You hear the phrase “eat local” all the time now, but what does it really mean? Home cook and farmer Lisa Turner addresses the b
Plate image: ©IStockPhoto.com/Tomch
Excerpted from The Eat Local Cookbook: Seasonal Recipes from a Maine Farm by Lisa Turner; Down East Books; paperback; $19.95.
Why Eat Local?
The grocery store is unbelievably easy. There are tons of products available from all over the world; why would anyone give up all that choice and convenience to “eat local?”
From my point of view, the number one reason is for the taste. Fresh, local food tastes better, period. And we all want to eat more food that tastes good. Imagine if all the vegetables you ate tasted sweet and were full of flavor.
Imagine your kids asking for more vegetables. That is the most important part of eating local. Wherever you get your vegetables, if you don’t notice an improvement in flavor in most of what you’re getting as compared to the grocery store, you’re missing the most important part of the eat local experience.
And it’s not just the vegetables. We’ve used butter from local farms for years. One time my son invited some friends over for what he referred to as a “paint ball soiree.” These were middle-school boys who could get good and hungry. Will asked me to make pancakes and sausage for lunch, which I did, serving local sausage, butter, milk, and maple syrup at the meal. One of the boys raved about the butter. I saw him again about six weeks later, and he asked me where I had bought the butter. Imagine that, six weeks later a twelve-year-old boy still couldn’t forget the flavor of that butter.
Think about it for a moment. We’d all prefer moist, flavorful roasted chicken; ham with its own unique flavor from someone’s best family recipe for brining and smoking; big fat mussels that are harvested only when they reach that full fat size; hamburger that’s naturally lean because it’s from a grass-fed animal; sweet milk with plenty of cream in it. You want to come over for dinner, don’t you? Don’t worry, you can have all this at your house, too.
There are lots of other important reasons to eat local. If you buy from a local family-owned farm, they will pay wages to people who live in your area. The farmers and their employees will all spend a good portion of that money in your area, and that just keeps the local economy healthy. Consider this example: the town where we farm and live, Freeport, has about eight thousand residents. If every one of them spent only five dollars per week on local produce, that would mean forty thousand dollars per week being returned to our community — otherwise known as the local economy. Over a year this amounts to about two million dollars that would stay here in our hometown. It adds up fast.
If you buy locally, your food is traveling a shorter distance to get to you, and therefore requires less fossil fuel for transportation and is fresher. Produce loses vitamins as it sits in storage, so fresh food is healthier than food that has been shipped a long way. So, it’s good for the economy, environment, and your health. Local food is a win, win, win proposition.
Another perk of shopping with a local farmer is that you get to know the person who grows your food. If you shop at the farm, you get to spend some time at the farm, maybe even picking your own vegetables in the fields. If you’re a regular at a farm or with a farmer at a market, you’ll probably get to know their other regulars, too, which starts to build into a community. And in spending that money with your local farmer you preserve the farm landscape that everyone likes to see. If a farmer is making money on his farm, there’s no reason for him to sell it for development. So you get to participate in the best type of land preservation, supporting family-owned farms just by eating fabulous food.
If you’re concerned about what is going into your food or the environment in your community, who better to ask about how your food is grown than your farmer or someone who works on the farm? Local is not synonymous with organic, so if that’s important to you, ask. “Certified Organic” means that the grower has filed paperwork describing all their growing practices and has had a site visit and audit by an independent, third-party certifying agency that is authorized by the USDA. Many growers at farmers’ markets claim to be organic these days.
You’ve probably heard people say, “We do everything organic. We’re just not certified.” If you choose to purchase organic products, the only way to be sure you are getting what you pay for is to stick with a certified organic grower. We know lots of good, conscientious growers out there producing great products even though they are not certified organic, so you should be able to find something that suits your ethics as well as your wallet.
Whether you choose an organic or other commercial farm, buying locally gives you the best chance to know what you’re really getting.
All this said, there are plenty of “foods from away” in this cookbook. Local foods are the preponderance of the foods, but I like olive oil and lemon juice and pepper and many other things that couldn’t possibly be grown here. In my opinion, coffee and chocolate greatly enhance my life, and lobsters and blueberries will greatly enhance the lives of people in other places. Therefore trade is good. What doesn’t make any sense to me is to send hard-earned money to buy apple juice from China (one of the major importers of apple juice) when I can get apple cider from only thirty miles away. Once we send the money away, it’s hard to get it back, so it seems best to keep it here if you can get the same thing (only tastier) in your own neighborhood.
Vegetables can generally be purchased from a farm very nearby, but animals require a lot of open land and so meat and dairy products may need to come from a greater distance. Other products like grains, storage potatoes, and dry beans may also require a greater land base for the farmer to be able to make a living, and larger farms are more readily available at a farther distance from population centers. Fortunately, many of these crops are grown to be stored for a period of time, so travel time does not affect quality. I’d still rather spend my money with people in another part of my state or region than to send it halfway around the world if I have the choice. I’ll save the international trade for things I want from halfway around the world, like cinnamon and nutmeg.
