Reply to AP "Locally Grown?" Article
Published Apr 7th, 2011

The Star-Exponent ran an article on Saturday, April 2 from the Associated Press titled "Locally grown?" (page A3) about locally grown food. That article irritated me. It is hard to tell exactly what the point of the article was, but since the article did not have very much positive to say about locally grown food, it seemed to imply that the entire locally grown food business is a scam. As a local Culpeper produce grower, I could not disagree more. I do agree that there are a lot people misusing the words “locally grown” to cash in on what the article called “the latest big thing.” But I feel the need to balance that article with a reminder that there are a large and growing number of legitimate local food producers, and locally grown food does have some real benefits.

Locally grown food in the last two or three years has truly become “the latest big thing” for good reasons. Local growers are becoming more competitive. With gasoline now close to $4.00 a gallon, shipping produce long distances has become expensive. Locally grown food is fresher. Much of our produce can go from the field to someone’s plate in less than 24 hours. And the huge mega-producers have had some serious outbreaks of disease pathogens. But also, people’s attitudes in the U.S. toward food are changing. Fast food was a uniquely American invention, and it fit with the prevalent American notion that food is nothing more than a biological necessity. All that is required is to cram something – and it doesn’t really matter what - into your gullet with the heel of your hand as fast and cheaply as you can so you can get to the next item on your task list.

That view of food is uniquely American: productivity at the expense of health. Much of the rest of the world puts a very high value on good food. The people in countries like Italy, France, and Spain seem to most Americans to be fanatical about food. But in these cultures, there is nothing more important than sharing a good meal with family and friends. Food is worth taking some time and effort. It is civilized. It is a celebration of every-day life. It is the highest of social activities. Fast food is an oxymoron and is barbaric.

Americans are beginning to loose their fast-food mentality, and they are starting to adopt a more continental European view of food-as-celebration. And that is a very good thing. Obesity and diabetes are rampant in our culture, and pollsters tell us that most of us don’t eat meals together as a family anymore. American attitudes are changing. Americans are starting to care about their food. They want to know where it came from. They want to know about how it was grown. They want it to be fresh and nutritious. They are now paying attention to quality. This is all good.

Getting back to the AP article, locally-grown food in the U.S. is now a $20 billion a year business, and there are unscrupulous people trying to cash in. They have always been there, but the problem is getting worse. So how do you protect yourself?

First, most chain grocery stores do not buy local produce. My definition of “local” is Culpeper, Madison, Orange, Rappahannock and Fauquier. As far as I know, the only grocery store chain that buys local produce – by my definition - is Whole Foods. If you see a chain grocery store with produce marked as “local”, you should be suspicious. Individual grocery stores don’t like to deal directly with local vendors, and the regional produce buyers usually will only deal with very large-scale producers.

Second, try to get familiar with the seasons for produce. For example, corn is a true warm-season crop, and it will not germinate in soil below 55º. Around here, if you plant corn as soon as the soil reaches 55º (usually early April) and you plant the earliest-maturing variety you can find, it is possible to have local sweet corn by July 4th. It is difficult to do, but it can be done. If someone is selling full-season sweet corn in May, then it is not local. Period. We know of a farmers’ market vendor that sells sweet corn in May and claims that their farm is in a “micro climate.” That is only true if you define “micro climate” as being Florida. Try to be aware of what is locally possible.

Finally, if you see produce labeled as “local”, ask for the name of the farm it came from and look them up. We sell to restaurants in the Washington, D.C. area, and some of those restaurants list our farm by name on their menus. We encourage that. In fact, we have a web site with pictures of our operation and what is currently in season. Legitimate growers and sellers will always be ready with names. In fact, I have heard of grocery stores that have not only the name of the grower, but the grower’s pictures right on the shelf. Remember the Domino’s Pizza TV commercial where they take some of their customers out to a tomato farm to meet the grower? At first glance, that commercial seems off-the-wall, but in light of the interest in local foods, it really makes perfect sense.

The interest in locally grown food is growing, and for some very good reasons. But because of that growing interest, there are also a growing number of people trying to make money selling “local” produce that really is not. Caveat emptor – let the buyer beware – applies here.

Bryant Osborn
Corvallis Farms, LLC
Culpeper, VA