Locavore and loving it!

Carnivore, herbivore, omnivore…there’s a new “vore” in town – the locavore! In fact the name “locavore” was the 2007 Word of the Year for the Oxford American Dictionary. And just as it suggests, being a locavore means to eat what’s produced locally, or generally speaking within a 100-250 mile radius.

But why?

Chef's Survery What's Hot

Click Here: In the 2010 Chef’s Survey of the National Restaurant Association, locally grown produce ranked as the number one top trend.

“It’s the economy, stupid!”

Bill Clinton is credited with using this phrase in his 1992 bid for president, and as the story goes, it was posted on a sign in campaign headquarters, but never meant to go public. However, the phrase leaked, struck a nerve with Americans suffering from the recent recession, and is now a familiar expression.

That saying is very appropriate today when trying to explain why the locavore movement is catching on around not only the US, but the entire world.

Faced with certain demise, the American small family farm was in a lot of trouble as recently as just a decade ago. Huge agri-business conglomerates were creating hostile market environments for smaller operations, many of which were forced to shut down or even declare bankruptcy.

But a consumer paradigm shift took place recently, and new estimates currently have small farms in the US at close to 1.9 million and growing! Who was at the helm of this new consumer trend, and able to turn the ship around? Members of the grassroots locavore movement!

Consumers making small, but consistent choices in their food habits such as supporting local growers have greatly impacted the economic health of small farms. The burgeoning growth of farmers markets, which was close to $1 billion in sales for 2006 (up 50% from just 5 years before), has brought steady income to an endangered species of American entrepreneur – the small farmer.

Restaurant patrons are speaking up about their preference for locally and sustainably sourced ingredients, and chefs are listening. In the 2010 Chef’s Survey of the National Restaurant Association, locally grown produce ranked as the number one top trend, with locally sourced meats and seafood, and sustainability coming in second and third respectively. Farm/estate branded ingredients were number eight, and fine restaurants are now even listing the farms they support directly on the menu.

But of course for any good grassroots movement to be successful, there has to be more than one benefit.

It's also the environment!

Read on to learn about four ways locavores do their part to protect the environment.

- Locavores curb urban sprawl.

Urban sprawl is defined as - the unplanned, uncontrolled spreading of urban development into areas adjoining the edge of a city. (thefreedictionary.com) It can be a sinister trend that gobbles up millions of tillable acres a year, threatening the food security of any region it plagues. The operative word is “uncontrolled” and one very effective control is insuring that neighboring family farms are successful.

Look at it this way. Small family farms, especially those using sustainable methods of agriculture like Jolley Farms, act as stewards to tracts of land that are kept in active food production. When these farms go out of business the first thing to go is usually the land. Many times the farm is not sold again as a working farm, but instead divided into smaller parcels among several new owners. It is next to impossible to amass that original size of tillable land again from multiple owners, and the area has now been taken out of use for food production.

Here’s another scenario that is actually worse. In this case a large corporation purchases the entire plot, and the die is cast for future development into strip malls, factory sites, and other non-agriculture use, some with the potential for contamination and pollution.

In short, being a locavore helps keep small farms economically sound which keeps the environmental impact of urban sprawl to a minimum in your community.

- Locavores curb global warming.

Current estimates put the average miles that a bite of food travels at around 1500, and even higher if the food is out of season! Eating locally greatly lowers the use of fossil fuels to power vehicles that carry food thousands of miles by land, sea, and air.

Much as been brought to light about the release of carbon dioxide (CO2) from burning fossil fuels and the connection to global warming, but consuming foods that have been shipped in also increases another pollutant. Globally sourced food most often requires refrigeration, which emits chlorofluorocarobons (CFCs), thus further increasing the negative impact on the environment.

Locavores do their part to fight global warming by visiting farm stands, farmers markets, and growing their own food, thus decreasing the use of fossil fuels necessary to ship food from half way around the world to their table.

They are savvy about selecting food that is in season in their area, and even preserving food for off-season. Their choices are also affecting the purchasing departments of restaurants and grocery stores; many are getting on the “buy local” bandwagon to meet customer demand.

June in Garden

Jolley Farms grows plots of intermingled crops, many of which are heirlooms such as the cherry tomato June Jolley is about to sample.

- Locavores discourage monocultures.

