Eat Local. That is, Eat LOCAL.
Have you ever thought about eating local? Maybe dabbled in it a bit? I’ll bet (either way) that you’ve seen plenty of “local” signs.
Well, I just started to eat LOCAL — yes, in caps! That’s because my objective is to eat exclusively from a 100 mile (500 mile regional) radius. With just a few exceptions (like Barbara Kingsolver in Animal Vegetable Miracle).
I think I’m ready. No sugar. No coconut oil. No problem (I hope).
Is there a story behind this tale? You bet!
Eat LOCAL, not local.
It’s been years now (okay, decades…), since my husband and I—along with our three daughters and an occasional resident grandmother—became involved with two Community Supported Agriculture (CSA, or subscription farm) farms. Two CSAs meant that, when summer came along,we ate lots of beautiful produce, and also had a some left for the freezer.
For meat, we went straight to local farms and purchased a quarter of beef, half a pig, some chickens, as well as grass-fed lamb, when we could get it. So when our then grade-school daughter was asked to reveal the most curious thing about her family, she unveiled something clearly unique. Her family owned the most freezers (three).
All of this was supplemented with trips to (usually) Costco or Trader Joe’s. And that’s where the problem begins…
Things rolled along for years until last winter, when my “eat local” complacency took a hit. At an annual thank-you event, the founder of one of my CSAs brought up something that had completely escaped me.
Now, this event is part of a long-standing tradition where, when the cold winter dark pulls your thoughts farthest from summer’s bounty, I host a dinner. Opening jars of preserves, thawing meat and berries, and gathering eggs and turnips from the basement refrigerator, I make food that celebrates the harvest we shared.
Thank you, farmers Steve and Debra Jo.
But this year, the conversation took a turn as dark as the night. Steve pulled me aside and said he was worried. Membership was down, and not just his. With over 25 years of running a CSA, he was truly concerned. There would be belt-tightening for now, but he couldn’t say what the future would hold.
Yes, Farmer Steve had a theory that went something like this. “Back in the day” people regularly sourced their food from local farms. But as time went on, supermarkets took over and people shopped there instead. This meant that instead of traveling across town to your dinner table, your sausage might move from a Midwest farm, to a west coast processor, then back again to your grocer. As far as 1500 miles.
Luckily for Farmer Steve, the organic movement provided a respite and small farms had a new outlet. But nothing stays the same and as the organic movement went mainstream, he was watching history repeat itself. Thriving “natural” startup companies were taken over by corporate giants, some of whom “kept the spirit” but many who did not. And some longtime CSA members were dropping out in favor of buying “corporate organic” at the supermarket.
As he spoke, my eyes grew wide. I shopped regularly at Costco, and had just placed giant food orders with Amazon and Vitacost. It was just so easy. And if I were doing this, what about people who were less “hardcore” (like those with 0-1 freezers 🙂 ).
And to prove it wasn’t a fluke, when summer arrived, my 2nd CSA echoed the exact same concerns.
The Plot Thickens
This all seemed bad enough, but I was soon to hear of more problems for Wisconsin producers. In January, the North Hendren Cooperative Dairy, a group of 24 local dairy farmers producing award winning private label blue cheese learned it had lost its contract (see Fromagination). Without a brand (since it was private label) or an existing market, it was time to scramble. Would they survive?
Dairy farmers were also feeling the squeeze. Even the mainstream news picked up sudden contract losses that hit family farms supplying the Grassland and Nasonville Dairies. Cheese professional Jeanne Carpenter added to my “corporate organic” concerns, saying, “In the past 15 years, dozens of family-owned cheese factories that had decades of relationships with multi-generational local dairy farms and who forged long-term contracts with farmers who were essentially their neighbors, have either merged or been bought out by big companies.” Would they keep buying from their neighbors or roll in the out-of-state tankers?
Et tu, Wisconsin cheese?
Seems to be getting (even) tougher to be a dairy farmer in America’s Dairyland.
It was all a lot of “news” to absorb. And just when I thought I had eating local down to a science.
But it left me with two questions that weighed heavily throughout the summer. First, what does it mean when a producer does the right things, yet has success snatched from its grasp?
And second, what could I do about it?