The counterargument to consumer-driven demand is that Ralphs and other megastores have trained shoppers to expect food out of season -- by supplying it. As one local food advocate put it, "I don't think 'consumer demand' has its roots with the consumers but has its roots with the distributors and their marketing who want to make a lot of money on it. You can get a real nice price for food flown in from other parts of the world." So long as the petroleum costs stay "low."
There's a basket of reasons why San Diegans' food doesn't come from around here. In addition to the distribution system that favors shipped food, the dearth of green grocers, the global supermarket that stocks any product anytime, the chief local reason is the county's housing development during the last 50 years. Housing has removed most places where dairy, vegetable, and citrus farms once thrived. One critic of this commandeered local farmland is Mel Lions, a founding member of San Diego Roots, Sustainable Food Project. He tells me one morning over coffee (a necessary import) that agriculture and husbandry were prominent in San Diego's past. Lions, 51, wears a ball cap tucked tight on his head. He moved to San Diego when he was 3 and recalls growing up in the South Bay. In Lions's childhood, local dairies were common, as were produce wagons that rang their bells the way ice cream trucks do now in the neighborhoods. As a child, he loved his grandfather's peaches; as an adult, he quit eating store-ripened fruit: they couldn't hold a candle to the peach in his memory. "Why would anybody buy this stuff? I remembered what it tastes like when you pick it off the tree, a concept that carries over to all your food. If something is picked unripe weeks ago, refrigerated in a box, shipped a thousand miles, gassed so it ripens up, goes to the produce aisle, and sits there waiting for me to come and get it -- I'm not getting anything out of that."
In 2001, Lions became a committed foodie. For a time he had worked at Good Faith Farm, a small-scale organic spread in Jamul, across the valley from a proposed Indian casino. It was a very profitable business, located "in an idyllic little valley that had been farmed for 100 years. The best restaurants in San Diego were buying their produce." The farmers who leased the property put out a call: the owner was selling and they needed someone "to buy the farm and the 160 surrounding acres. It was being bought by a developer for McMansions and a polo field." To stop the sale, Lions and others organized, hoping to raise $6 million. But they couldn't collect the money in time, and the farm was lost. Lions and friends regrouped as San Diego Roots to bring awareness of food security to the public, to assist local farms with harvesting and selling, and to help consumers understand where their food comes from. "If we're buying our food from farther and farther away, at some point -- if we've gotten rid of all the local farms -- then we're going to be in trouble. If we can't get the food over the mountains or by boat from Chile, then we're going to go hungry."
Preserving traditional farmlands is the central political issue for foodies. "It may not be an issue in our lifetimes," says Lions, "but in the next generation, as the oil gets scarcer, we won't be able to ship it; we'll have to grow it here." There's enough water in Mission Valley, Otay Valley, and Tijuana River Valley to grow large tracts of food. But without soil, the prospects dim. "It takes thousands of years for those valleys to develop their alluvial soil -- and it can be destroyed in an instant. It takes a generation of no growth for the soil to become sustainable. By 'sustainable' I mean soil that pulls its nutrients from the air, which is done with bacteria and microbes and things that are in living soil -- not dead dirt, which is what industrial agriculture has brought us." No, he says, three million locals cannot eat all the avocados or strawberries grown here. But some of those farms can be replanted with other crops. Also, with drip irrigation, greenhouses offer the potential for year-round vegetable gardens.
Lions has grown his own food in urban gardens, front-yard tracts that neighbors marvel at -- flowers, vegetables, herbs. "I give away lots of food, and they love it. San Diego celebrates the lawn; but you know you'll spend more time on your lawn than you will on a garden." He waxes fondly about his garden's freshness, "I pick it raw and eat it or I cook it. Locality has a lot to do with flavor, nutrition, vitality within the food itself." Garden food, he says, "is not picked for shipping; it's picked for eating. At its peak flavor. Nature's got this wonderful method of making flavor and nutrition and ripeness all come together at the same moment in time. If we can optimize that with our purchases, then we're getting what nature is intending for us to be eating.
"I've come to understand," he continues, "the connection between food, passion, and life. If my body is feeding on the best stuff, then my vitality changes. As we've gotten farther away from fresh food, our passion levels have dropped -- as a country. We have less time to do the passionate things, and we eat worse, and it takes our energy level down, and we have to work harder -- it's a cycle of suppression that's infused our society. I think our health and survival are hinging on this -- bringing back control of our lives, the quality of our food, our relationships with each other."
The San Diego County Farm Bureau, a farmer-advocacy group that tracks the monetary value of everything planted and harvested locally, says there's lots of food grown close to home. With 6000 local farms, agriculture is the fifth-largest industry in the county, using about ten percent of the county's land. Agriculture contributes $1.4 billion to the local economy, which includes nursery and flower crops. (The data about crop numbers and dollar values is compiled by the San Diego County Department of Agriculture, Weights and Measures.) Two-thirds of local farms have nine or fewer acres. Most farms are family-owned and -operated, though most farmers do not sustain themselves by raising crops. Family farming doesn't pay a lot, so many supplement their income. Along with a handful of egg ranches in Ramona and a robust countywide poultry industry, San Diego has only a few mom-and-pop dairy farms where cows are concentrated. Calves raised in the backcountry are shipped to CAFOs, or combined animal feeding operations (which militant vegetarians label animal death camps) in Arizona, central California, and Imperial County, where the feedlots are thriving with some 325,000 beef cattle. Range land for grazing cattle locally is possible, but not without more rain.