It’s been a boon for local farmers. In July, Wal-Mart announced that it plans to spend $400 million this year on locally grown produce, making it the largest player in that market.
Some independently owned, small-to-medium-size chains have been selling extensive lines of local seasonal fruits and vegetables for years, lines they are now expanding. However, for the largest supermarket chains, where for decades produce has meant truckloads transported from the West Coast, it’s not always easy to switch to the farmer down the road.
But soaring transportation costs, not to mention a growing customer preference for local food, have made it more attractive not just to supermarkets but to the agribusiness companies that supply them. Growers like Dole and Nunes have contracted with farmers in the East to grow products like broccoli and leafy greens that they used to ship from the West Coast. Because of fuel costs the cost of freight is now sometimes more than the cost of the products.
The rise of farmers‘ markets has been the result of a dramatic shift in Americans tastes, and, I would believe, a growing understanding of what’s healthier for both you and the environment as a whole.
This rise in consumer demand for locally-grown foods has incited an inevitable change, which is now gradually reshaping the business of growing and supplying food to Americans. The local food movement has already accomplished something that would have been considered impossible a mere decade ago: the revival of the small farm.
After declining for more than a century, the number of small farms has increased 20 percent in the past six years.
The impact of "locavores" (as local-food proponents are sometimes known) is even being felt within the U.S. government. The latest version of the Farm Bill sets aside $2.3 billion for specialty crops, such as the eggplants, strawberries, or salad greens that are grown by small, mostly organic farmers. Sure, there is still a long way to go. The Farm Bill hands out $290 billion to big business in the form of corn, soybean and cotton subsidies. However, considering the fact that small farm specialty crops received a paltry $100 million in the previous Farm Bill, $2.3 billion is definitely a major step in the right direction.
The Rise of the Locavore
Consumer research has found that there are several reasons why people are opting for locally-grown produce over their imported counterparts, including:
- freshness and taste
- wanting to keep farmland and open spaces in the community
- a desire to be close to the food source and know where it comes from
- support of local farmers and keeping money in the community
- increased food safety
According to one grocery chain poll, a full 82 percent of customers said locally grown produce simply tastes better.
As I’ve said before, change is inevitable, and truth generally wins out in the end. I believe Arthur Shoepenhaur said it best when he declared that all truths go through three phases:
- First it is ridiculed
- Then it is violently opposed
- Then widely accepted as self evident
You really don’t have to go very far back in history to find that people ate what grew in their surrounding area, based on seasonal availability. It is a sustainable, environmentally-friendly, and healthy way to eat.
The National Resources Defence Council (NDRC) offers a great tool on their website that helps you determine what fruits and vegetables are in season, in your state.
Signs of a Shifting Tide
There are several clear signs indicating that a healthy shift is taking place:
- Major companies are implementing healthy changes for their staff, such as Google, who opened an employee cafeteria (Cafe 150) whose goal is to only use foods and ingredients grown within 150 miles.
- In the past six years, the number of small farms has increased by 20 percent, to 1.2 million.
- Farmers’ markets grew 50 percent from 2001 to 2006, to nearly 4,700 farms (and $1 billion in sales).
- According to the most recent Farm Bill, small farmers can get up to 75 percent of their organic certification costs reimbursed, and some can also get crop insurance. Money has also been set aside to research organic foods and promote farmers’ markets.
- 1,200 U.S. school districts have committed to buying fresh vegetables and fruits from local farms.
- The number of farms with community-supported agriculture (CSA) programs in the U.S. grew from just 400 in 2000 to over 1,800 in 2008.
When enough attitudes shift, and everyone starts voting with their pocketbooks, the fabric of society and business follows. It simply cannot afford not to.
The Need for Continued Support for Local Farmers
Despite the surge in small farms, well over 50 percent of the food you eat is still produced by factory-farming methods that threaten both your health and the environment.
The solution is to continue to support local organic food growers who abstain from using harmful chemicals, as much as possible. Because in addition to being environmentally sustainable, organics have been scientifically proven to pack a heftier nutritional punch:
- Organic fruit and vegetables contain up to 40 percent more antioxidants
- Organic produce had higher levels of beneficial minerals like iron and zinc
- Milk from organic herds contained up to 90 percent more antioxidants
In essence, you’re getting far more value for your dollar when you buy organic.
It’s More Than Taste – It’s a Lifestyle
Right now fresh produce is available in abundance in the United States and farmers’ markets are in full swing across the nation. Not only is the food tastier and healthier, but there is something about shopping for fresh foods in an open-air, social environment that just feels right. The mere act of shopping for your food in this kind of environment tends to inspire more healthful living, as research by the Economic and Social Research Council has confirmed.
They found that people who participated in alternative food networks (such as the ones I’ve listed below), typically:
- Increased their consumption of fruits and vegetables
- Improved their cooking skills
- Improved their knowledge about food
- Changed their behaviors in relation to other goods, such as household products and clothes
As Matt Seeley, vice president for marketing of the Nunes Company said, “It’s going to be a way of life… I don’t think there is any turning back.”
I couldn’t agree more.
Where to Find Fresh Produce Grown Near You
If you want to experience some of these benefits first-hand, here are some great resources to obtain wholesome food that supports not only you but also the environment:
1. Alternative Farming Systems Information Center, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA)
2. Farmers' Markets -- A national listing of farmers' markets.
3. Local Harvest -- This Web site will help you find farmers' markets, family farms, and other sources of sustainably grown food in your area where you can buy produce, grass-fed meats, and many other goodies.
4. Eat Well Guide: Wholesome Food from Healthy Animals -- The Eat Well Guide is a free online directory of sustainably raised meat, poultry, dairy, and eggs from farms, stores, restaurants, inns, and hotels, and online outlets in the United States and Canada.
5. Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture (CISA) -- CISA is dedicated to sustaining agriculture and promoting the products of small farms.
6. FoodRoutes -- The FoodRoutes “Find Good Food” map can help you connect with local farmers to find the freshest, tastiest food possible. On their interactive map, you can find a listing for local farmers, CSA's, and markets near you.