By Julie Cushine-Rigg
Buying local food may sound like a new concept, but it’s been around for a long time. American families used to get a lot of their food from local farms and general stores. Previous generations were eating very differently than today, and probably wouldn’t recognize some of the convenient foods that have become so familiar in 2011. The trend toward eating local food from sources within regions (sometimes called ‘Food Hubs’) is seeing renewed interest and provides benefits to the environment, the economy and human health.
Up until around WWII, many people raised some of their own food, or knew somebody who did. Farmers were our ancestor’s link to food and they remain so today, although that link has weakened over the past several decades due in part to industrialized farming, processed foods and ‘big box’ grocery stores. Technology beckons us to modern these conveniences, but there remain opportunities to get food directly from farmers like previous generations did. Farmers markets, farm stands, food co-ops and CSAs (community supported agriculture) make up most of those opportunities to buy food directly from farmers.
When you buy locally grown and raised foods, you can trace back the origin of those foods. Local food with 100% traceability is appealing because it contributes to a safer food system, something that has become compromised in recent years as evidenced by increasing outbreaks of foodborne illnesses and food recalls. When food is purchased within a smaller region, as opposed to a larger commercial grocery store which may have imported foods from thousands of miles away, it can be traced back a lot easier. The average food product from the grocery store has traveled 1300 miles to get to your dinner plate. Smaller, local farms produce food and fiber, product, open space, and provide wildlife habitat, all contributing to our quality of life.1
As consumers become more aware of where food comes from it’s nice to know that there’s an abundance of agriculture producing a lot of food right here. In NY, agricultural production returned almost $4.7 billion to the farm economy in 2009. About 23 percent of the state’s land area, or 7.10 million acres are used by the 36,600 farms to produce a very diverse array of food products including strawberries. In 2009, NY strawberry farmers reaped a harvest of 4.40 million pounds, with a worth of $9.02 million dollars to the growers!
Well known as a dairy state, milk is New York’s leading agricultural product and its sales account for one-half of total agricultural receipts. Milk production in 2009 was 12.4 billion pounds with a preliminary value of $1.7 billion. New York is the nation’s 3rd leading producer and Wyoming is the State’s leading county.2 Other products of NY farms include:
America is at a turning point in food culture, and should take advantage of this time. The trend toward eating more local foods means that consumers have the potential to eat more fresh produce, and less processed foods. Upstate NY is at a time and place when the state can still produce a lot of food to enable the changing food system to become more local and safer. One of the biggest customers is NYC. Assemblyman Bill Magee, Chair of Assembly Agriculture Committee is the author of numerous bills and said, “Contrary to what some may see as a difference between upstate and downstate, people from downstate do care about [farming], it is their food. They want NY farm products, more so since 9/11.”
As an example of how important farms are to supplying NYC with fresh food, Ryan Wood, a volunteer with youth organizations in Queens says that farmers markets were really the only opportunities that the youth of his communities had for access to fresh produce. And that eliminating funding for the markets would be disastrous.
Environmental benefits are many when you support a local food system, as opposed to purchasing foods that have come from areas far away from where you live. Many well known retail stores purchase from large commercial farms, and the smaller family run farms throughout the country are suffering and forced to sell their land for development. When productive land is turned into commercial land, surface areas change drastically. No longer are there soils to absorb rain and melting snow from hilltops in spring. Additional asphalt, concrete and other impervious surfaces force all of that water, at once to other places instead of giving it a chance to penetrate fertile soils. Increases in springtime flooding can be attributed to changing weather patterns; however, a lot of it can be attributed to development.
Buying more products from your local farms means that less of them will need to close, and when demand for their products is present, farmers are able to diversify their crops and provide more choices for consumers. This diversity leads to a more sustainable ecosystem, one that requires less herbicide and pesticide use and provides habitat for wildlife. Because there are less (and in some cases zero) chemicals being applied to the ecosystem, fossil fuel use is also reduced.
An example of a farmer getting in to a new crop or product comes from farmer Joel Salatin of Swoope, Virginia (Polyface Farms) who has been featured in the films Food Inc., Fresh, and the book “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” by Michael Pollan. About twenty years ago, at the request of a friend, Salatin’s farm started to raise eggs. At the last minute, the customer had to step away from the deal and left Polyface to market six-hundred dozen eggs. This new endeavor could have been disastrous for Polyface, but Salatin made it all work, with the help of restaurants.
Salatin quickly enlisted a chef friend, got a ‘hit list’ of restaurants from him and set out to market the eggs. “The eggs were just pouring out!” he remembers. With the initial list of twelve chefs and six appointments in one day, Polyface was on its way to their new enterprise, egg production.
“I’m Joel Salatin and I have the world’s best eggs and I’d like to show them to you. That’s all I said, and I’ve never been turned down by a chef. They love to see the new products discovered. We’ve learned a lot from chefs,” he said.
Polyface Farm, like many other farms across the country have decided to practice pasture based farming. Pasture based farms allow the animals to graze on grasses and other perennial plants by rotating animals onto different parts of the farm. Rotating animals reduces incidence of illness, disease and injury. Since pasture grasses are mostly perennial, farmers don’t have to plant seeds. This cuts down on the use of fossil fuels since the cows are doing the labor; spreading the seeds, fertilizing (nutrients by way of manure) and preparing the soil for ideal growing conditions (via hoof action). In addition, the practice reduces parasites in the pasture that may harm the cows, and allows for the cows and farmer to get exercise, according to Morgan Hartman of Black Queen Angus Farm in Berlin.
