Friday, December 22, 2006

When is Local not Really Local?

Stone Ridge Orchard is by default local. Trends by consumers and trade buyers to focus on and feature locally grown produce are powerful allies in our daily missive to get more of our products to the people that really want them. So just about this time of year, as the seasons shift and people start buying other than local, I ask the question, “When is Local Not Really Local?” We’ve learned from the recent transmogrification of the organic industry that nothing is sacred. Local can be and is becoming an easily co-optable message. For example, a produce buyer for a large chain store recently stated to me that “Global is the new local.” That statement says a lot about how the produce industry at large views what should be inviolable. And that’s important because what shouldn’t be co-optable is the reality of Local, and that’s where we as local farmers and business people need to focus our marketing efforts: getting consumers to understand the reality of Local.

Now, by default most farms are located in some fairly rural areas, located a reasonable distance from the markets they need to serve to make a living. In our case those markets are the greater New York City area including southern Connecticut and northern New Jersey. Yes, we do ship to Boston and our products do find their way in the Maryland/DC area. So, can we—or better, should we—consider those areas local? Our definition of local is anything within a 6-hour drive from Stone Ridge, NY. If farmers, including us, depended on their local community to make a living, we’d all be broke. So, by our definition, the answer is yes.

But every day people say they want more of something else and they want it cheaper. We still battle daily with food grown in California, South America, and Canada. Why? Their crops are not necessarily grown any better than the way we grow our crops—we're heavily invested in the Integrated Pest Management and plan on transitioning to biodynamic next year. The farmers don't care about your local community to the same degree as we do—since we have a more direct connection with consumers in our region). Their food is not any safer—the recent food safety scares prove that point pretty definitively. Its not better for you—in fact, our crops are fresher and more nutritious than anything else in the market by virtue of the fact that they are grown locally. And its certainly not local. So what is going on? Well, there are three things going on: price, instant gratification, and seasonality.

The first, price, is something we can’t easily compete with or do anything about. Many corporate buyers know it, so they negotiate it as if we were talking about the same products, even though we aren't. Locally grown food is good food, not cheap food, and it provides so many benefits to local communities that we can barely even begin to calculate their value. Consumers are the only ones that can make a difference here in the way they make buying decisions.

The second issue that affects local buying trends is instant gratification. Here again the consumer is the only one that can make a difference. If people want strawberries in February, then there is going to be someone out there to get it to them. Consumers often focus on buying locally grown products only when they are “in season,” instead of looking to use them throughout the year. Many local products can be processed for use throughout the year, but we don’t do that much anymore. And others like apples store quite well for many months throughout the winter.

Second, as soon as the leaves are off the tree and snow starts to fly, people start thinking about citrus, Christmas, the New Year, almost anything but local produce. But the fact is that local is around us year long. Those vine ripe tomatoes may be gone, but local farms still have an immense amount to offer. Milk, eggs, apples, potatoes, cheese, and more are there for the asking. Unbeknownst to many consumers, local is accessible even in the middle of winter.

So, who doesn’t want to buy great produce at a good price and with some degree of instant gratification? But when these things come with hefty environmental and social price tags what then? And that's where the local comes in. As for us at Stone Ridge Orchard, we encourage consumers and trade buyers alike to buy as locally as possible. Think outside the box and look for local even in the dead of winter. Ask where your food comes from. Who grew it? Better yet, tell us how do you define local. In what ways does it matter to you and how you make purchasing decisions? Are open space, clean air, and good food worth the additional cost of buying locally grown farm products?

We want customers that want our products as much as we want them to have them. It benefits us all. Let us know what local means to you. Know your roots.

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Blogger Pyewacket said...

Thanks for a great article. I've been thinking about this very issue a lot lately. It seems there are two major issues - the logistical issue of a lack of local processing facilitiers, and the attitudinal issue on the part of consumers. Part of the fault for the latter actually does lie with the organic/local movement itself. We pushed so hard to get people to appreciate the freshness and seasonality of local food. It worked - but now people can't understand why they should be interested in an apple that's been in cold storage or a frozen blueberry or pickled cucumbers - or, more accurately, why they should want local versions of these things over non-local, since they aren't fresh.

10:35 AM  
Blogger zenmunchie said...

I, too, thank you for a good article. I live in Colorado and we do have a lot of good local produce/products available to us here. From peaches, apples, a GREAT local applesauce, wine and I'm sure even more(I am a transplant, so I discover more every day!). What I want to know is if "certified organic" really matters? From hand lotion to toaster pastries-I mean really? The whole organic movement leaves a bad taste in my mouth. I personally don't see local as a 'movement', just the logical choice. From your local florist, your local coffee shop, dog groomers...they fill your town and go to school with your kids, it only makes sense to patronize these businesses as opposed to the national chain available in your neighborhood. Anyways,if anyone has suggestions about where I can put out the fiery organic questions burnin' my brain you might be so kind as to contact me.

2:51 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If there are farms closer to the DC area (or any area 6 hours away)that produce the same products that you do, and they are of the same quality, then should you consider not shipping your products 6 hours away? Can your farm support you financially if you only serve the area surrounding you?

3:36 PM  
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