As I walk along a volcanic ridge beneath the San Francisco Peaks on Arizonas Colorado Plateau, my eyes move from piñon pine to yucca rosette to leafy bunches of amaranth. Their nuts, fruits, and greens tell me what season Im in and where we are in the larger cycles of El Niño. I read the other growth around me for the same signs, perusing agaves, scanning squawbush for berries, and counting buffalo gourds poking up from the heart-shaped leaves on the sandpapery, fetid vines. This is what ethnobotanists do: We dream of eating our way through one ripened, locally abundant morsel after another.
When I first backpacked here in 1970, I could not see this abundance around me. I was 18 years old, and all I wanted to do was get out in the boonies before they were all gone. My only thought about food was how to carry as little as I could while staying out in the wilderness for as long as possible. I neither foraged from the local vegetation, nor purchased items from local Mormon farms I passed on the way into the chaos of slickrock topography. Yet my most enduring image from that first trip into the austerity of redrock and dry sky was an Anasazi maize granary tucked up in a niche within a Navajo sandstone cliff. Somewhere in that landscape I had considered so barren and unarable, an ancient clan had lived by locally cultivated crops, wild plants, and native animals.
Today, locally based diets are nearly nonexistent. Only a tenth of the food eaten in Iowa, Americas breadbasket, is grown within the state; most produce now arrives by truck via a Chicago redistribution center, traveling more than 1,500 miles before it reaches the dinner table in Des Moines. According to a recent report by the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, that distance is up 22 percent from 1981. Nationally, 93 percent of all fruits and vegetables make similarly long journeys, requiring tremendous amounts of fossil fuel and reducing freshness and nutritional value. And with food passing through six to eight hands before it reaches you, the portion of the food dollar going to the farmer who produces it shrinks, making family farms increasingly less viable. In 1950, a typical farmer got 41 cents of every food dollar. Today he gets 19 cents.
Kamyar Enshayan, one of the Leopold Center studys authors, emphasizes that alternatives are close at hand. A growing number of communities feature farmers markets, where customers get guaranteed fresh, local produce and farmers get to cut out the middleman. Another popular option is community-supported agriculture, wherein families subscribe with local farms to weekly deliveries of seasonal fruits and vegetables. If just 10 percent of the produce consumed in Iowa came from within 50 miles of where it was eaten, Enshayan argues, there would be an annual savings of 300,000 gallons of fuel and 6.7 million pounds of carbon dioxide. And Enshayan has done more than just talk about local eatinghe convinced eight colleges, homes for the elderly, and hospitals in northern Iowa to purchase $600,000 worth of their breadstuffs and produce from local sources.
For my own part, I recently experimented by spending a year sourcing 80 percent of my food from within a 250-mile radius of my home in the desert. The benefits, I found, were not merely ecological and economic, but social and sensual as well. Nearly every month of the year, I organized wild foraging outings for neighbors and friends, during which we hiked into the desert for saguaro cactus fruit, mesquite pods, tubers, greens, acorns, wild chilis, and yucca blossoms. As we picked fruits and flowers, our conversations also blossomed and ripened. As we pit-roasted mescal and cholla cactus buds, we savored the mesquite smoke and watched the sunset together. Then we celebrated an ancient kind of communion, partaking of foods our own hands had picked, carrying the very taste of the dry earth upon which we stood and from which our cells are ultimately made.
Gary Nabhan recounts his year of foraging locally in Coming Home to Eat(W. W. Norton, 2001).