Locally grown food often comes from small farms that grow a wide variety of fruits and vegetables. One farmer might offer several varieties of eggplant, three kinds of green beans, and a dozen types of heirloom tomatoes! It is rare for a small farm to grow “monocultures” and this is a good thing for the local environment.

Large agribusiness operations grow thousands of acres of one variety of plant, for example one kind of corn. This is a veritable banquet table for pests that love that specific type of corn, and they will come in droves, inviting all their friends and relatives. Of course it requires the use of countless pounds of pesticides to control such an infestation.

Take this same expansive field of corn, going on for acre after acre after acre. Think what this does to deplete the soil. Thousands upon thousands of pounds of synthetic fertilizers are poured back into the soil the next year so that more of the same plant can be grown there. Small farms are able to rotate their crops much easier because they are not expected to grow millions of bushels of one thing. A few extra tomatoes here this year, a few less beans there next year, it usually all adds up to plenty of harvest with a nice variety for their regular customers – the locavores!

And by the way, the effect of nitrogen-based fertilizers on the environment has been the subject of much study by the Scientific Committee on Problems of the Environment of the International Council for Science. In a recent report they warn that increased use of such agents “could exacerbate global warming, food security threats, and human respiratory ailments in addition to familiar ecological problems.” (link to Scientific American article) It is known that nitrogen fertilizers release the greenhouse gas nitrous oxide which some view as more harmful than CO2, and causes harmful algae to overproduce in waterways and even the ocean.

Monocultures also limit the seed gene pools. Smaller farmers often keep alive heirloom varieties that have naturally acquired disease resistance for your specific geographical location as well as adapted to the climate conditions. Unlike acres and acres planted with only one hybrid tomato variety, smaller heirloom plots offer a chance for natural selection to take place and the best of the best in terms of viability and taste be chosen as the seed stock for next year. That’s why an agribusiness tomato is no match for small farm flavor! And this is much better from an environmental standpoint as well.

-Locavores encourage sustainable practices.

Locavores are watchdogs of sorts. They usually know who grows what and how they grow it within their foodshed. Even if you are not locavore, you can thank those who are for applying pressure in your community for the use of sustainable agricultural practices that protect the environment and the safety of your food.

Think of it this way. In 2007 some farm-raised shrimp from China was banned from the US because of dangerous chemicals showing up in the shrimp. There are similar stories about other food products from around the world. You don’t have a lot of control about what goes on with foreign food production, but you do have a lot to say about what happens in your own community.

Local governments are more accessible to the average citizen, and in fact many cities and counties around the country are developing their own foodshed polices. Now is the time to become involved. Additionally you can vote with your wallet. Local farmers pay attention to what the consumer wants, and if sustainable agriculture is in higher demand than agri-business they can happily supply the products to meet that demand.

And don’t forget the quality!

Much can be said for the economic and environmental impact of eating locally grown food, but there is also quite a lot to say about the flavor and nutrition of food grown just down the road.

Food scientists and marketing professionals have done numerous double-blind taste tests to compare food from the supermarket to food from the farmers market. Guess who always wins? Of course patrons of farmers markets were not surprised with the favorable and flavorable outcome of the tests!

To understand why taste testers prefer local food, one need only to see the harvesting and handling methods of shipped food. Most varieties of supermarket produce are selected not for their flavor, but for their durability during mechanical harvesting, processing, packaging, shipping, and store display.

The amount of handling that a shipped-in cucumber goes through before it gets on your plate is quite excessive compared to what a local farmer does. He or she plucks it by hand, places it in a crate, loads it on the farm truck and hands it to you at the farmers market. Pick your own farms further limit the process!

Locally grown food can afford a wide array of varieties, many of which don’t travel all that well, but taste magnificent like heirloom tomatoes. The selection is mind boggling, and the subtitles in taste are befitting of royalty!

Nutritional content is also of concern. Many fruits and vegetables are harvested under-ripe so they can travel many miles. Although they might change color and soften up a bit, appearing to be ripe when purchased, the fact remains that nutrition from the plant to the fruit or vegetable ended when it was picked. And it is agreed upon by food scientists that nutrition is lost from foods the longer they have sat around, making that truck ride across the country some costly down-time for your zucchini.

