Beyond organics: The truth and practice of locally grown foods

Multimedia Reporting by Erin Valentine

The locally grown food movement is sprouting across the country, from the organic grapes of California’s vineyards to the sweet potatoes of North Carolina. It has even taken root in Elon and Burlington. However, it may come with a price.

In many small communities, locally grown food is the next step to boost their economy. Farmers need locally grown foods to keep their livelihood. Yet, locally grown food has the stereotype of cleaning out the customer’s wallet.

According to the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (NCD&CS), as of 2011, there are over 50,000 farms in North Carolina. The majority of those farms have families whose livelihood depends solely on consumers buying locally grown food.

Going local at Elon University

To encourage the public to commit 10 percent of their existing food dollars to local foods, the Center for Environmental Farming Systems (CEFS) started The 10% Campaign. Since its inception in 2010, The 10% Campaign has helped pledge over 54 million dollars to buying locally grown food.

Elon Dining Services at Elon University is a supporter of The 10% Campaign. According to Kate Nelson, the district marketing manager, in the last academic year, Elon has purchased over 12 percent of all food on campus locally.

“We purchase fresh, quality foods from local, regional and national suppliers who meet our high quality standards,” Nelson explained.

Badge lets students know which foods were made with locally grown foods, Courtesy of Aramark

Badge lets students know which foods were made with locally grown foods, Courtesy of Aramark

University administrators are working with campus food vendor Aramark in on-campus initiatives to promote education on locally grown foods.

Steve Moore, a lecturer in environmental studies at Elon, has been farming since 1974. Moore is involved with the Loy Land Lab at Elon. The land lab gives students firsthand experience with farming, including planting food and optimizing its growth. The lab allows students to appreciate where their food comes from.

“Organic food and local food is a good way to go. It’s a really quick thumb in the wind for the right direction to head,” Moore said.

He added that society needs to look at how locally grown food can promote sustainability. However, he said, true sustainability requires more than just a quick trip to the local produce stand.

“To reach the sustainability that will last for thousands of years, without fossil fuel because all those will be exhausted, we’re really looking at probably as local as growing in your backyard where you could walk out and pick it,” Moore explained.

Buying local in and around Burlington: The Farmers

“To provide the highest quality of food for own family, our friends, and our community while doing our best to leave the Earth a little better place than we found it,” is the mission statement for Asgard Farm in Gibsonville, NC.

Asgard Farm, a small family farm, relies heavily on the community. It was started six years ago with alpacas and now produces pasteurized poultry, eggs, chicken, turkey and beef.

Aday

Aday and her daughter at her booth at the Burlington Downtown Farmer’s Market,
Photo by Erin Valentine

Owner Allison Aday, a verterinary technician for 18 years, is now a full-time farmer who sees the importance of local farming in food security and lowering her carbon footprint.

She spends her early weekend mornings at The Burlington Downtown Farmer’s Market.

“A lot of this is new to Burlington – we’re trying to get the word out,” Aday said.

Another regular seller at the market is Jordan Walker, a local farmer for GlenMarie Vineyards Winery in Burlington.

Walker pulls up his truck to load all of his goods at the Burlington Downtown Farmer's Market, Photo by Erin Valentine

Walker pulls up his truck to load all of his goods at the Burlington Downtown Farmer’s Market,
Photo by Erin Valentine

“What’s good for downtown is good for everybody,” Walker said. “I think this is bringing people out on the weekends and they get to have some fresh food. It’s good to know your farmers too. We like getting to know the customers – what they like. It’s really all about community.”

Walker recently decided to diversify his crops and offered some unique produce at the market, including bok choy, kale, Swiss chard and arugula. He noted most of their produce is grown in plastic containers.

Walker's prices are similar to those found in a grocery store, Photo by Erin Valentine

Walker’s prices are similar to those found in a grocery store,
Photo by Erin Valentine

Although Walker’s selection is diverse, it’s not necessarily expensive.

“A lot of people think that farmer’s market stuff is more expensive,” Walker explained. “It’s really not – it’s quite affordable. Some things are even cheaper.”

Reedy Fork Farm, located in Elon, delivers milk to Asheville each day to be bottled and sold under the Organic Valley label. 

While Reedy Fork does not need to take its products of milk, beef and organic feed to markets, it still depends on the local community of consumers and the local farming community.

“The local farming community is very close knit,” said Melissa Blanchard of Reedy Fork Farm. “Although most farms in North Carolina are still conventional (not organic), we still collaborate on different ideas, help one another when needed, and most importantly try and convince conventional farms that the better way is the organic way of living.”

Screen Shot 2013-11-12 at 5.44.50 PM

Reedy Fork Farm is a certified organic farm through Oregon Tilth and sits on 600 acres of land in Elon. The farm has had six generations farm the land. According to Blanchard, Reedy Fork’s belief is that “one should take care of the farms around them, by purchasing what they produce to help fuel the economy, and to help eliminate the carbon footprint by not hauling produce, etc., around the country.”

While every farm in North Carolina is dependent upon consumers to buy their products, it’s not logical to expect every consumer of produce or beef or eggs to buy directly from the farmer.Instead, farmers will take their products to markets and warehouses.

