Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Five Ways Local Food Movements Fail to Support Local Food

[editors note: I always hesitate before I write something like this.  Why?  Because the people who take it the hardest are almost always the ones who are already thinking and considering what goes on around them.  I also hesitate because I don't want to point fingers and I don't want to discourage people who have their heart in the right place.  Then, I remember Mr. Kruse and see him in my mind's eye saying, "You meant well..."  That's when I realize I am also doing a disservice if I say nothing.  I stay silent because "I mean well."  But, perhaps that's not consistent with what needs to be done to make things better.]

So, you want to support local foods and diverse, ecologically-friendly farms?  How exactly do you go about doing that successfully?  The easiest answer is to identify local farms and producers and purchase directly from them if they support direct to consumer sales.  The next step is to identify outlets these producers may sell through and patronize those places.  But we understand this is not always practicable for all people at all times.  We realize that there is energy out there to support local food as well.  But, is that energy always being spent in ways that really support the local foods system?

A local farmer on a local tractor?
1. Reinventing the Wheel
It wasn't that long ago that our farm was approached by three different entities that wanted to recruit us to hold a spot at "new" farmers markets that were planned for various neighborhoods within 45 minutes of our farm.  On first blush, it was flattering to be one of the farms asked to join each of these markets.  On the other hand, we suspect they simply went down the Buy Fresh, Buy Local list that we are on.  But, that's not really the point.

We were told, when asked, that they were "certain" that participants would consistently "make it worth our while" to attend these new markets.  We won't get into some of the underlying reasons why a particular location was being considered since the reasons were varied.  But, an underlying theme was that the residents in that 'neighborhood' wanted to support local food by bringing it closer to them.

Sounds good, doesn't it?  We'd be the 'cornerstone' farm for a new market with a whole bunch of avid local food fans.  Competition would be limited to just a few invited farms and they (the neighborhood) would work hard to help us as much as they could.

The first issue we had with this invitation was that they clearly did not understand what the process of preparing for a farmers' market would entail.  But, how could they?  If you haven't experienced the long day that is a market day, you might be tempted to think of it as a relatively short event where a person exchanges a whole bunch of produce for a whole lotta money.  The reality is that a market is a full day of work all by itself.  In short, it isn't a simple matter for a farm to add a market to their itinerary.  There has to be some sound reasons to either add a market or move from one to another.

Unfortunately our faith in consistent patronage at a new market that will always 'make it worth our while' was not that strong.  How do you 'guarantee' sales that leads to a profitable market for each participating vendor?  We got smart the third time we were contacted and countered with an offer to give a special deal to persons in the neighborhood for CSA shares and we would deliver to that location.  We got no response to that offer.

In the end, the real issue is that our support for local foods can get diluted when we over-saturate with too many 'neighborhood farmers markets' or numerous new 'local food outlets.'  This would be a different matter if the existing markets in the area are flooded with customers and vendors normally have very successful sales days.  But, if the current markets are already soft, adding more will only be likely to lead to a rapid demise of the 'general public' markets that exist AND a fairly rapid decline of vendors as they burn out or realize they aren't making enough money to continue.

If you want to support local foods, get out to the existing markets and make them crowded.  Help the vendors sell out.  Get a CSA share from a local farm and get them sold out too.  Increase the demand and then find more ways to get the product into more venues.  It's not necessarily a matter of this being a bad idea as it is an idea that has to follow, rather than precede, other actions.

2. Failure to "Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is"
I have conversations with many people who appear to have strong feelings about local foods.  These people tell me how glad they are that our farm exists and they hope that we are able to succeed.  They have a belief that things in the world aren't so bad because 'farmers like us' work hard to try to do things 'the right way.'


But, then, I see a post from one of these people on Facebook that says, "Just got a whole bunch of eggs at BlahStore for 99 cents a dozen!"  I see it the same day we are trying to get people to buy our farm-fresh eggs for $3.50 a dozen.

Another person sees the two of us on a Saturday morning in August and takes note, "Hey, aren't you supposed to be at farmers' market?"  Our response was that we had ceased to be vendors at that market and hadn't been selling there all year.  And, actually, we had not vended at that market for two years at the least.  Clearly they hadn't been to the market themselves for some time.  I wonder why we stopped trying to sell at that market?

You all have your lives to live and you make your decisions.  We get that.  You (and I) also have the right to be inconsistent with what we say and what we do.  But, if we really want local foods to succeed, we need to be putting some of the money in the same direction that our mouths are running and we need to do that consistently, not just those few times when the spirit moves us.  If we don't do that, when you finally listen to that little voice that says, "Go to the farmers market," the farmers market may not be there anymore.

3.  Falling Prey to the "Convenience Wins Over All" Syndrome
Once again, I have to start by saying that I realize we all have a right to make our choices.  However, if you want to truly say that you support local foods, then you absolutely have to meet the local producers halfway on the convenience meter.  I can assure you that any reasonable business is aware that they need to do some things to make the product work for the customer.  But, I can also tell you that a business that expects to be in business in the future is also going to need to figure out how much convenience they can reasonably provide for their customer and still stay sane while making a little money.

If that isn't enough to convince you that you should put yourself out of your 'convenience zone' just a little bit and support local producers and local businesses, let me try another approach.  List for me some of the reasons you think you should support local foods because it is the 'right thing to do.'  I'll give you three and you can figure out others:
  • local foods are fresher and travel fewer food miles
  • local growers and producers are more responsive to the food dollar
  • local producers tend to pursue sustainable practices
Local farms are often much smaller businesses with fewer resources in terms of tools, workers and finances.  They often have to make difficult decisions about how these resources will be used.  So, if you want your local producers to do a good job for some of the things you think are important, then you need to give them a chance to do those things.  Is it important to you that our farm is certified organic and supports pollinator habitat?  Do you want the freshest, highest quality produce from us?  Well, you need to let us do those things rather than having to spending our resources to stand at your door with a pre-made meal from our farm.

