About 100 years ago, most of the American population lived on farms. If you didn’t grow your own food, you bought it locally. There were no chemical preservatives, and food processing was done by canning, dehydrating, smoking, or drying. Few foods were transported more than a few miles, with the exception of things like oranges, which were only purchased for special occasions. You generally ate either what was available during the season of the year or what you preserved during the summer and the fall.
After World War II, the cost of transporting goods dropped and methods of refrigeration improved, making it easier for perishable items to be shipped over long distances. People finally were able to get their food from all over the world.
But in the late 1960s, there was a desire to get back to nature. This movement, which encouraged eating more natural, locally grown foods, seemed to lose its way in the 1980s and 1990s, when many were more concerned about convenience than where their food originated.
Today, there is a resurgence of interest in local foods. Whether due to local economic factors, environmental concerns, or quality control, the desire for food that is locally raised and grown is increasing in the United States and gaining momentum.
As you contemplate your move off-grid, there are several factors in the local food movement you should consider:
Marketing your own fresh produce
Incorporating a local-food lifestyle in your family
Encouraging a local-food movement in your community
Marketing Your Own Fresh Produce
In a recent national study by the Food Marketing Institute, the reasons consumers chose to buy locally were freshness (82 percent), support for the local economy (75 percent), and knowing the source of the product (58 percent). People want to buy local produce, but you need to be able to communicate to your potential buyers that your produce is locally grown.
Other studies have documented that consumers perceive local food to be fresher looking and tasting, of higher quality, and a better value for the price. Other consumers feel that locally grown foods are linked with helping the environment. Many consumers feel the term “local foods” is synonymous with small family farms and getting back to nature. Studies have also discovered that consumers are willing to pay a premium for local foods. What does this information mean to you?
If you are thinking about selling your own locally raised produce, you already have an established “brand” to stand behind. You should use that brand to your advantage as you market your produce. There are many ways to sell your goods directly to the consumer, including farmers’ markets, farm stands/on-farm sales, pick-your-own operations, and community-supported agriculture (CSAs) operations.
Community-Supported Agriculture Programs
For more than twenty years, CSA programs have been a wonderful way to partner consumers with local farmers. The basic idea behind a CSA operation is this: a farmer offers a certain number of “shares” to interested consumers. The share can consist of vegetables, fruit, eggs, even meat and poultry—depending on what the farmer grows or produces. The consumer purchases a share (which can also be considered a seasonal membership to the farmer’s goods), and in return receives a box of seasonal produce each week throughout the farming season. This can be a great arrangement for both farmer and consumer.
Advantages for the farmer:
She gets to pre-sell her produce early in the year, before the growing season begins.
She receives payment early in the season, helping cash flow.
She creates a relationship with a consumer and encourages local food sales.
Advantages for the consumer:
He gets to consume farm-fresh produce, at the peak of its nutritional life.
He has peace of mind, knowing where his produce comes from.
He generally gets a better deal than if he had purchased the food separately at a farmers’ market.
He and his family get to develop a relationship with a farmer and learn more about the process.
You might be surprised to learn that tens of thousands of families have joined CSAs, and the impact has been overpowering. In some areas of the country there is more demand for CSAs than there are farms to supply them.
There are a number of variations of the original CSA model. Some farmers allow members to come to the farm and load up their own boxes with an assortment of produce the farmer has already picked and cleaned. Often there are limits to the number of items you can take, so everyone gets a share of each item, but this way, if a consumer is not going to use a certain vegetable, he might swap it for another, or just choose to leave it. In many cases, the produce that is not selected is donated to a local food bank, so there is no waste. The consumer received what he wanted, and the community as a whole benefits.
Another theme is offering an option of more than vegetables. Farmers can add extra shares to supply eggs, cheese, meat, preserves, fruit, homemade bread, flowers, or any other farm product. Often farmers will form a coalition to provide a good variety to all of their shareholders.
Although the idea is spreading like wildfire, there are some risks associated with CSAs. If the farmer’s crop is destroyed in a flood, if it’s a bad growing season, or if some other natural disaster occurs, the shareholders also take part in the risk of farming. So, while they all benefit if there is a bumper crop, they can also all lose if there is a severe hailstorm.
However, most consumers understand this going into the arrangement and, if they have a long-running relationship with the farmer, it’s a learning experience regarding the uncertainties and gambles that are part of the American farmer’s job.
The number of farmers’ markets in the United States grew from nearly 300 in the mid-1970s to more than 3,700 in 2004. The number of community-supported agriculture programs (CSAs)—in which members pay farmers for regular deliveries of fruits and vegetables—have grown from just one in 1985 to over 1,200 today.
Adopting a Local-Food Lifestyle
People who value local as their primary food criterion are sometimes referred to as locavores. This term was created by Jessica Prentice from the San Francisco Bay Area for World Environment Day 2005. She used it to describe and promote the practice of eating a diet consisting of food harvested from the local area. Prentice’s definition of “local area” was an area bound by a 100-mile radius. Prentice’s new word became popular around the country, and in 2007, the New Oxford American Dictionary chose “locavore” as its word of the year.
How Do You Become a Locavore?
One simple way is to grow a garden and produce a lot of your vegetables in your own backyard. Another way is to locate all of the “pick-your-own” farms in your area and take advantage of the things they have to offer. You can also find local farmers and see if you can participate in a CSA. You can find a nearby, small-town processing plant and find out if it has locally raised meat for sale. Even your neighborhood grocery store might offer some local produce for the summer.
When you go shopping, buy extra quantities of your favorite local fruit or vegetable when it’s in season and preserve it for a later date. Help pass along the excitement of local foods by sharing with others. Host a harvest party at your home or in your community, featuring locally available and in-season foods.
Challenge your family. See if you can only eat local foods for a weekend, and then expand from there. Obviously, there will be some exceptions to the rules—there are not many cinnamon trees in the United States—but for the most part, you will be amazed at what you find when you purchase only local foods.
Burgerville, a chain of thirty-nine fast-food restaurants in the U.S. Pacific Northwest, features a menu nearly identical to that of McDonald’s, but it buys the bulk of its ingredients from farmers in Oregon and Washington.
Encouraging a Local Food Movement in Your Community
Local foods are not only good for you, they are good for the local economy. Talk to your county Extension agent to see if there are any local-food groups you can join. Ask your favorite restaurants whether they use local foods in their menus. Ask the manager of your local grocery store, if he buys produce from local farmers. Encourage your local politicians to form a food policy council to promote farmers’ markets, to develop a local-food directory, and to get fresh foods into schools and other cafeterias. Visit local farmers who market regularly and talk with them to learn all you can about raising your own produce.
Small communities reap more economic benefits from the presence of small farms than they do from large ones. Studies have shown that small farms reinvest more money into local economies by purchasing feed, seed, and other materials from local businesses. Large farms generally order in bulk from distant companies.