What's Local?

Today I took a brief break with Farmer Jenny as we ran errands in town preparing for our new HOMEsweetFARM Market in downtown Brenham which will be open in roughly 6 weeks.... oohhhh the pressure!  Not only are we busy planting for the spring, recruiting 2013 CSA Members and remodeling an old building... we still have children to raise (our most important crop).  Fortunately, the whole family is excited about our new venture and we love working together.

Know Your Local Farmer
As Farmer Jenny and I sat eating a late lunch, at a restaurant overlooking hwy 290 (unfortunately it happens sometimes, but it was happy hour), we viewed a delivery truck from a popular "local food home delivery" company out of Austin heading west at 70 mph after (one would suppose) having a successful day of doing business in Houston.

Now that got me!  There it was, right in front of my face, bypassing my small town and other rural farmers throughout the Brazos Valley delivering "fresh local" produce from an Austin warehouse to Houston, conveniently dropped at your door.  Isn't that special?

For a while now, as small farmers, we have been growing more and more concerned about the integrity of Local Food.  Just like "organic" and "sustainable", what will it morph into?  100 miles, 250 miles, 500, statewide?  Consolidated local food from farmers 250 miles from a warehouse and then delivered another 150+ miles to your door?  As more corporations jump on the CSA trend, the entire integrity of our local food community is at risk.

The local food scene in Austin, TX has been turned upside-down over the last 5 years and we suspect Houston will soon follow the trend.  With multiple new farmers markets and consolidators providing convenient home delivery, the local market has been saturated for the small farmer.  Instead of being able to focus on one or two markets and having up to a 6 year CSA waiting list, farmers are forced to sell more volume at lower wholesale prices and encouraged to get bigger to make up for the lower sales margin.  Well establish CSAs are currently struggling to meet their goals for membership.  The dry bones of unsuccessful new farms are beginning to pile up as they fail to ever get properly established.  The whole local food scene was more profitable for the farmer in Austin 10 years ago as compared to today.  However, "CSA-like" home delivery companies are blossoming and driving fancy trucks like the one we saw today, bypassing our rural town.

It's obvious that the new corporate term, "CSA" (Community Supported Agriculture) no longer means what it used to.  No longer are individuals needed to make a personal commitment to a farmer when they can order week by week online.  Sharing the risks and bounty that comes with each season is not required.  No longer is it necessary to help out on the farm or to be involved with a community of individuals each week that understand the importance and deep necessity to preserve our agricultural heritage.  It really seems that we are becoming even less concerned about the miles that our food travels, or what it really means to be local.  Now with convenient home delivery of "local and sustainable" food, you don't even need to meet your farmer or even leave the driveway.

I think it is something to be concerned about.  What is local?

Farmer Brad
"We grow righteous food"
Brenham, TX


Anonymous said...

Researchers are still debating exactly what makes "organic" organic, and most farmers I talk to have a hazey understanding of what it really means. As long as consumers demand cheaper prices there will always be a middle-man or corporation willing to cut corners inorder to satisfy their customers. It seems like it will take something BIG for change to be realized. I think we have already started this process, but still have many fights to be fought. Some standardized widely accepted explict definitions would be a good start to some real change.

Eden's Gardener - Marie said...

I'm seeing it in Dallas, too, Brad. I think with 6millon + people, there's (hopefully) enough to go around, but it does water down the spirit of CSA for sure. These re-sellers do support mid sized farms who are able to grow 20 acres and get paid for 10's worth of their food (or so), but many of us small fry farmers can barely keep up with 3 or 4 and we can't afford to only get paid for half of our efforts. (most people do not realize that when we sell retail or wholesale, we make very little of the % of the $ versus when we sell directly to our customers via a market or CSA).

I would like to think that those who buy via a buying club/on line co op would not otherwise be a CSA customer - and have actually had conversation with the owner of one such company who says in surveys with their customers, that is the case for the most part. They're not really taking any of our customers - but by offering yet another option, they're not helping our cause either.

It's frustrating all around - everyone needs to make a living. And so far, we're still in a relatively 'free' country.

I don't have an issue with local meaning the coast for things we're unable to grow up in N. Texas, nor do I have an issue with a bordering state bringing in something to a market to fill a gap (if there is one). But I don't like to see the little guys pushed out of markets b/c of bigger, lower priced groups coming in, which is large and part why I started my on farm market; for other small, local farms who can't compete with the undercutting of prices at the larger markets.

It's up to us to keep telling the story of the farmer - and our customers to re-tell of their experiences in getting their food directly from the hands that grow it. It's a priceless experience for me as a grower - I can tell you that - but to get the food day of picking, is even tastier/fresher than week old from a fancy box truck - even if you have no desire to meet the farmer who grew it.

Farm on, Brad!!

Anonymous said...

What is special is the way "community" has changed. It used to be we were part of the same community if we have shaken hands and we introduced each other to our families. Then we would find out if you had a product or service you could offer in trade for the surplus of food I have produced on my small farm. As a very last resort, we would talk about money, though none of us really trust money and want to exchange it for a good or service as quickly as possible, before its value changes thru inflation or deflation. Money does not come from any community...it comes from the outside and is controlled by unknowns. I'd rather have your help at harvest or painting my house.

In the "community" we have now-a-days, a hand is never shaken, families never meet, and the product of a man's labor is not measured or offered. It is all about the exchange of money. I think it is called Capitalism and it is market driven. Agrarian capitalism was there for a while many years ago and we often try to reclaim it, but the urban concentration with its money-for-labor focus pushed it out of the way in a feverous quest for full-fledged and wide open Capitalism.

The truck you saw was Capitalism at its finest, without any community to confuse or distract from the efforts of market competition and the final goal. Not local food. Not real food. Not sustainability or stewardship. MONEY.

But what do I know? I've been wrong before.

Farmer Brad said...

Right on Doug!

Bill said...

You're right. There is a danger that corporations and the industrial food complex will co-opt the local food movement, just as they are in the process of co-opting "organic" (if they haven't already). Some of the things that are passing themselves off as "local" are large conglomerates that buy food from many places then aggregate it for major markets (at farmers' market prices). Folks are getting mislead and truly local sustainable farms are being squeezed. Thanks for drawing attention to this!

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