Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Locally grown AND organic

The cover of the March 12, 2007 issue Time Magazine pictured an apparentlyqp just-picked apple with a sticker on it which read "Forget Organic. Eat Local." The corresponding article inside was titled "My Search For the Perfect Apple". Subtitle: "Should it be organic? Should it be locally grown? Making sense in 2007".

Maybe the real question we should be asking is: Why not both? (GW)

Vermonters work in many ways to re-weave local food system

By Jarett Emert
New Farm
January 12, 2007

Farmers’ market, retail store, direct marketing, CSA, restaurants, schools and determined “locavores” raise the profile and potential for viable place-based agriculture.

In Vermont, collaborative efforts amongst community members, non-profit organizations, retailers and local farmers are broadening the appeal of local products to more consumers through targeted education and improved accessibility.

“Buying Local” is not a new trend in Vermont. The grandparents of “woodchucks” (the real Vermonters, i.e. people with at least three generations in the state), remember local food as a necessary staple. Maple syrup and honey were cheaper than conventional white sugar. Apples were the available fruit, while oranges were a Christmas stocking delicacy. Seasonal game shared amongst families and friends was the main source of protein.

“In the early twentieth century, many immigrants who came to Vermont from the cities to work in the woolen mills and granite quarries continued to grow their own garden plots, foraged wild greens, and bought animals whole from local farmers,” explains Melissa Paesen, food writer for the Burlington Free Press, northwestern Vermont’s daily newspaper. “The immigrant ethic went well with the New England do-it-yourself, self-sufficient farming ethic. You grew or made what you could and nothing was wasted.”

Because of the media buzz about it, many consumers now think of local food as a specialty product, purchased at cooperative markets for prices often higher than the similar commercial product.

“When it comes down to it, local food isn’t any more expensive than the food that most people buy at the deli during a lunch break at work,” says Dave Zuckerman, an organic vegetable farmer and chairman of the Vermont legislature’s agricultural committee. “What’s really important is educating people to realize, 'Okay, this food is tastier, better for you, and equally priced, if not cheaper than my lunch. I just have to take the time to make it myself.'”

Efforts under way in Burlington show that it takes a community to build a local food system and lots of different strands to allow people to take first nibbles or big bites of local food, depending on their knowledge, motivation and economic ability.

Hybrid co-op reaches out

A drive through the downtown area of Burlington, a progressive city seated above Lake Champlain, reveals a single grocery store, the community-owned City Market. Its presence shows what some talking and planning can do to create new food options—and how new models take time to develop.

When a commercial supermarket chain closed its downtown store in order to open a bigger store several miles outside the city center, Burlington leaders had a choice. There was a strong bid from a commercial competitor and interest from the smaller Onion River Cooperative market housed in a less-appealing part of town.

The marketability of a community-owned cooperative in the center of an already alluring downtown pedestrian marketplace had obvious appeal. Some argued, however, that a cooperative market would isolate the elderly and low-income citizens who counted on a commercial market for many of their needs, which were different than those of the co-op’s customers. The skeptics believed a city cooperative would sell a more expensive product, offer reduced selection, and hence, appeal less to residents of the community.

A compromise was reached that created the City Market concept. The lease agreement with the city allocates 70 percent of the market’s shelves for organic unprocessed foods to serve the co-op’s membership. The remaining 30 percent of the shelves contains conventional groceries, priced competitively, to meet the needs of the general downtown community.

Five years after its inception in 2002, the City Market contains enthusiastic and vibrant college students working the cash register while organic-conscious consumers contentedly stroll the aisles. The store’s website boasts that 73 percent of the store’s vendors are located in Vermont and that 60 cents of every dollar in sales stays in Vermont. Yet the customer profile fails to reflect the diversity of the Burlington community.

When questioned about this impression, Jodi Harrington, public relations representative for the City Market, explains: “It’s an absolute issue and absolute challenge to make our market more accessible to the broader community. But it has to be done.”

Several efforts to ensure that the market welcomes diverse members of the community include lunches with the elderly, additional television advertising and machines for bottle recycling, which Harrington contends is “a seemingly insignificant measure, but a necessary part of the process.”

Harrington speaks with encouragement of the “thirty percent annual increase in the food stamps that come through the store each year,” but contends, “The local paper gave us a C minus on this type of work; we have to do better.”

