Editor’s Note: “Burning Questions” takes an in-depth look at the hot-button issues facing today’s farmers. The ideas expressed here are not the opinions of Hobby Farms, but of individual farmers and food advocates rooted in the local-food movement. If you have thoughts or opinions about what is expressed here, please contribute them in the comments below. We want to hear from you, too!
Local, local, local … this word seems to be all the buzz these days. Even the biggest grocery-store chains are using the term in stores, which always leads me to wonder what exactly constitutes local in that context? 100 miles? 500? 1,000? However you define “local,” there is more and more agreement lately that if we can get food nearby, we should. It is better for our farmers, better for our environment and often better for our tastebuds!
Many believe the local-food movement is just another flash-in-the-pan trend that is here today and will be gone tomorrow. What can we do to change that? What infrastructure do we need to keep the local-food movement here to stay? There are so many models out there for what works and what doesn’t, but here a few ideas that I personally think could establish local food as the rule rather than the exception.
1. Educated Consumers
While this isn’t a physical piece of infrastructure, it’s possibly the most important piece in the local-food puzzle. People need to know why local food is important and how shopping with a local farmer affects the economy and their health. We need to put systems in place to convince people that real, whole, unprocessed, seasonal food is the best choice for their health.
2. More Small-Scale Farmers
In the last hundred years, farms have become drastically specialized, which in many ways has hindered local-food development. If many communities only ate food near them, they would be forced to consume a diet with little variety—perhaps all corn or all soybeans or all beef!
We need policies and practices that encourage small farmers to get in the game and develop sustainable farms with diversified offerings. This means figuring out affordable land access issues, reducing student debt for farmers, creating strong paying markets, developing replicable business models and training farmers on how to establish those models on their own working farms. This ties in strongly with the first point—more educated consumers looking to purchase local foods would mean a stronger customer base that made business more financially feasible for small farmers.
3. Distribution, Distribution, Distribution
Let’s imagine a drastically different world where all consumers understood the value of local foods and were willing to seek it out, and that there were enough diversified farms to meet that demand. The big question then becomes—how do consumers access that food?
Today, many devoted consumers of local devote a significant amount of time to tracking down what they eat. Driving to get eggs here, picking up farmers market produce there, driving many, many miles to get some raw milk in yet another location. This is not practical for most modern Americans who live busy lifestyles and have become accustomed to the utmost convenience as it relates to the food they consume. It’s also not practical for every small-scale farmer to own a refrigerated truck or spend time delivering their products weekly. We need to develop distribution systems that work for both the consumer and the farmer, and every community needs a small, local market with ingredients to nourish their families and keep local farmers in business.
It is no secret that people simply don’t cook like they used to. Eating out, preparing frozen foods, and zipping through the drive-thru have replaced time in the kitchen and around family dinner table. If farms want to stay relevant to the vast majority of the population, it may be that selling fresh kale for a few hours at the farmers market on Saturday morning may not be the answer. How can we tap into the huge market for convenience food without simply becoming the very thing we are trying to fight?
Does it mean serving more ready-to-cook ingredients, such as peeled and cubed butternut squash? Does it mean easing up on regulations that prevent farms from altering their food before selling to consumers? Does it mean that every farm should have a licensed kitchen to prepare crops? Do we need more middlemen to aggregate local foods and prepare them for the general population? Or do we simply need more education to teach people how to prepare fast, simple, healthy meals at home?
As you can see, when it comes to local food infrastructure, I have more questions than I have answers. To solve this problems in the coming years, we need to look at established communities who are doing local food well, not to mention attempts at local food systems that haven’t worked out. We have to learn and build on what’s working and innovate quickly to replace what isn’t. More than anything, we need passionate individuals who are willing to take risks and try new things to bring local food into the future.
Stacy Neudahl: Work with cities to open up green space at churches, schools, hospitals, businesses to community garden space. So many people (like myself) live in apartments or homes with little to no green space.
Steven Thomas: In our area, farmers that I know are too “busy” to stop and sell a couple of boxes of veggies or one lamb. Owing to the scale of their operations, they can’t stop for a few beets here and there. Perhaps a co-operative approach would open up access as it would be “worth” the farmers time to sell multiples.
Courtney Rex Crawford: Every house needs at least a small veggie garden! It would be nice if more flippers and builders would include them!
Kevin Eltie Nott: If they could get together with city officials or the landowners to put markets up without costs, the savings can be passed on to the consumers and everyone wins. They clean up after themselves and have their spot for the whole market season.
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