Eat Local

In Farmers' Market/CSA on November 8, 2011 at 12:19 am

One of the main arguments against the movement to change the standard American diet to include a higher concentration of locally and organically grown produce is its increased associated cost.

 A common misconception about organically grown food is the thought that because a farmer chooses not spray any pesticides on his/her crops, the cost of the product should be lower. Seems to make sense, right? However, almost all organic farmers do spray some pesticides, albeit ones that have not been synthesized in a lab. What drives up the cost — depending on where you shop organically grown food can be up to 30% more expensive than commercial produce — is the system by which it is grown.

Unlike large scale operations which regularly use synthesized pesticides and genetically modified seeds which are often bred to result in higher yields, many of the vendors that make up the Ithaca Farmer’s Market  and others like it, operate on a much smaller scale and do so following organic agricultural principles. Consequently, many of these farms suffer from a higher cost of operation. To compensate for this disparity, many farmers utilize sustainable practices such as polycultural crop rotation, integrated pest management (IPM), and green manure, each of which aim to extract the most out of the soil without the use of chemical fertilizers. In addition, these farmers generally maintain a smaller labor force – the person selling you that head of kale is likely the one who it pulled it out of the ground that morning. (Check for dirt under their fingernails. If they have some, it’s a good sign!) As a result of these constraints, many small organic farms find it very difficult to compete in price with industrial agriculture and therefore, those who are regularly able to shop at farmers’ markets remain a minority. For those who are able to however, their patronage directly benefits their community as they are supporting their friends and family as well as the local economy at large.

In many urban areas, a popular alternative to shopping at a farmers’ market has become joining a community supported agriculture program or CSA. The CSA model revolves around the principle that members of the public purchase “shares,” which provide financial support to the farm, and in return are given a weekly allotment of the farm’s produce. One of the most important aspects of CSA farming is the notion of shared risk among farmers and the public; in the event adverse environmental conditions negatively affect the yield of the farm, the burden is bestowed on the community rather than just the farmer. Investing in a CSA share, which generally costs between $300-$500, tends to be cheaper on the whole than shopping at a farmers’ markets, and even at many conventional supermarkets because of the amount and variety of produce one receives over the course of a 22 week season. At the Sweet Land Farm CSA in Ithaca, NY, for example, a weekly summer share consists of one to two large bags of fruits and vegetables harvested that week, and a you-pick option.

If one were to survey the patrons of a farmer’s market or CSA regarding their rationale for shopping there, one of the most popular answers would likely be that they value knowing where their food comes from. Therein lies one of the most important aspects of small-scale agriculture: there is a much higher rate of transparency between producer and consumer. In contrast to many concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), for example, which the public are only exposed to in small glimpses in the media, there is less of a “shroud” surrounding small-scale agriculture because farmers are often more willing to share their means of production.

In my experience in with the CSA run through my former high school, this is the one of the most profound aspects of supporting locally grown agriculture. One should not underestimate the significance of being able to shake the instantly-recognizable callused hands of someone who was wrist deep in soil that afternoon; of having to pick off the various critters that have made your veggies their home; or of being able to foster a relationship with someone who can actually explain the difference between a yam and a sweet potato (I still have no idea). There is also something special to be said about a room full of middle-aged adults trading recipes like Pokemon cards, and bartering aggressively for that one last turnip. Becoming a member of a CSA not only means that you will have more fruits and vegetables than you know what to do with, and will most likely be eating dark leafy greens for breakfast, lunch and dinner (note: I am not complaining), but also it makes you a member of — as its name might suggest — a community of people who care as much about locally grown food as you.

Supporting locally grown produce is not as much of a diet, as it is an ideology – one that continues to grow and blossom among farmers and consumers alike.

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