At a potluck dinner on Lopez Island late in the summer of 2014, Sandy Bishop, executive director of the Lopez Community Land Trust, and one of LCLT’s farm interns, Ezra Fradkin, were having a conversation about a hot topic – eating locally-sourced food. Sandy told Ezra she guessed that Lopezians probably only get about 5-10% of their food locally. Neither one of them had any way of knowing whether that guess was anywhere close to reality. Ezra, a farm intern on Lopez for only the summer, wanted to know. So, he decided to come back for the summer of 2015 to find out.
Ezra is entering into his last undergraduate year at Sterling College in Craftsbury, Vermont. With a mission squarely focused on environmental stewardship, Sterling, with 120 students, is the smallest four-year college in the United States. In addition to requiring every student to work an on-campus job during the school year, the school requires students to take on internships. This is how Ezra discovered the Lopez Community Land Trust, which for years has been coordinating farm internships on Lopez. In 2014, Ezra landed an internship at Horse Drawn Farm, working with Ken Akopiantz and Kathryn Thomas. He lived with Carol and Al Steckler at The Hummel House.
As Ezra prepares to graduate from Sterling, a research project to determine whether Lopez Island can be self-reliant for its food supply fits perfectly into his field of study. He returned to the island this June, again staying at The Hummel House, to launch the Lopez Island Foodshed Assessment. Ezra’s primary means for conducting research is the survey he’s asking residents to fill out. His goal is 280 completed surveys – about 10% of the full-time population of Lopez – by August 18th. As of July 16, he was at 130.
The goal of Ezra’s survey and his overall project is to assess the capacity of Lopez to feed itself. That doesn’t necessarily mean producing every possible item locally, which most people agree isn’t realistic. It does mean becoming self reliant – prioritizing locally produced food before turning to outside sources, which has all kinds of implications for the planet, not least of which is the environmental impact of shipping food from far-away places. Ezra intends to share his findings with the island in October, once he’s had a chance to analyze the data.
“If you want this type of in-depth information, you usually have to pay a market research firm a lot of money,” said Sandy Bishop, as she reflected on the valuable work Ezra is doing for the island. “A big part of what he’s doing is helping us have a conversation about our food,” she continued. Sandy is clearly a big fan of Ezra due to the passion and focus he’s bringing to his Foodshed Assessment project. What Ezra is doing says a lot about his character as an individual. It also says a lot about the far-reaching impact of the LCLT, which over the years has helped hundreds of interns – from all over the world – learn about sustainable agriculture, food systems and construction. Many of those interns have gone on to become leaders in the Lopez community and beyond.
I met Ezra last week at Isabelle’s Espresso to get to know him and learn more about the Foodshed Assessment. Beyond his disarming, earnest nature, I loved that Ezra was wearing a button that said, “Ask me about the Lopez Island Foodshed Assessment.” I asked him what he’s learned so far, even though he has yet to crunch the data from the survey. He’s learned a lot about the barriers to buying and selling food that’s produced locally. For consumers, the number one barrier is price. The highly mechanized, production farm industry makes available food that costs significantly less than food that’s grown locally. Unfortunately, it’s harder for consumers to see the additional costs associated with buying non-local food. What’s the cost to the environment of transporting food over thousands of miles? What’s the cost to the local economy when local farms can’t compete? For sellers of food – the stores and restaurants – a big barrier to buying locally grown food is a consistent, dependable supply. It’s hard to plan a menu when you’re not sure what crop is going to come in, or how much of it. Are wire worms going to destroy Horse Drawn’s lettuce crop? Will Blake and Julie sell out of all their chickens early? For producers of food – the farmers – there aren’t enough people willing to pay the price for locally grown food. All significant issues, which reinforce each other.
Ezra’s not just doing a project that’ll help him graduate. According to Sandy Bishop, “he has a vision.” To get a sense of that vision, I asked Ezra if he has any recommendations for Lopez at this point in his research. He has several. To increase the addressable market for locally grown food, Ezra suggests that farmers at the Farmers Market start accepting food stamps. To help address production and supply issues, Ezra suggests the community invest in a community owned commercial kitchen space – to process and preserve food that’s produced on the island. Ezra sees many great things happening already to help Lopez become more self reliant. For instance, he’s amazed at how many home gardens he sees. “It seems like everybody has a garden here.” More of that would be a good thing.
I was also interested in what Ezra does when he’s not out promoting his project and trying to get people to take the Foodshed Assessment survey. No surprisingly, he loves to grow food himself, so he spends quite a bit of time in the Hummel House Garden. He’s all about giving back to the community, which is why he regularly volunteers at the Lopez Dump. To get away, he takes hikes on the trail around Hummel Lake. And, he apparently likes to have some fun with the island’s other interns.
If you see Ezra around Lopez this summer, I recommend you have a conversation with him. He’s one of the friendliest people you’ll meet, and I guarantee you’ll learn something from your interaction with him. Where can you find Ezra? He’s often at a table in front of the Lopez Village Market or at the Farmers Market on Saturdays. When he’s at the dump, he’s working, but if you ask him about the Lopez Island Foodshed Assessment, I guarantee he’ll spend time with you on the subject. You can also find Ezra online – by following him on Facebook or on his blog. Whether you meet Ezra or not, if you live on Lopez, you should take the Lopez Island Foodshed Assessment Survey. We need to know how accurate Sandy was with her guess.