The American Grassfed Association (AGA), a member based organization in which farmers can participate that verifies their animals are raised humanely and on a grass based diet, has about four-hundred members. That’s a big increase from just a handful of members when the association started in 2003. Dr. Patricia Whisnant, president o f AGA, a veterinarian and farmer with her family on Rain Crow Ranch in Missouri observes that “Consumers are interested in knowing how their food is grown and often take the effort to seek out farms that support an agricultural model they can support.”
Karen Christensen and Kevin Jablonski of Mack Brook Farm in Argyle, NY raise grass-fed beef on what was Jablonski’s family dairy farm decades ago. Both Karen and Kevin are involved with regional food movements in the Saratoga area and take opportunities to inform consumers. When asked about the concept of sustainable and local food system, Christensen said, “It has to happen. It won’t be easy. Lots of habits have to change. For me, the grassroots have spoken and now it is up to Congress to respond. Stop subsidizing Big Ag. Understand we need rules for at least a two tier system. Our farm is nothing like one owned by an international conglomerate. Remove subsidies and highly tax ’empty calories’ so that natural choices are more affordable.” She added on the subject of antibiotic use and its link to our food, “ I believe if wholesale, prophylactic use of antibiotics were outlawed due to the danger of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, the system would change overnight.”
Local economies also benefit from consumers supporting local farmers. AGA says “We do believe that the time has come in America for the consumer to know where their food comes from. Identifying local family farms, will not only support local economies, and help save small family farms, but the American Economy as a whole.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines a farm as “any place from which $1,000 or more of agricultural products (crops and livestock) were sold or normally would have been sold during the year under consideration.” Cash receipts for all crops and livestock sold from NY farms in 2007 totaled $4.45 billion. In 2006 that total was only $3.48 billion, a nice increase! Deducting the cost of doing business, i.e. fuel, seed and equipment costs, the overall value added to the NY economy by agriculture in 2006 was approximately $870 million.3
Farmers don’t only add to local economies by farming. Assemblyman Magee said during the 2011 No Farms No Food Rally (a lobbying day in Albany advocating for a fair budget to agricultural issues), “Farmers spend money in the locality where they farm. They don’t take off and go to Hawaii; they stay home and take care of the farm. It’s vitally important to the state and important to the economy of NY. Carry this message to other legislators, regardless of where they are in NY. They do care about agriculture and realize that ‘No Farms No Food’ is a true statement.” The assemblyman also said that he reminds his colleagues to do whatever they can to preserve and enhance the agricultural industry in NY.
Farms also help keep taxes low as they require fewer community services as “cows and corn don’t go to school”. Each dollar earned on the farm multiplies four times in the local economy – support services for farms are mainly locally owned businesses.4
Overall human health also improves when consumers buy more of their food from local farmers.
Eating local food, according to the seasons also has nutritional benefit because you’re exposing yourself to new foods that you may not have purchased otherwise. Taking a close look at what’s available at year-round farmers markets, CSAs and food co-ops opens up new possibilities to your plate. Nutrient rich foods like kale, mustard greens and varieties of sprouts that become available later in the growing season compliment a well balanced meal. Who knows, you may find a new food that you like so much you even freeze some to have throughout the year.
Buying more produce, meats raised without the use of growth hormones – and less processed food, diets are improved and match up better with USDA dietary guidelines. This is especially important if we want to ensure the health of our children. One-third of U.S. children are obese or overweight, and only 2% of children meet the Food Guide Pyramid daily serving recommendations. Perhaps one of the biggest changes is that schools are now offering students farm fresh food in programs across the country through Farm to School.5
There are forty-eight states with Farm to School Programs, with over two-thousand school districts participating. In NY, we have 110 programs in 15 districts. Farm to School is broadly defined as a program that connects schools (K-12) and local farms with the objectives of serving healthy meals in school cafeterias, improving student nutrition, providing agriculture, health and nutrition education opportunities, and supporting local and regional farmers.4
The concept of a sustainable and local food system isn’t new, but its place in the consumer’s spotlight is relatively new, and spreading. Going green, eating healthier foods, buying organic, planting a backyard garden…these are all things that consumers and farmers alike are well aware of that are slowly but steadily shifting our eating and food buying habits. But what does that really mean and how far away are we as a nation from a sustainable food system?
Dr. Oran Hesterman of Ann Arbor Michigan and founder of the National Good Food Network (NGFN) says that there needs to be a change in public policy to shift the current food system, and offers, “As far as where we are in reaching that utopian food system, it’s hard to make a call for when in these times the tipping point will be. But when it does happen, the change will be relatively fast.”
Consumer and mother of two, Kim Karz-Pike of Albany, NY defined a sustainable food system as, “Improving the balance between large corporate farms and small local farms by providing incentives that encourage the growth of small local farms or farm cooperatives.” Consumers like Karz-Pike get the idea and it’s partly due to farmers who are also educators.
Learn more about A Guide to Buying Farm Fresh and Julie Cushine Rigg