Buying local in and around Burlington: The Markets

For Garden Valley Market, buying local is a necessity for business. Open for 20 years and with three locations in Burlington and Haw River, owner Joshua Reading is no stranger to the pros and cons of the local food community.

Garden Valley Farmers Market in Burlington, NC, Photo by Erin Valentine

Garden Valley Farmers Market in Burlington, NC,
Photo by Erin Valentine

Reading has found buying local allows him to support the economy and raise the quality of his goods.

“I am able to put my hands on the product and meet the growers face-to-face before I stock my stores with their goods,” Reading explained. “I am able to buy better quality and fresher material that you will find at large chain stores.”

In all of the years of his business, Reading has run into a few bumps. One of those has been the aging of the farmers in the community. According to the North Carolina Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services (NCDA&CS), about 59% of North Carolina farm owners are 55 and older. The average age of a farm owner is 57.3.

“The local farming community is made up of hard working, mostly older, folks who love the outdoors as much as we do,” Reading said. “This community is also shrinking due to folks dying off or land being sold.”

Another market in the Burlington area is Company Shops Market. According to Elizabeth Read, the marketing manager, Company Shops is a community grocery store whose goal is to connect with both consumers and farmers.

The Company Shops Market is part of the revitalization of downtown Burlington,  Photo courtesy of The Company Shops Market

The Company Shops Market is part of the revitalization of downtown Burlington,
Photo courtesy of The Company Shops Market

Opened in May 2011, Company Shops is working to make a niche for itself in the locally grown food market.

“The reason the founders decided to open the co-op is actually because of access to local foods,” Read said. “When they founded the company, there was not an operating farmer’s market.”

Company Shops opened to offer a healthy alternative for a grocery store and to revitalize downtown Burlington. To incorporate produce from local farmers, Company Shops has a computer program where local farmers can sign-up to bring in whatever food is needed at the market. The food is brought to the market and put on the shelves as soon as possible.

“A big grocery store just buys from their distributor. One click and they don’t have to worry about it,” Read explained. “Organic, since it doesn’t have preservatives, tends to have a shorter shelf life. So getting it on the shelf as soon as possible is really important.”

Some produce is even put on shelves hours after it is picked.

Infographic by Erin Valentine

Infographic by Erin Valentine

“Other grocery stores talk about other foods and they might put produce from North Carolina on their shelf,” Reading said on her concern about food miles, or travel time. “But before it got on their shelf, it may have gone to their warehouse in Georgia.”

Reading, however, talked about how while a lot of their food comes from local farmers, some of the more popular items still require a lot of travel time. Mangos, for example, come from South America, and no organic bananas are grown near North Carolina.

To educate consumers on some of the less traditional products at the market, Company Shops offers a hot bar, sandwich counter and bakery.

Local food labels and restaurants

Lee Comer, owner of the Iron Hen Café in Greensboro, sees organic as “the next step and where the world is moving to.”

For its four years of business, the Iron Hen Café’s niche has been utilizing organic and local foods.

“You get a better product. You get a fresher product. You get to know where it’s coming from,” Comer said. “You get more control over what comes in and what you’re going to order.”

Comer’s personal work with farmers allows her to foster relationships with her suppliers, which gives more negotiating power and quality control.

Yet, her process of receiving local foods still has some negative effects.

Screen Shot 2013-11-12 at 5.44.43 PM

“Because you are dealing with farmers, that may be a one-man show or a family operation, it may be more difficult to get ordering systems in place,” Comer explained. “And you’re limited. You’re dealing with the person who is selling you the product, harvesting the product and then collecting the money.”

Buying local has not only affected the efficiency of her business, it has also had negative economic implications.

“You’re paying a premium price,” Comer stated. “A bigger city, where they’ve been doing this for years, that’s not the way it works. People are actually paying less for locally grown food. It’s traveling less. Everything about it, the whole production, is much less. But here, for some reason, we pay a premium for that.”

For Comer, The Iron Hen Café is worth the price. For her, the food revolution is going towards locally grown food, so to center her business practices on buying local makes perfect sense.

The North Carolina Farm to School Program, formed by the NCDA&CS in 1997, has been working to integrate local produce into the North Carolina school system.

In the 2011-2012 school year, North Carolina schools spent an estimated $34,408,392 on local foods, including berries, apples, sweet potatoes, lettuce and watermelon. The program also helped implement 103 edible school gardens into the state school system.

Infographic by Erin Valentine

Infographic by Erin Valentine

Buying local at the national level

Danielle Nirenberg, an American activist, author and journalist, co-founded the Food Tank in 2013. The Food Tank is a non-profit organization that works to find sustainable solutions to hunger and poverty by informing and connecting people.

“Locally grown foods cannot only help contribute to local economies and but also help eaters gain a closer connection to the food system,” Nirenberg said.

While the local food movement is growing, there are still obstacles it needs to overcome.

One such obstacle is the US FDA Food Safety Modernization Act, signed in to law by President Obama in 2011.

The act could crack down and restrict the availability of local foods. It opens the door for more legislation to be added to regulate the quality of food stands. At the moment, it is up to the seller to regulate the cleanliness of his or her food.

Another issue for the local food movement is many people have the notion that local food prices are too high to purchase on a regular basis. However, this tends to depend on location and availability.

For now, the locally grown food movement is growing – and is still a seedling on the world stage.

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