What “local” means

Mac Stone, chair of the National Organic Standards Board, spoke yesterday at the annual conference of the Organic Association of Kentucky, making a case for what “organic” means these days, that the consumer can trust the term even as it becomes difficult for the farmer to comply with the rules. But because there are rules, the term means something.

As a professional advocate for local food, I often find myself wondering if I’m deceiving my friends and community, extolling the virtues of eating food produced by farmers in Kentucky and leaving them to bring their own understanding to the definition of local.

Because I am paid with a portion of Kentucky’s Tobacco Master Settlement funds, I know exactly what local is — its food raised within the boundaries of Kentucky. I’m paid to promote Kentucky-grown and that’s what I do.

And many consumers understand that “local” is a fungible term based on where you are. Really local food in Louisville has to include produce from Southern Indiana. Schools in Bowling Green, in the south-central part of the state nearer Nashville than Louisville, should be able to buy from Tennessee farmers. Ashland is on the border of West Virginia. Northern Kentucky is bordered by Ohio.

But when I really begin to squirm is with the connotations of “local” — what the term means to most people. People choose to eat local food for a variety of reasons, not all of which are necessarily applicable at this moment in the transition.

“Freshness” is the first reason cited. Will Allen, the great genius composter at Growing Power in Milwaukee, often references the long travel time conventional produce endures to get to its final destination. Weeks on the road rob vegetables of whatever valuable compounds they had when they were picked, which are way less than something grown close to home which is picked closer to ripe and has less travel time factored in.

All true, but in Kentucky, and I suspect other fledgling local food economies, many — probably most — farmers don’t have adequate chill, holding and transport facilities. They may pick lettuce in the cool of the morning, but packing, loading and transporting it without the benefit of hydro-cooling and chilled air storage will result in a steep decline in both aesthetic and nutritional quality. They might chill watermelons at the farm, only to sell them in the heat of a farmers market — and changing temperatures is what causes the decline in watermelon texture. You end up with mush. (Watermelon held at ambient temperature won’t be mushy.)

There’s a litany of expectations about local: it has a lower carbon footprint; it was raised humanely, or, in the case of plants, responsibly, with fewer petro-chemical inputs; that local farmers take better care of their water sources; that they prevent erosion; that livestock is raised without antibiotics and added steroids always with access to grazing; that the food is fresher and better quality.

Unfortunately, none of those things is automatically true. Through county extension offices and traveling experts representing corporate products, farmers have been taught “best practices” that include using all sorts of petro-chemical herbicides, insecticides and fertilizers. Round-Up ready GMO seed is ubiquitous.

I am currently in a discussion with local cattle farmers from a rural county who are investigating selling beef in quantity to consumers. I’m thrilled. Kentucky has more beef than any other state east of the Mississippi and the collective beef industry has worked hard on its genetics and production methods so the beef quality is far superior to even 15 years ago. The group has no interest, however, in selling an antibiotic-free product. Most members are just flat against the idea, no discussion. One of the specialists argues that if a cow gets pink-eye, she needs an antibiotic. I certainly don’t disagree with that. (Mac Stone says it’s particularly rough for dairy farmers, because that dairy cow is still in the herd. With a beef cow, you tag her ear with a different color and sell her at the auction.)

I am hopeful that soon Kentucky might have a processing plant that handles cull animals to make affordable hamburger for school lunch programs, ground laid by the New England Beef-to-Insitution study. Will we be able to determine that those animals are antibiotic free? Not any time soon. Should we feed them to school kids anyway? Why not? They are eating beef now raised with antibiotics. And besides, the beef in food supply doesn’t (or shouldn’t) have residual antibiotics in the actual meat. The reason the Centers for Disease Control worries about antibiotics in cattle rearing is the legions of superbugs they leave in their wake.

Kentucky cattle growers need to differentiate their product somehow if they want the higher prices for the meat that local food at this point must command and that consumers are often willing to pay. In the current climate, when “local” carries a generally positive connotation, they might get a higher price for a while. But the minute another aggregation group comes along with “Local, antibiotic-free” meat, and charges the same for its beef, consumers will not only understand it has a greater value, they will also understand that “local” doesn’t mean what they thought it meant, and may become disillusioned in general. .

In any case, the road, as Wendell Berry reminds us, is long. Good work and results are not things that come instantly. Nor should they, says Berry. We must guard against the work being dismantled or dismissed because it doesn’t instantly meet a list of preconceived expectations. Still, I try to work as quickly as I can in order to move the food closer to consumer expectations before the muddy work of commerce makes it look as if some of us have exploited an ignorance built on trust.

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