By Sam Cantrell

Last week, the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture and the Chester County Economic Development Council announced the creation of a new position that should benefit both food producers and consumers.

The new "farmers' advocate" will focus on helping save the county's agricultural farms (increasingly desirable for residential and commercial development), orienting farmers toward sustainability and educating the public. But besides saving these farms that are our proud heritage, the advocate must work to get new farms started - and lots of them.

We need many small, diversified farms that offer direct marketing and adhere to ecologically responsible methods. These farms also must operate with the support of their communities.

The role of the public can't be underestimated. Ultimately, residents' understanding, or ignorance, of the realities of our food system will determine the expansion and survival - or extinction - of the family farm.

Consumers must realize that, "if you eat food, you're involved in agriculture," and that they share some of the responsibility for the direction of our food production. In fact, consumers have the best ability to bring change to this ailing industry.

Every food choice an eater makes is a vote - and it's a vote with dollars. People can choose a corporate-controlled, petroleum-dependent, industrial model of the food system. These are the types that have brought us national epidemics such as obesity, diabetes, attention deficit disorder, asthma and allergies along with nutrient-poor soils, polluted waterways and devastated farming families and rural communities.

Or, they can vote for a local, sustainable food system. That means farmers who produce high-quality foods without compromising the environment and who work with the support of their communities, receiving adequate economic compensation for performing this vital task.

Consumers have the ability - and as I see it, the obligation, for their own good - to use their purchasing power to demand high-quality food. A local, sustainable food system provides the best answer to the issues of food quality, food value and food security: If you can't grow your own food, get it from the farm down the road.

Food quality? It's obvious. How can food that has traveled 1,500 miles, 3,000 miles or maybe even 9,000 miles - from the Midwest, the West Coast or a foreign country - compare with the freshly harvested food we have here? Food value? What kind of value does "cheap, abundant" food offer if we remember to factor in the true cost of producing it and bringing it to our table via the industrial, oil-burning system? And food security? How secure would our food system be if all it came from far-away places, over which we had no control, and passed through processing and distribution centers where it could be subject to contamination, either accidental or intentional?

In Chester County, we have a good climate, great soils and quite a few little parcels remaining that could be put into food production. We certainly have the markets to support a thriving local agricultural industry.

We also have the beginnings of a public awakening to new choices as consumers have begun weaning themselves from convenience-based foods and begun patronizing farm stands, farmers markets, community supported agriculture operations, local food stores, restaurants highlighting "farm to chef" programs and even, slowly, "farm to institution" partnerships.

Creating the farmers' advocate position, along with programs such as Pennsylvania's "Buy Fresh, Buy Local Week," which ends Sunday, are steps towards establishing a local, sustainable food system. But it's going to take more than advocate. Let's make every week a "Buy Fresh, Buy Local Week."

Sam Cantrell is executive director of Maysie's Farm Conservation Center in Glenmoore.