Local food movement expands to Wyo communities in farmers' markets, CSAs
Worland – According to Ted Craig in the Wyoming Department of Agriculture, the local food movement expands back 10,000 years to the beginning of cultivation.
“Local foods have been an exploding issue in the last 10 years,” said Craig at WESTI Ag Days, held in February. “It started slowly and has been growing rapidly ever since.”
Currently, the local foods movement constitutes almost one percent of total food sales, according to the USDA Census of Agriculture, a figure that Craig says is pretty significant.
“In order to understand local foods, we have to step back a bit,” he explained. “We’ve ben doing local food for a long, long time, and it is only recently that in the U.S. and North America, we have shifted away from it.”
History of local
Craig noted that in generations past, most people spent their lives growing food, but today, that number has diminished to about two percent of the population.
Over 10,000 years ago, when people first begin to cultivate crops and grow their own food, rather than hunt and gather, Craig noted that the development of grains marks the first local foods.
“When we fast forward into Roman times, they were one of the first civilizations to transport food,” he explained, noting that much of their food was still locally produced. “Grains for wheat and wines, however, were shipped in.”
Because of the extensive system of roads, as well as their ability to conquer lands, Craig said that Romans could afford to transport the tribute from conquered peoples to large cities.
“They became very, very dependent on Egypt, Tunisia and North Africa for their wheat,” he explained.
Moving into the Middle Ages, Craig noted that people still had to be self sufficient, and food was produced locally. However, in food production, they faced challenges from roaming invading populations.
“There was a long period of time where most of the agriculture in Europe was centered around small fiefdoms,” he said.
Continuing until the 1800s, Craig commented, “Eighty percent of Europeans were still involved in agriculture.”
Making a shift
As increasing in technology came, however, changes in food began to be seen.
“Food trade increased, and we saw some improved farming techniques,” he commented. “When we got to the Industrial Revolution, everyone started moving to the cities.”
Transportation provided a major influence in the shift away from local food production.
“We could transport things more quickly,” said Craig. “We could now get grain from the midwest and ship it to the east.”
However, the major shift was seen in the development of refrigeration.
“The big, big revolution that happened was refrigeration,” Craig explained. “That is what caused for the record expansion in production agriculture.”
As a result of refrigeration, things could be kept cool and shipped across the country.
“We could transport fresh foods, and they would stay fresh,” he explained, “and by the time 1940 rolled around, every American had a refrigerator, and local food production was less necessary for survival and day-to-day food acquisition.”
On top of transportation and refrigeration, Craig noted that cheap energy and a shift in farm policy also influenced the shift.
For a number of reasons, many people across the country have supported the local foods movement, said Craig.
“There are a lot of reasons that people do want local foods,” he commented. “Freshness, quality and support of the local economy are all reasons that no one can argue with.”
He also adds that local marketers are able to capture more of the value of their product.
“As a commodity producer, you get about 10 cents of the final retail dollar,” he explained. “Everything else goes to marketing, packaging and transportation.”
While labor is greater in local food production, Craig notes that less goes toward marketing, packaging and transportation, enabling producers to capture more profit.
While variety in locally grown foods tends to be less than food available in a grocery store, Craig noted that some additional variety can be seen in the genetics of locally grown produce.
“For example in apples, there are only a handful of varieties that we can get in the store from corporate farms,” he explained. “However, there are a lot of heirloom varieties out there.”
He continued that some varieties of fruits and vegetables do not store well, keeping them out of corporate markets, but they still offer benefits and can be obtained locally.
Some local food advocates mark reduced environmental impact as a reason for choosing local.
“Depending on which study you read, environmental impact is debatable,” he explained, “depending on how much actual travel costs are, but it is up for debate.”
He also noted that locally grown food preserves green space and farmlands, and stewardship is greater for local businesses than for multi-national corporations, typically.
Looking for local
According to USDA, local is within 400 miles, or purchased in the state where it was grown, but Craig notes that many people consider a 100-mile radius as local.
In response to growing demand for local foods, over 7,000 farmers' markets have sprung up around the nation, and community supported agriculture (CSA) operations are also springing up.
For producers looking to begin a local food market, Craig listed three recommendations.
“Producers have to let the consumer know who they are and what they are doing, they have to present the consumer with a reason why what they are doing is different, and they have to convince them to buy their product,” Craig said. “Producers have to differentiate themselves.”
“It is an interesting time right now,” he commented. “There is a lot of stuff going on with local foods.”
For more information on local foods in Wyoming, contact Agriculture Program Coordinator Ted Craig at 307-777-6651.