Two weeks in the West






With oil prices spiking past $120 a barrel, earthquakes and cyclones killing tens of thousands in Asia, and food prices spurring riots abroad and wrestling matches in the grocery line at home, the morning news is beginning to sound more than a little bit apocalyptic.

In the West, you might expect the survivalists to cry "uncle" and lead their families off to remote compounds in the hills, well stocked with guns and canned goods. Instead, many Western communities are working to push local food production into the mainstream. A handful of public school districts on Colorado's Front Range, for example, are switching to locally grown beef and vegetables, despite the increased cost, and a meat plant near Colorado Springs has seen a 30 percent jump in local beef sales over the past year alone. Just over the mountains in rural Carbondale, Colo., a coalition of nonprofits is launching a farm school, where students and local residents will learn how to grow and distribute food by working on family farms in the area. Cities are also fair farming territory, with urban operations such as City Slicker Farms in West Oakland, Calif., expanding across several vacant lots to provide fresh local veggies and green space for the area's low-income residents. In Seattle, Wash., the localization push even spilled over into kitchen sinks, with Mayor Greg Nickels banning bottled water in city offices and urging community members to drink from the tap. (The city now consumes enough bottled water to burn 41,000 barrels of oil in transportation and bottle manufacturing every year.)

But even the best intentions can't insulate the West's food supplies against the region's fickle weather, explosive growth and rising production costs. Hard freezes in late April - the worst in decades, according to some growers - hammered apricots, cherries, peaches, grapes, walnuts and other early-blooming crops in Utah, Colorado, California, Washington and Oregon. Commercial beekeepers around the country reported losing more than 36 percent of their honeybees - crucial for pollinating crops - over the past year, and pesticide use and diminishing habitat continue to pinch native pollinators that could help pick up the slack. Increasing air pollution may have something to do with the decline, disrupting bees' ability to follow flower scents and gather food, according to a new University of Virginia study. Affordable, arable land is also getting pricier (thanks in part to real estate booms and ethanol subsidies) and harder to find in the West. In Montana's fast-growing Gallatin County, for example, farmers are selling out to developers for millions, and more than 80,000 acres of farmland were taken out of production between 1997 and 2002.

And though grain prices are climbing, many farmers in California and elsewhere are steering clear of planting corn and rice because they require extensive fertilizer input (there is now a global shortage) and more fuel - making them much more expensive to grow overall than crops like safflower.

The federal Farm Bill passed by a large majority in mid-May - a compromise which sets United States food policy for the next five years - could help with some Western food worries. In addition to establishing a $3.8 billion permanent relief fund to help keep farmers in business through drought, freezes and other disasters, the bill increases spending on food stamps, school lunches, and sundry nutrition programs by $10.4 billion a year. But critics (including President George W. Bush, who promised a veto) say the bill also provides too many subsidies (about $40 billion annually) for big agriculture at a time when the industry is flush in profits.

Meanwhile, after two years of failed attempts at immigration reform that could have helped boost farm labor by legalizing some undocumented immigrants and opening guestworker programs to others, Congress is peacefully preparing legislation that would make it easier for foreign fashion models, athletes and entertainers to work in the U.S.

One legislator referred to the uncontroversial effort as "housekeeping."

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