Farmers finding bigger profits by selling locally
Over the next month, LJWorld.com/green will explore the growing trend of eating only food that is grown and raised locally. We will visit producers, talk to the vendors and I'll even try the diet out for myself.
It's a concept that many of our grandparents lived by. As generations have moved farther away from food sources, the tie between what we eat and how it got to our plate has diminished.
In recent years, a revival has occurred.
A steady stream of books have been published with authors examining what they call "our national eating disorder" and taking on the challenge of eating foods grown closer to home.
Michael Pollan was one of the most prominent to address the subject of where our food comes from in "The Omnivore's Dilemma." Barbara Kingsolver (of Oprah's Book Club acclaim) chronicled her family's one-year attempt to nourish themselves largely from their garden in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. And a Canadian couple, Alisa Smith and J.B. Mackinnon, were among those who launched the 100-mile diet craze when they published a book about their year of consuming only food grown within a 100-mile radius of their Vancouver home.
Web sites, cookbooks and even a new word, "locavore," have cropped up.
At the heart of the movement is concern over how far food has to travel before landing on our dinner table.
According to a 2001 study from the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University, produce travels an average distance of 1,556 miles.
For some, eating closer to home is appealing because it cuts back on the carbon emissions needed to transport food. Others like the idea of supporting and building connections with local farmers and growers.
Then there are supporters with a bigger picture in mind while shopping locally. They enjoy the notion of not buying into the global politics of food production and are comforted by the security of being able to eat from what is nearby.
And, of course, there is always the argument that local, fresh food tastes better.
A growing demand
A growing crowd in Lawrence is among the converted.
Locally there has been an increase in the number of consumers participating in programs where they sign up for a share of the farmer's harvest at the start of the season. More shoppers are coming to the downtown Farmers' Market and making demands at local grocery stores for local food.
"People have gotten pretty tired of white bread, corn syrup and cardboard tomatoes. And, I think that there has just been a growing awareness by a growing number of people in this country that they want a higher quality of food," said Paul Johnson, a farmer who is in northeast Kansas' Rolling Prairie Farmers Alliance.
A community-supported agriculture program, the Rolling Prairie Farmers Alliance, drops off bags of locally grown produce to more than 300 families during the summer months. Before the start of the summer, customers of a CSA sign up and pay a deposit for a season's worth of produce.
Demand has never been as high as it is this year, Johnson said. All four of the CSA's drop-off sites are full.
For shoppers at The Community Mercantile, buying local food is the most important item on the list of criteria, produce manager Linda Cowden said. It's more important than if the food is organic, conventionally grown or not genetically modified.
"Often times it is the first choice," Cowden said. "We don't keep the local products that do come in very long."
The store has made some changes to ensure it continues to offer local foods. Nine years ago, farmers would show up at the back door with 10 pounds of zucchini ready to make a deal.
Now, Cowden meets with the farmers in the late winter and early spring right about the time the crops are ready to be planted. They talk about what they will be able to supply and what items were the most popular the year before.
The Merc has about 27 farmers within a 200-mile radius who supply the store. Many of these farmers have their picture and their farm's distance from the store posted next to the price of their produce.
Mercedes Taylor-Puckett said that Lawrence Farmers' Market isn't able to recruit enough producers to meet the demand for fresh, local food. The Farmers' Market, which was conceived in 1976 and is the oldest in the state, has grown every year.
Along with easing environmental concerns, Taylor-Puckett said shoppers like the nutrition, taste and variety.
"You don't get three types of tomatoes; you get 40 different varieties," Taylor-Puckett said.
Farmers come from between one and 40 miles away and sell everything from fresh eggs and honey to goat cheese and rabbit meat.
One of the reason there isn't more local produce, Taylor-Puckett said, is the labor involved.
"It takes a lot of labor to get everything at the Farmers' Market and a lot of people aren't willing to work that hard," she said.
Johnson also sees demand outpacing production. And, to keep up, farmers and the policy makers who regulate and subsidize them will have to make some major changes, Johnson said. Among them is switching fields from the Kansas staples of corn, wheat and soybean to vegetables and other specialty crops.
He hopes that change will come.
"The most important ballot (people) cast is how they spend their money and if they are looking for local growers, if they are looking for local meat suppliers that is the kind of building of critical mass that we need," Johnson said.