How to Eat Local
In most areas there are lots of local foods available — you just need to pick the best option for you. Below are some pros and cons of all the possible ways to buy local food.
Even as a farmer who makes a living selling vegetables, I have to say that the best way to get local food is to grow it yourself. There are many, many gardening books of all types on the store shelves. Pick one and get started. First, get a soil test and follow the recommendations that come with the results, then plant a few vegetables. There really is nothing like planting a seed, tending your plants, and eating the food you grew. I can’t recommend this strongly enough. It’s hard to grow all your own vegetables, so for most people this won’t be the only way they get food. (At least not for a couple of years! Practice makes perfect!) You can find out what you like to grow, what you’re good at growing, and just specialize in a few crops or go wild. Garden and be happy!
Community Supported Agriculture (CSA)
In a CSA, you, the customer, pay the family farm in your community at the beginning of the season for all your vegetables. In a CSA, you are likely to get vegetables at the best possible price because you are paying ahead and agreeing to take whatever is ready as the season progresses. The farmer gives you a weekly share of whatever is fresh and ready on the farm.
That’s the fundamental concept, but there may be as many variations on this idea as there are farms. Farms have different lengths to their season, different pick-up days, or payment plans. Check the number of weeks the farms in your area will provide you with vegetables, and use the cost per pick up as part of your comparison. CSAs should be more cost effective for the customer because of the benefits of this system to the farmer.
Some farms offer no choice and simply make up your bag for you. Some set the product out for you to choose, which will take longer but gives you a little more control over what you get. This option allows you to select large or small potatoes or turnips, for example. Some farms give you some amount of choice as to which types of vegetables you take, like pick two of the five types of potatoes available this week. Some even allow you the full choice of types and quantities of vegetables using a debit system to keep track of your remaining share balance.
Many farms include some pick-your-own vegetables, herbs, or even flowers in the share. Most of our members, and especially their little kids, really enjoy the time they spend wandering through the flowerbeds making their weekly bouquet.
Regardless of the variations from farm to farm, in a CSA, you are committing to shop with just one farmer for the bulk of your vegetables that season, so your choices may be limited compared to some of the other shopping options. If you like surprises and trying new types of vegetables, this is a good option for you. Some CSA members think it’s Christmas every week when they open their bag.
Some CSA farms will allow (or require) you to trade your labor for vegetables. Some offer shares of meat, dairy, fish, or other local products along with the vegetables and some have those things for sale, while some just keep the focus on the vegetables. So you can see, there’s a lot to think about and a lot of questions to ask to compare CSAs so that you can become a member of the one that fits you best.
You may live near a farm stand, where your local farmer sells his product. This is a great option for many people, as you will generally have lots of choices. A farm stand might offer additional farm products from other farmers, so you’re most likely to have a steady supply of things like corn or strawberries in season, sometimes grown by the owner of the stand, sometimes by another farmer. This may cause you to question your own definition of local: at what distance is it still local?
Stands tend to be open several days a week and therefore offer a lot more flexibility for shopping. Some stands do not have a refrigerated area, and this limits the types of vegetables that the farmer can offer, for example, you probably won’t find lettuce if there is no way to maintain its quality on a hot summer day. Some have enough refrigeration to offer meat and cheese, including frozen or processed items along with fresh vegetables.
Many towns have a small farmer’s market, and most towns of any size seem to have a large farmer’s market. Some markets have popped up recently, while others have been going for many decades in the same location. You will find a variety of vendors of various fresh foods, frequently including meat, cheese, breads, and ready-to-eat products along with the vegetables. Some markets also have craft vendors, artists, and even musicians interspersed with the food vendors providing a festive atmosphere. You may find the most choice at famers’ markets because there are the most farmers, but you may need to travel to get the full range of choices. In some markets the farmers travel a long way to get to the market, which again is something that may define your personal definition of local. Markets can be a lot of fun, but they can also be crowded, and sometimes parking is a challenge. They are a great choice for people who enjoy shopping and have the time to do so.
Health Food Stores
Most locally owned health food stores are committed to their local farmers and buy most of their seasonal produce from local sources, as well as carrying other local products like meat, cheese, and prepared foods. They are most likely open more days than any other source, and are an easy way to shop. The prices may be somewhat higher than other options because you are helping to pay for the staff and building that provide you with that amount of convenience. The large chains buy from some local farmers, although you do have to look a little harder to find the local produce amid all its other offerings. Although the stores have a commitment to the farmers they work with, you may not feel the same connection that you would if you had a more direct contact with the farmer. Still, for the very busy person, this generally offers the most availability and ease.
You may be able to find a co-op in your area, a group of people who get together to make a collective wholesale order to a farm or farms. This is probably the best way to make new friends from the experience because it takes a lot of committed people to make these work well. Prices should be good, since farms should be able to offer wholesale prices, but you may not get as much of a connection to the farm as you might with other options. If there is no co-op in your area, talk to some friends and start your own. In most locations you will also be able to find a wholesaler who will sell the same packaged products you see in the health food store to your group. For some people the ability to get wholesale prices on a wide variety of products makes this the best option.