The following story was written by University of Missouri students as part of the 2010 Sonja Hillgren/Farm Journal Ag Journalism Field Reporting Institute. Learn more.
By Eric Dundon and Amanda Bromwich
From afar, it looks like a caravan. Dozens of white tents shelter last night’s pickings of green beans, apples and squash from the whipping wind of mid-October. Children chase each other in an adjacent field. Fiddle music fills the air. Old friends meet in the walkway, chatting about the day’s finds.
All in the name of local food.
Jeanette Gieringer, a produce farmer from Saline County, knows this day well: Saturday at the Columbia Farmers’ Market. Last year (2010) marked the 30th year of the market. Over the past seven years, Gieringer has noticed an increase in customer interest in the market.
The Columbia Farmers’ Market serves as a prime example of how the local food movement has gained momentum in recent years. That momentum shows no sign of stalling, she said.
For decades, local foods took a backseat to other methods of food production, which was characterized more by convenience, less on the nutrition and taste of food. Mary Hendrickson, an associate professor of rural sociology at University of Missouri Extension, compared the attitude toward food to a television show.
"If you think about the Jetsons in the fifties and sixties, ‘oh, push a button, here’s our food," she said.
That instant meal mentality caught up to the food system in the 1980s and 1990s when food began losing taste, some experts said. For example, until the 1990s, producers bred red delicious apples for shipping in mass quantities. When consumers noticed the apples’ taste became compromised, producers began to breed other varieties more focused on taste, like the honeycrisp apple, Hendrickson said.
Taste is one reason Suzanne Spees bought produce from the Coyote Farm and Home Market in Ashland. Trust is another.
"Why wouldn’t I want to make a purchase from a family enterprise and a family endeavor? Why wouldn’t I want to do that, versus some non-descript, corporate conglomerate? Here’s a face," she said, pointing toward Joanne Nelson, the vendor. "Here’s a family. Here’s a pickle. Here’s dirt. It’s real."
Nelson echoed Spees’ sentiment.
"You know us, you can come up to the farm anytime, you can see us and talk to us instead of guessing," she said, sitting on the rear bumper of the van she uses to bring various DanJo Farms products to market.
The value of supporting local food is one reason Walmart released new "global sustainable agriculture goals." According to an Oct. 14 press release, Walmart will begin "selling $1 billion in food sources from 1 million small to medium farms."
Walmart also planned to double the amount of local food sold in its stores.
Other grocery stores have taken notice. Schnucks has a special section for locally grown foods, while HyVee touts its "employee owned" status. Clover’s Natural Market, a local organic grocery store, opened in 1965 and has expanded to two locations.
|A box of fresh apples sits outside Ole Tyme Produce Inc. at Produce Row in St. Louis.
PHOTO: Amanda Bromwich
Even large food distributors recognize the power of the local food movement. Joan Daleo owns Old Tyme Produce Inc., a shipping company on Produce Row in St. Louis. She views the longevity of the local food movement from a national perspective.
"The biggest growers and shippers in California are moving operations to New York, to Michigan, to Texas, to Florida — all these places where they can actually be local," she said.
Hendrickson warned against the appearance of localization.
"When a Walmart enters [the local food market] or Dole says that they’re going to start producing locally — well, they mean on their terms and with their practices," she said. If large corporations fail to adjust attitudes and practices toward local farmers, eaters and the ecosystem, the food system won’t change, Hendrickson said.
"It’s going to come back to the small guy," said Dan Nelson, owner of DanJo Farms.
DanJo Farms is far-removed from the large food distribution centers of California and New York. Located off of Highway 63 south of Moberly, Mo., DanJo Farms appears insignificant in an area dominated by acres of corn and soybean fields. Visitors won’t find combines combing the field. Instead, four dogs roam the yard, eyeing Jake, an ornery turkey. A small, diversified farm, DanJo does not fit the description of a classic commodity operation.
Nelson gestured around his kitchen, smells of fresh baked rye loaves and sweet rolls filling the air. Shelves of jams and jellies, deep freezers stuffed with turkeys and pork fill the barn behind the house.
Nelson, a chef by trade, and his wife Joanne operate the largest Community Supported Agriculture, or CSA, program in mid-Missouri. The diverse field of produce goes for sale at local farmer’s markets and their small country store.
"It all starts at a farm," he said. "Grocery stores look at farmers to see what we’re doing."
One of Nelson’s most lucrative endeavors is CSA farming. CSA customers pay for a "share," and in turn the farmer provides weekly fresh products, ranging from vegetables to meats, eggs and baked goods.
When Nelson added a CSA farmshare to his business in 2006, it started with 11 families and a produce-only summer share. Over the next two years, the number of families participating rose to 46. With the addition of optional shares of meat, baked goods, eggs and berries, 118 families participated in the 2010 season.
This year, Nelson is introducing his first winter CSA, planting spinach, carrots, greens and other products in 6-foot-tall hoop houses to extend his growing season— and his success.
The Nelsons see hope for local food, but others see negative aspects to the movement. Skeptics make the case that backyard farming cannot feed the world. Ray Massey, an agricultural economics professor at MU, explained another argument.
"The economic argument that’s being made is that trade is not good and that we don’t need to be trading with California or Chile," he said.
He pointed to economic efficiency. Small farmers in Missouri choose to spend money on greenhouses, when California is a natural greenhouse.
Nelson says his goal is to remain small to avoid corporate practices, because of his customers’ trust.
"We’re on a first name basis," he said.
He recalled the time a customer told him, "‘Dan, I trust you to do this.’"
Produce farmer Gieringer also places special emphasis on trust and the "know your farmer" mentality.
Customer Spees agrees.
"These people work very, very hard for these products and they’re natural," she said. "It sounds dopey and corny, but that’s what it’s all about."
Natural products keep customers coming back to Gieringer’s stand at the farmers’ market.
"Most of my customers are people that are health conscious," Gieringer said, holding up a string bean. "It’s something they do every day. It’s a life choice they made, it’s not a fad."
Local food movement advocates point to reasons beside taste or purity of local food for why the movement is here to stay.
"There are a lot of disparate forces saying this is really important," Hendrickson said. "You have evangelical Christians who are really interested in pure food. You have people who would be extremely liberal interested in local food."
Even people not associated with local food have taken note of the movement’s potential to help in situations ranging from national security threats to pandemics.
"The first thing to go during the Spanish Flu outbreak in 1918 was transportation," Hendrickson said. "Our food system is extremely dependent on transportation. Do we have the resources in place for communities to feed themselves?"
Until that question is answered, Dan Nelson will keep packing yellow squash into CSA shares. Jeanette Gieringer will keep bringing beans and peppers from Saline County to Boone County. And farmers’ markets will continue to bustle with activity on Saturday mornings.