Food Trend Boosts Ag Economy
By Brian Wallheimer
Consumers' Interest in Buying Local Expands Specialty Markets
It’s not enough for people these days to know the country in which their food was grown.
A Washington apple, Georgia peach or Florida orange may not even impress savvy consumers. They’re interested in knowing exactly where their food comes from—sometimes down to the particular farm.
In recent years, the popularity of books and documentaries espousing the virtues of organic and locally grown foods has vaulted them to the forefront of consumers’ minds. And the spate of illnesses that have popped up across the country linked to salmonella, E. coli and other bacteria, says Purdue University agricultural economist Maria Marshall, gives people a strong desire to know more about where their food is coming from.
“This kind of started as a push for organic foods, and now we're seeing that people want more than that. They want to know where their food comes from, and buying local is a way to do that,” Marshall says.
Nathan Fingerle, owner of RiverRidge Farm in Wabash County, Ind., says one of the top questions his customers ask is about how his produce is raised. They want to know about pesticides, herbicides and genetics. His advantage is that it's a short walk from his on-site farm stand to his fields and greenhouses. “If you want to see, come out to the farm and see how we do it,” Fingerle says. "I'm happy to show you.”
Fingerle sells produce year-round at his farm stand and during the summer at the Wabash City Farmers Market. And he sells in-season produce to the Manchester Community Schools.
The demand isn't slowing, even in a down economy. And Fingerle says he doesn't expect it to slow, especially once people see how long fresh produce lasts and how good it tastes. "It seems like we won't have a week go by without getting a new customer," Fingerle says.
Jennifer Dennis, a Purdue agricultural economist and associate professor of horticulture, says people searching for local foods are interested in boosting their local economies and meeting the producers who grow their food. But health seems to be the overriding reason they look for locally sourced foods.
“People are trying to simplify their lives, and one way to do that is to have a little more control over health. Choosing local foods at a farmers market is something people see as a way to make better choices and exert some of that control,” Dennis says.
Farmers Markets: Just the Beginning
For years, farmers markets have been the standard for finding locally produced foods.
“In farmers markets, there has been unprecedented growth for the last 15 to 20 years,” Dennis says. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, there were 1,755 farmers markets in the United States in 1994. Today, there are more than 7,800, with 164 of them in Indiana.
Marshall, who is program manager for the Food Entrepreneurship Engagement Program, says she’s seen the most growth from artisanal product makers—things like spices, jams and jellies, and dog food. A big part of that is because people can sell directly to the community at farmers markets, and the successful products can find homes in stores that cater to natural or artisanal items.
“You have a lot more places like Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s and restaurants that want these things. Then, there are Internet sales,” Marshall says.
Dennis says another big part of that growth is because of a new Indiana law, passed in 2009, that allows home processing of artisanal products.
“That had been prohibited, but now it allows people to make and sell their products at places like farmers markets,” Dennis says. “Farmers markets are now as diverse as the communities they’re in, or as diverse as the local boards governing the farmers markets let them be.”
Bringing It Home
But at heart, people are still busy and thrive on convenience, and once-a-week markets open a few hours can’t serve the needs of everyone looking for local food.
Community-supported agriculture programs have helped fill the void for some. Those programs allow consumers to sign up with a farm for a share of a year’s harvest, with their portion delivered to their home or available to be picked up.
The drawback, some say, is that the buyers get only what’s in season at the time—sometimes leaving them with items they don’t want or they’ve never heard of.
That’s spawned food hubs, a sort of hybridization of CSAs and farmers markets.
The idea is that consumers can see, sometimes online, what participating farms have to offer each week and order what they want. The farmers drop off what’s been ordered to a central location where it’s divvied up, and the buyers pick up their produce each week.
“Consumers really want convenience, and they’re not going to drive all over the country to source some of their food. Some consumers do not find farmers markets convenient due to limited hours and locations. With already busy schedules they may be unwilling or simply unable to take the time attend a traditional farmers market venue to source a portion of their family’s food,” says Roy Ballard, a Purdue Extension educator in Hancock County who chairs a committee setting up a food hub for central Indiana this spring. “Food hubs are a way for farmers to reach markets together that they couldn’t have reached individually.”
Dennis says food hubs are bright spots in the local food movement’s future, especially for growers.
“The small farmer, by definition, has a problem with transportation and logistics. Hubs give them better access and a better point of distribution,” Dennis says. “Those small farms that are innovative and efficient, that look at farmers markets, food hubs and cooperatives, will do well.”
Hubs could also help restaurants purchase more local foods. A 2013 National Restaurant Association survey of restaurant chefs asked for the hottest trends in food for 2013. The top two answers—mentioned by more than 80 percent of the chefs—were locally sourced meats and seafood, and locally sourced produce.
Megan Hutchison says she’s seen an increase in interest from restaurants in the Bloomington area for local foods. Hutchison manages the Local Growers Guild, a cooperative of farmers, retailers and community members dedicated to supporting the area’s local food economy.
But restaurants have a hard time getting those local foods.
“There’s another tier of restaurants that would like to buy locally if it was convenient for them,” Hutchison says. “That’s where I see food hubs really helping.”
Cutting the Confusion
One pitfall consumers should avoid is confusing organic and local foods.
“They’re not mutually exclusive, but they’re not necessarily the same thing, either,” Maria Marshall says. Even small farms might use pesticides and herbicides. Consumers who want to be sure that products are organic should look for the USDA organic label.
“Some local growers may use organic techniques or call their food natural, but the only way to know if it’s organic is to ask,” Marshall says.
Still, the demand for organic and local food is growing, and the Purdue experts don’t see that subsiding anytime soon.
“We’re still in the growth stage. We’re not mature yet,” Dennis says. “People are really trying to take charge of what they’re eating. Most of the foods sold at farmers markets, CSAs and food hubs will be a part of that because by their very nature—as mostly fruits and vegetables—they’re what people are looking for.”
Purdue's Organic Land Will Help Local Farmers
By Amanda Gee
Not all local food is organic, but a number of farmers are looking to return to more natural growing practices.
And now Purdue Extension specialists can focus some of their research on organically grown crops. Ten acres at Meigs Farm, part of the Throckmorton Purdue Agricultural Center south of the West Lafayette campus, received organic certification last October.
Steve Hallett, weed specialist, says Purdue scientists are working to provide a link between the community and small farmers to the teaching and research areas of campus.
“Meigs is an important component of the developing organic and local effort that we’re trying to pull together,” Hallett says.
Janna Beckerman, plant pathologist, says local communities are requesting more information on growing techniques. “There’s a resurgence in raising your own food and small-acreage farming in an urban locale,” she says.
With certified organic land, Purdue specialists can continue to help farmers and the public with information about agricultural practices.
“We empower people to make their own decisions,” Beckerman says. “We’re working with specialty crop growers and providing information to them so their crops are as good as they can make them.”
Lori Hoagland, specialty crop production systems specialist, will use the organic plot to breed new vegetable varieties uniquely adapted to organic farming systems.
“We are selecting new varieties of tomatoes and carrots that will have agronomic and market traits—flavor, color and nutritional value—needed to improve productivity and profitability in organic and low-input systems,” Hoagland says.
Kevin Gibson, weed ecologist and lead on Meigs’ path to organic certification, says the organic plot will help with Purdue research projects on topics such as pest management, crop rotations and the use of cover crops.
"We want to be on the same playing field as organic growers so our research will be more applicable,” Gibson says.