Op-Ed: When local food producers go big

Daily Hampshire Gazette. August 19, 2014. By Margaret Christie and Philip Korman.

But this is only a small part of the story. Hospitals, schools, colleges, nursing homes, restaurants and retailers are more interested in local sourcing, thanks to the increasing demand from local residents who recognize the many benefits of locally grown food.

These large buyers are important to our farmers, since direct sales to consumers — through outlets such as farmers’ markets, farm stands and CSAs — account for less than 10 percent of farm products sold in Massachusetts, according to the 2012 USDA Agricultural Census.

These markets are important to consumers, because the majority of food that Americans eat comes not direct from farmers but from supermarkets (27 percent), restaurants (34 percent), or warehouse or superstores (9 percent). Making locally grown food available through many outlets helps to ensure that all residents of our region can enjoy fresh and delicious local items.

Expanding access to local food in more places is also a key part of CISA’s goal to double the amount of local food in our diets to 25 percent over the next 20 years. It is the next logical step in CISA’s Local Hero campaign, launched 15 years ago. Grocery stores, ranging in size from Serio’s, Armata’s Market and Randall’s Farm to Big Y stores in Amherst, Easthampton, Greenfield and Northampton, are active members. The Local Hero program provides a convenient way to let consumers know that a product is locally grown and provides training and support for both farmers and buyers.

Large buyers can offer farmers a reliable market and a way to move a lot of product efficiently. Some farm businesses specialize in a few products, building their farm equipment, systems and expertise to grow, harvest, and sell these crops, while selling to traditional and natural food supermarkets, brokers, or the Boston produce market.

Other farmers produce a wide diversity of crops. They may sell primarily through farmers’ markets or CSAs, but also provide products to retailers or restaurants. A mix of markets adds stability to a farm business, and makes it easier to sell surplus product in good years.

The connection between local farms and large buyers, however, is not always easy and takes time. Large buyers are often accustomed to dealing with a few vendors who can supply all the products they need year round.

And growers, in order to successfully sell to large buyers, may need to implement new sorting, packing, invoicing, or delivery systems. There can also be a big risk for farms that are too reliant on any one large buyer, such as the decreased sales caused by a family feud in the Market Basket chain.

Pressures that come from outside our local economy can also make these local market relationships difficult. Global food prices or large buyers responding to national food scares by implementing costly and inappropriate food safety protocols can impact farmers, farmworkers and the environment here and abroad.

Good communication and a mutual commitment to making it work are essential ingredients to building successful relationships between a local farmer and large buyer.

Often though, even more is needed, perhaps an investment of time and dollars on the part of the buyer, such as Whole Foods Market’s local producer loan program or River Valley Market’s plan to increase its local purchases from 30 percent ($4 million this past year) to 50 percent of total purchases.

Yet the strongest driving force in the growth of the local food economy and the increasing desire of large buyers to purchase from our local farmers, is the community — you and me!

It doesn’t take much to influence the buying practices of even a large supermarket chain or your local hospital. Next time you are in a supermarket searching for local products, ask the manager what they have that is local and buy it.

But don’t stop there.

Ask the market to carry other local items such as apples, honey, meats, cheeses or specialty products like jams and pickles. You can do this in all the places you and your family shop and eat — groceries, restaurants, cafeterias, colleges, or hospitals.

Together, we can work to grow a local food economy that is not only resilient in the face of global uncertainty but represents our values of connecting to our neighbors and ensuring a stronger community.

Margaret Christie is special projects director for Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture (CISA) and Philip Korman is its executive director.