On the other hand, if you need your broccoli cut up for you and measured out with a five step recipe along with the other ingredients, you should expect to get less of the other things you say are important.  It's that simple.

4. Being Content with a Label
Actually, this one sometimes is a bit worse than it sounds initially.  The easiest example I can give is this one.

I asked a class what they liked about farmers' markets.  One person said that they liked getting organic produce.  I then asked how many people thought this was the case and half of the people agreed.  I had to break it to them that a certified organic grower at a farmers market is actually a rarity in Iowa.  But, there are a whole bunch of growers who use prohibited chemicals only when they 'really need to.'  Um, sorry.  That is NOT organic.

So, the label is 'farmers market vendor' and the incorrect assumption is 'organic.'  Another is the restaurant or grocery that says they stock 'local foods.'  We can tell you that there are far too many instances where one of these entities have purchased once from a grower, but then spend a whole season (or more) claiming they have product from that farm.  Often, the farm isn't aware of the claim until a customer says, "it is so nice to see your product at such and such a place."  And, you realize, "hey, we only sold them a couple of pounds of lettuce two years ago."

And now you are asking, what's the point of this particular issue?

The point is that people who truly want to support local foods need expect to make a little effort asking some questions about the labels they see that make claims.  That includes asking local growers questions about how they do things.  Invest yourself a bit into the process of gaining knowledge about local foods, where they are being grown, raised and processes and where they are being sold.  A knowledgeable local foods supporter is valuable to the entire movement - and we need more of them.

5. SQUIRREL! - Distractability
If I were to write this post all over again from positive viewpoint "How Local Food Movements Could Best Support Local Food" (and don't give up, I may just do that too!), I would put becoming a consistent and reliable customer of local food producers/purveyors at the top of that list.  Sadly, what tends to happen is that the very people who have the most energy for local foods can be the most frustrating ones for the local producers.  Why is that?  Well, in their zeal to support local products, they tend to dance from one cause to another and one vendor to another, forsaking any prior conquest because their job was 'done' there.

We've been in the local food business long enough now that we've seen people who have hopped from new producer to new producer and new concept of local foods to another new concept of local foods over time to 'help them get going.'  The sentiment is nice, but I believe the results are not what they are intending.  First, a long time business still needs the income to keep going, just like the new business.  So, abandoning the established businesses is only going to hasten to that day when everyone is 'shocked' when they close their doors.  Second, patronizing a new business and then hopping off the bandwagon may encourage them to have set unrealistic goals or projections because your patronage was not something solid they should have based their plans on.  But, how were they to know that you were going to hop to someone else after a while?  Perhaps it would be better if you found a new customer that doesn't already support local foods and get THEM hooked as well?  There's an idea that has merit!

We've seen the same thing happen with the concept of  CSA's, then farmers' markets, then food hubs, etc.  People run from one 'hot button' label to the next, leaving the producers and businesses scrambling to figure out where they are supposed to be going with their product.

Once again, everyone is entitled to patronize whomever they wish and they are also allowed to end that patronage and go elsewhere anytime they wish.  But, if one of your goals is to support local business and local producers, please think a little bit about how your actions support or fail to support them.

Thank you for listening.  You may now go about your normal business.


  1. A really great post, Rob—you bring up many issues that are not often talked about in the local food movement and need to be brought to consumers' attention more. I enjoy your blog very much—keep your great writing coming!

  2. Thank you. I am glad it is of value to you. Rob

  3. Thanks Rob for the nice lunch time read. I had to chuckle a bit while reading the part on students' misunderstanding on farmer's market food. My students all love you and they all decide to become a better advocate for local food. But like you said, it takes some good effort from the consumer's end to really become a big part of the local food movement, and for many of the students, it is just not feasible. What they can do the best is to keep pushing the university to become a bigger part of the local food market. And it will take some effort and time for that to happen. By the way, adding a title to your FB post is a great idea! That's how I got drawn into reading the blog!

  4. I do miss the CSA. It was a no-brainer because you gave us a bunch of stuff and we had to cook it and get out of our comfort zone. Farmers markets here are more craftfair. Unfortunately the options of Iowa are not here in Michigan. I like your statement that you should stick with who you're with versus jumping to the next new cool thing.

  5. Ai, thanks for the comments and compliments. You know what, your students were actually closer than many people I encounter and I hope they walked away with at least a little more idea what is going on.

    And, are you saying I have to do click-bait titles from here on out? Aiiiieeee!

    And we also miss you and your family. There are far too many places where there are poor options for local foods. But, I suspect there ARE options. Don't give up on farmers' markets entirely at this point. They are all in a down cycle after the last push. That's part of what motivated the first item in this blog post. People wanted MORE farmers market, but only in their neighborhoods. It's part of what has driven markets down. The other part is a natural ebb and flow that happens with small town farmers' markets. The only way for them to become more consistent is to increase patronage and keep it high. We saw some awesome examples in Kauai. It's a 25 mile by 33 mile island and we could have found a farmers market every day of the week. Many of them were extremely well attended. It can be done if the motivation is there to make it happen.

  6. ..and those reasons to eat locally also help mitigate climate change as well as improve your nutrition.


Thank you for your input! We appreciate hearing what you have to say.