The City Market is a relative success, but it demonstrates the difficulty of expanding local food marketing into the homes of community members where convenience and price remain top concerns. Reaching a diverse range of community members may take effort, but it brings a lot more local dollars to the marketplace.

Linking the farmer to the community

"Good old fashioned entrepreneurship” is how Hank Bissel of the Lewis Creek Farm in Starksboro, Vermont, defines the solution for expanding local food. “A good, consistent product and consistent delivery is really what it takes.”

Bissel has owned and operated Lewis Creek Farm since 1981. The 150-acre farm is located in a picturesque valley at the foot of the Green Mountains, 20 miles southeast from Burlington. Lewis Creek runs through 50 acres of lush river bottom soil. The farm’s produce includes potatoes, spinach, carrots, lettuce, tomatoes, cabbage, broccoli, fresh herbs and squash. Though not a certified organic farm, the crops are either unsprayed or come in contact with organic sprays.

Bissel is an active member of the state’s farming community and has been president of the Burlington Farmers’ Market for more than two decades. The market works with the Farm to Family program to provide lower-income community members with food stamps used to purchase produce at the farmers’ market. This expands local-food access for that sector of the community.

Several of the vendors at the Burlington Farmers’ Market also accept Burlington Bread Currency, implemented by the Burlington Currency Project in an attempt to help small businesses and farmers by encouraging exchanges between community members. The idea is that a local currency will forge a central exchange for trading locally produced and supplied products and services while also promoting visible loyalty to the community.

Since the currency is backed only by shared confidence, however, many farmers and businessmen—including Bissel—do not currently accept it.

Bringing the farm to the school

Both the City Market and the farmers’ market have helped to raise community awareness for buying local food. A collaboration of food and farm groups has tapped into another significant community resource, the public schools.

Vermont’s FEED program (Food Education Every Day) is a partnership of Food Works, the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont (NOFA-VT), and Shelburne Farms. It works with school districts to provide local food in cafeterias and agricultural education. This is a sound market for obvious reasons, including the fact that what a child learns in school often generates discussion and interest at the family dinner table.

VT FEED works with schools and communities to raise awareness about healthy food, the role of Vermont farms and farmers and good nutrition. It acts as a catalyst for rebuilding healthy food systems and serves to cultivate the links between the classrooms, cafeterias, local farms and communities.

“When we present programs at schools, we have been told that student attendance always goes up and that visits to the planning room go down,” says Dana Hudson, the enthusiastic program coordinator for FEED, “The kids really look forward to it.”

Bissel, of the Lewis Creek Farm, credits FEED for helping to introduce his farm to school students. Currently, Bissel is active with several school districts and Middlebury College.

“Each school district is completely different,” he says. “It’s difficult to sell your product as a farmer to schools; it helps a lot to have someone more active in the education community to market its benefits for you.”

His interaction with schools has taught him that people are starved for a connection to the land. “They want a good story that makes them feel closer to the farm and the product.”

Community enterprises

A visible and active example local agriculture building economic opportunity is the Intervale Farm in Burlington, which exists under the non-profit Intervale Center. Its mission is to develop both farm and land-based enterprises that generate economic and social opportunity while protecting natural resources.

This productive landscape, lying within the city limits, has been an agricultural parcel for more than 10,000 years due to its location on a flood plain—with a short stint as the city dump before a rejuvenation project restored the land.

The Intervale participates in a farms-to-school program called Growing Farms-Growing Minds. This collaborative effort helps teachers develop food-based curricula that use food, farms and nutrition to meet the Vermont Framework of Standards. Today, 12 small, local organic farms in the Intervale Farms Program provide a diverse range of Vermont residents with about 6 percent—or 500,000 pounds—of their fresh produce needs per year.

Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) at the Intervale and around the state is another successful local-food economic stream, linking households to a particular farm for the CSA season.

The CSA commitment to buy a weekly delivery of what’s in season where you live is a strong step toward a new partnership between families and farmers, one that doesn’t suit all households. Intermediate steps—retail stores, schools, farmers’ market and restaurants—increase access and attention to local food that can draw more food into the local economy. When they are done well, the flavor, stories and benefits of eating local will increase opportunities for more local food more often in more places.


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