Local farms often harvest in the early morning, and deliver to restaurants the same day. Farmers at the farmers market pick it and sell it by the afternoon. Plucking a tomato from your garden and eating it right off the vine is a gustatory experience that cannot be described.

Tailgate Market

Tailgate markets such as this one in Cashiers, NC are great places to find locally grown produce. Zeb Jolley snapped this photo as he was driving in bright and early one Saturday morning to set up the Jolley Farms booth.

How to be a locavore

There are varying degrees of “locavorism.” Some people go all out, and eat only what they or nearby farmers produce. These people are in the minority, and while their determination is admirable, it is not always possible to find every morsel of food you consume readily available from local sources.

Take for example coffee. Many locavores draw the line on that one; as to date there are no coffee plantations in Minnesota, or North Carolina for that matter. Less ambitious locavores would instead select from coffees that have been grown closest to their area, and at the very least grown using fair trade and sustainable practices.

Flour is another exception that many locavores will make, although there are now some movements afoot that encourage communities to grow their own wheat for cooperative threshing and milling. Think of the children’s story, The Little Red Hen, and you get the picture.

Popular author Barbara Kingsolver explored the locavore challenge in a rather strict form when she and her family moved to a small farm in southwest Virginia. She chronicles their journey in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. Kingsolver confessed that each family member chose one shipped-in item that they could not do without for a year. Her must-have was spices.

Strict locavorism aside, there are ways to incorporate the spirit behind the movement into every day life, and thus have a beneficial effect on local economies, the environment, and personal nutrition, not to mention the enjoyment of the freshest flavors possible. Consider the following opportunities.

- Grow your own.

Many families have re-embraced backyard and community gardens as ways to increase their consumption of locally grown food. Gardening books and classes through university extension services abound if you are a novice. And while you are at it, be sure to preserve some of your harvest for the winter.

- Support farmers markets.

Estimates have the current number of farmers markets in the US at 5200! (1994 statistics were approximately 1800.) Not just an excellent way to help the local economy, weekly trips to the farmers market can also quickly turn into social events as some provide outdoor cafes, wandering musicians, children’s art activities, and cooking demonstrations.

Chatooga Club Menu

The Chatooga Club is an example of a fine dining establishment relying on locally grown produce such as Jolley Farms mixed greens.

- Keep an eye out for farm stands.

Many are on America’s highways or in the farmer’s front yard! Often the farmer sells overripe surplus picked that morning and offered for a great discount; it’s perfect for taking home and enjoying or preserving the same day. Some of the best pasta sauce in the world is made from tomatoes so ripe they can barely be handled, but they’ll survive a short ride home to your awaiting kettle!

- Shop at green grocers.

Green meaning fresh produce, but also produce grown with “green” practices such as the sustainable agriculture methods used at Jolley Farms.

- Join a CSA.

This stands for Community Supported Agriculture, and refers to farms selling shares to members who then enjoy seasonal and local produce direct from the farm. The number of CSAs in American is growing by leaps and bounds, with current estimates at over 1000.

- Frequent dining establishments that prepare locally grown food.

Most restaurants are proud of their support for local growers, and will often include the information on their menus. Ask your wait staff about the origins of the food. Jolley Farms supplies fresh ingredients for restaurants throughout Western North Carolina.

- Check the label.

Read labels to see if ingredient sources are listed. Choose those that are primarily made from locally grown ingredients, and ask the retailer to carry more products from local sources.

How to champion the locavore cause

In addition to the above suggestions, it is always helpful to educate others about the locavore movement. You might consider volunteering with local schools to help them create salad gardens for their cafeterias. Maybe you would like to work at the area farmers market? Or perhaps you feel strong enough about the subject to become politically active in your community to create a supportive environment for local farmers.

An organization that supports the locavore movement in Western North Carolina is the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project. Jolley Farms is a proud to be certified as Appalachian Grown by ASAP. If you are a farmer, and would like to learn more about using sustainable agriculture methods, contact them for assistance.

The word locavore has made it to the dictionary, and has become synonymous with eating food using not only your mouth, but also your head and heart. Locavores like to think about the impact their eating habits have on the economy, the environment, and their health, but they also like to feel a connectedness to their community. And then there is that fresh flavor thing which really gets to the heart of the matter!

Check out the current directory of local markets and restaurants that carry Jolley Farms produce!