and cycling a significant portion of our retail food dollars back into our own economy instead of sending it to Midwest agribusiness or aboard.

USDA statistics show that these kinds of changes are possible. Weather related price increases have recently pushed wheat past $10 a bushel. In response, wheat acreage in Lane County has climbed in the last year from a nominal 1,500 to nearly 5,000still a low number compared to the 19,000 acres of wheat grown in the late 1970s or the 45,000 acres now devoted to grass seed and clover. But with these kinds of economic forces at play and sustainability's call for decentralized markets, we could very well see Willamette Valley grass seed growers converting meaningful portions of their acreage to food products because of higher profit margins.

A Willamette Valley that grows much larger quantities of food, particularly wheat and legumes, with an emphasis on organic practices, would be a good thing in these changing times. Seeing this as a possibility now, planning ahead so that some of the necessary food industry infrastructure is in place, and regaining the capacity to feed ourselves from local sources should be a central part of any meaningful vision of a sustainable Eugene.

See archives for past blogs

Prairie Fire
Taming the Dragon