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The Local Food Report
As we re-imagine our relationships to what we eat, Local Food Report creator Elspeth Hay takes us to the heart of the local food movement to talk with growers, harvesters, processors, cooks, policy makers and visionaries

A Local Food Economy That Works like an Apple Tree

Sam Willsea
The apple orchard at the Schumacher Center

Alice Maggio got interested in economics because of the local food movement. Her family had always kept sheep. And when she read Michael Pollan’s groundbreaking book the Omnivore’s Dilemma, she saw that this small act was part of something bigger.

“That was what first got me really excited. And I realized you’re not going to be able to have local food systems if you don’t have local economies to go with them,” said Alice.

Alice got an internship at the Schumacher Center for a New Economics in Great Barrington, Mass. Her office looked out at a beautiful 100-year-old apple orchard. And she started thinking that a strong local economy might look a lot like an apple tree:

“I thought of it as a perennial economy, because apple trees are perennial, they come back every year. And they are rooted in their place.”

For multi-national companies it’s easy to just pick up and leave. But local food businesses invested in their town or neighborhood, and they depend on local relationships just like the apple trees.

“Because of that they also are engaged in a lot of reciprocal relationships with the organisms in the soil."

Alice explained that in healthy soil there are microorganisms like fungi that actually feed trees nutrients from soil. The tree feeds them water and it’s a reciprocal relationship.

"I thought that was beautiful because we need to have an economy that actually doesn’t take too much from its place but can give something back which is very much the opposite of what our current system is,” said Alice.

This is a big focus in farming right now too. Like Alice’s perennial economy, regenerative agriculture is the idea that growing food should not only not harm a place but that it can actually making it better.

Another thing Alice noticed about apple trees is that they’re seasonal.

“You know they’re not just going all the time. Like our current economy is all about growth and if we don’t have growth we think something is terribly wrong. But actually growth is, we’re actually already growing beyond the limits of this Earth. So maybe we should look at something like an apple tree and look at how do you create a cyclical economy that is more in a seasonal rhythm rather than always growing, so I liked that thought also because apple trees need to be pruned, they can’t just keep growing forever or they’ll break.”

This is interesting. The economy in our region is already largely seasonal, and many of us see this as problematic. But I wonder if the problems we see are a result of our larger economic system and growth imperative, and not the seasonality itself.

“Maybe one of the last pieces of the image of the apple tree, or the apple orchard, the perennial economy is that apple orchards are made up of many trees and if you look what I learned is that if you look underground their roots actually often are intertwined and connected and so I liked that part of the image as well. Because if you think of a local economy as just one apple tree that’s seasonal, it’s rooted. And then you think about well actually if my local economy is strong it doesn’t actually fix everything. I want many, many local economies around the world to be flourishing. So I liked the idea that maybe being a strong local economy doesn’t mean you need to be cut off. And it actually can still be interconnected and needs to be interconnected with many other local economies around it just like the apple trees are all interconnected.”

To build a strong local food system, we need these connections. I think about the apples in western Massachusetts where Alice is from and the fisheries in my town on the Cape. I imagine their roots intertwining, trading oysters for cider, applesauce for chowder. And I remember that apple trees can’t self-pollinate. To get fruit from an apple, you have to plant a neighboring tree.


As promised, links to the following: 
Alice Maggio's TED talk on a perennial economy.
More from the Schumacher Center for a New Economics on building local food systems.