Tuesday, August 13, 2013

How to buy GREAT tasting LOCAL produce, for less :-)

As a gardener since I was knee-high, and as a Market Gardener for more years than I care to count, I forget that many people do NOT have that connection to growing your own foods.

Agriculture is big business.  After all.... people need to eat, and they need and demand a consistent source of a wide variety of food!  So thousands of small farms decades ago merged into mega farms that can provide food for Americans (and export) at incredibly low prices compared to many places in the world.  Even organic food production is becoming big business, either on mega farms, or with central packaging combining produce from many farms.

But the mega business model can also lead to mega outbreaks of disease carried on produce, a lowering of produce quality (think shipped tomato versus local garden), ambiguous labeling (think 'all natural') and a need to focus on less variety variation (ie - one type of bean) for more efficient harvest, processing and packaging.  If a store is a distance from the packaging plant... add in the cost and use of fossil fuels for transporting.... versus getting produce from a local farm/garden.

In most areas of the US, "little" farmers still produce.  :-)  You can find their produce in local stores committed to supporting local farmers.  You can also find them through ads and farmer's markets.  The more support for local farmers, the more people who will WANT to "grow extra", leading to more local farmers.  Transportation use and costs are reduced.  For example, I farm over 1/2 acre with once/year rental of a tractor with a rototiller.  Some minimal small rototiller use is done, as well as maybe 3 mowings a summer of a green manure crop planted for crop rotation purposes.  Electricity for well water is used, as needed.  My wholesale market is 8.5 miles away.  That's it.  Everything else is hand labor.

And because of the smaller farm size, and hands on labor... troubles are usually noticed sooner and dealt with.  Accidental contamination issues may still happen, but chances are they are quickly noticed and taken care of... with any affected produce composted.  After all... what local farmer wants to invite liability to their very own farm?

So how does supporting your local farmer help you??

1.  Shop local farmer's markets.  The produce has usually been harvested within the previous 24 hours, and prices are usually less than store retail for the same exact produce.  DO expect to pay more than big box store price for good, local produce.  The taste, freshness, and nutrient differences are worth it  :-).

2.  Ask questions!  After talking to plants all week... most market gardeners like to talk  ;-D.  If they are "Certified Organic", most of your questions have already been asked for you  :-).  You can trust the label.

If you want organic.... ask the non-certified grower what fertilizers were used?  What pesticides?  What their source of water is?  Do they use any treated seeds?  Organic seeds?  Under the USDA regulations, only farms that will gross (not net) under $5000 in a year are allowed to call themselves "organic", or else they must be Certified Organic.  But many farms out there (raising my own hand) either used to be Certified Organic before costs and paperwork escalated, and/or still grow according to organic standards.  They'll go by names such as "local sustainable", "chem free", etc.  So ask away.... YOU are the "inspector" in such cases.

And no... Miracle Gro is NOT organic.  And yes... fully composted animal manure is perfectly awesome for produce... not gross.  ;-D

Get to know your local growers.  Then support the ones that grow to your own values, or better  :-).

3.  If a grower's growing methods meet your standards, ask about other purchasing options.  Do they allow pick-your-own?  Do they give a discount for bulk purchases?  A discount for produce picked up at the farm?

But please DO EXPECT to pay more for their produce than the mega-farm produce sold in your local box store!  As a grower... I'd love to be able to say I make minimum wage at my job.  But the reality is.......... rising seed costs, rising supply costs, rising electricity costs (to run the well), expensive pesticide solutions when the unexpected happens (like $72 for a shipment of predator bugs to wage war on a first time spider mite explosion in my hoophouse this year), and good ole mother nature's erratic hits (hail, drought, smoke from forest fires reducing the sunlight, early or late frosts, high winds, you name it).... all lower my net profit.... a lot.   Harvest time is not the only "work time" involved in that tomato you're about to enjoy.  There's also fall cleanup, winter planning, spring planting and weeding, and summer weeding, watering, pest control, and more weeding.  If Market Gardening is a farmer's sole income, they need to be paying for health insurance out of any profit also... there's no boss paying benefits (or vacation time!) for them.

4.  Does the local farm sell their Grade B produce?  (the not-so-perfect ones).  

Here is an example of our own market garden's grade A (bottom) and grade B Burpless Cucumbers.  Grade A goes to the local Community Food Coop.  Grade B goes into our family's meals, or is wholesaled to a kitchen, or is dropped off at the local Food Bank.  Hopefully only rejected foods, that we wouldn't eat either, are composted or are fed to our llamas.

This option will depend on YOUR tolerance, and understanding, of what is not-so-perfect.  We once had a lovely lady want strawberry culls for jamming.  But then she complained that some of the cull berries were underripe!  We steered her to ripe-to-overripe, sorted, strawberries at regular wholesale prices, since she was a volume buyer.  Happy customer, happy farmer  :-).

5.  And lastly, if a local grocery store or natural foods store is supporting local farmers by buying and displaying their produce.... please do realize the grower is likely only getting about 60% of retail price? The store has tons of overhead costs, like employee wages and benefits, utilities, advertising, shelf space preventing them from selling something else instead, and loss if the produce doesn't sell... since they're ripe and won't keep long.  So if the mega-farm strawberries are $3/pint sitting right next to the local, just picked strawberries for $4/pint....do consider supporting your local farmer (and the store supporting them), while enjoying better, fresher flavor?  And if you want to purchase multiples/bulk of an item... do ask the produce manager if a bulk discount is available?

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