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Pollan hopes for star farmers, more local food

Bestselling food author and backyard naturalist Michael Pollan says that for the first time in decades, farms in the U.S. are on the rise. Since the 1940s, the number of farms across the country has been in steady decline, as ag giants gobble up acres, and family farms struggle to compete in a global market. But according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) most recent census, released last month, more than 75,000 farms popped up between 2002 and 2007—an increase of 4 percent.

The growth comes despite the 39 percent increase in production costs between 2002 and 2007. The biggest hike was in money spent on gasoline and fuel, which surged 93 percent to $6.7 billion a year. Funds spent on fertilizer grew to $9.8 billion, a jump of 86 percent. In his writing and public appearances, Pollan, author of The Omnivore's Dilemma and a journalism professor at University of California, Berkeley, has extolled the virtues of foods that are raised outside of the industrial-agricultural system.

During a speech at Columbia University in New York City last night, Pollan said that in addition to big biz ag, the previous decline stemmed from a long "brain drain" as children on farms pursued university educations and other fields (so to speak). The USDA finds that the new breed of farmers are a younger crowd (an average age of 48 compared with the national average of 57) and are running smaller operations (an average of 201 acres and $71,000 in annual sales compared with the national average of 418 acres and $135,000 in sales).

Despite this rise, farming has yet to really take root in popular culture. Pollan noted that he'd like to see a similar trajectory for farmers as restaurant chefs have enjoyed in the past couple decades. "We'll know [that's happened] when there's a hit show on Bravo called Top Farmer," he said.

In the meantime, Pollan advocates a two-pronged approach: one in which consumers consciously choose to buy (and eat) food products that are made sustainably (not just organically) and close to home; and another in which citizens pressure policymakers to change laws to make the nation's food healthier for people and the environment. "We need to vote with our forks," he said, "and vote with our votes."

Image courtesy of ~MVI~ via Flickr

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