Why Local Matters More Than Organic

On Reclaiming Agriculture in the Community

Article and photos by Marty Brodsky

Scot Anderson hung up his suit for good, traded in his polished wingtips for a pair of boots and left financial planning to run a grass-fed cattle operation.

“When I worked in finance, the money went towards living this lifestyle on the side,” he says, pouring a glass of raw milk in his kitchen. “So I quit the job.”

These days, Scot prefers to grass-finish cattle himself and sell it direct to the community. At one point, conventional wisdom said it was best to sell the yearlings at auction and leave the finishing to a commercial feedlot. But this way, when the meat sells, buyers shake hands with the man who raised it, keeping the 140-year-old ranch alive for another season. At one point, conventional wisdom said it was best to sell the yearlings at auction and leave the finishing to a commercial feedlot.

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This isn’t typical most of the food we eat, and nearly all that’s on supermarket shelves, comes from well beyond our local foodshed—the unique region surrounding each town and city from which it can sustainably get its food. The crux of the local food movement is figuring out how we can eat within the confines of this seemingly limited space.

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Much of the conversation surrounding “local” has gotten caught up in the organic food movement. The two are similar, but the green-washed world of modern advertising has glossed over the fact that their objectives are in fact quite different. “Organic” centers on the food itself, using no chemical fertilizers or synthetic pesticides, but can still be produced on an industrial scale and shipped out long distances. “Local,” on the other hand, reworks the entire system of production, from the ground up. A lot has been said of health and environmental benefits pertaining to both, but the local movement has an added economic benefit that often gets overlooked.

Stories out of Greece in the last few years show citizens returning to the farmland, reversing a trend of city-bound migration typical of the last half century. For Greeks, the lack of urban opportunity has illuminated possibilities of rural endeavor: a rediscovery of self-sufficient, small-scale alternatives to the institutionalized systems that have failed. The successes of their newfound economy bring to light a system that can revitalize commerce locally and sustainably.

That’s a new conversation, and in our own debt-ridden society, one that’s sure to perk some ears. As Michael Brownlee, co-founder of Local Food Shift, says, “the infrastructure of the local food system must be rebuilt entirely.” Entrepreneurs take note: at every step of the process, from production to consumption, exists a niche for innovation.

“We’ve lost our food sovereignty. This movement aims to reclaim it,” Brownlee tells me in his office. With a fundable business plan and an investment group, his model focuses on building a parallel system to conventional, industrial agriculture, creating pathways for small businesses and individuals to make a difference.

Documentaries like “Food, Inc.” bring to the surface certain realities of modern agribusiness that result from a focus on quantity over quality, reminiscent of Chicago’s meat packing district at the turn of the 20th century, as muckraked by Upton Sinclair. That these two ages are even similar may be alarming. However, it’s awfully convenient to have summer fruits and vegetables throughout the winter.

In the dormant off-season, the prospect of eating local seems buried beneath the snow-covered ground. Save a few year-round farmers’ markets, most shutter their doors until the spring thaw. And while farm-to-table restaurants serve winter crops that do get harvested, they’re often surrounded by an air of luxury, with price-points to match.

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High costs stand as one of the biggest hurdles local needs to clear before being accepted by the mainstream. Fortunately, if we can build the system to support it, costs will go down. But the root cause is the devaluation of food in our society. “We live in a culture in which we expect low food prices,” says Lindsay Thomas, constant farmer and local food activist. In reality, it takes much more than $0.99 to bring a hamburger from the field to the table. However, these costs are hidden, subsidized, and forgotten.

The difficulties currently associated with local food belie the most important aspect of the entire movement: community. Put simply, local food production brings people together, forming the foundation for success.

If you’ve ever bought anything at a farmers’ market—seen the pride and passion of the grower selling a tomato that she grew from seed—then you know. When a seasoned gardener shares advice with a budding green-thumb, bonds are formed with food as the basis. With a strong community, the solutions needed to create a viable, year-round, local food production system become attainable.

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Mike MacKinnon runs Frog Belly Farm in Longmont, Colo. As we walk around on a cold January day, by empty raised beds dusted with lingering snow, I discover the possibilities. We reach his hoop house and inside rows of healthy green vegetables rise up from the soil.

Throughout the summer, the farm sells shares of produce through a CSA—community supported agriculture—which allows locals to receive weekly crates of fresh fruits and vegetables. Along with a raw goat milk program, the people who buy direct from the farm give MacKinnon his most meaningful support. They prove that what he’s doing is important. Buying a CSA lets farmers know they’re wanted—needed—and if enough demand is there, the harvest can last year-round.

But it begins with the individual. Something as small as growing herbs on the windowsill creates a connection that begins the transformation, which only builds from there. Home gardens have long been a part of the American household, peaking during World War II in the era of Victory Gardens, when it was a civic duty for citizens to grow gardens to reduce pressure on the public food supply. But, with making food comes the uncertainty of planting a seed without knowing if it will rise up from the soil.

Although the process can be intimidating, opportunities to learn abound. Many towns and cities support community gardens, small pockets of productive land built in public spaces and shared by many different gardeners, most of whom are quick to share their knowledge. When together the crop is harvested, tasted, and enjoyed, an appreciation of local—and a sense of community—truly sets in. The importance of keeping it local, pursuing quality over quantity, begins to make sense.
Only logistics determine whether or not local food growers will find their audience. “There’s a dire need of connectors to keep the local wheel churning,” says Vanessa Rathbone, of MM Local, a startup that helps to fill in the gap between producers and consumers.

A hard truth about farming is that produce tastes best when ripened on the vine; although, from there it quickly goes rotten. The two solutions for any farmer are pick it early or unload quickly. The first produces lesser quality foods; the second often fails due to inadequate sales channels.

MM Local solves this problem by buying surplus ripe produce from farmers, canning it in sleek mason jars, and stocking market shelves. The fruits and vegetables stay fresh for months, and in city markets they find a clientele that often has little contact with local producers. In addition to their retail sales, the company offers classes, open to the public, on canning and preserving foods, “giving people the tools to feel ownership over their food decisions.” That choice is truly what matters.
As of now, the infrastructure surrounding our food is rigged in favor of commercial agriculture. And so the question remains, how does the local food system compete?

Michael Brownlee puts it bluntly. “We don’t. And we don’t engage in debate.” For a grassroots movement, legal resources and political capital can be thin. So the solution comes by way of an old mantra: lead by example. We build our parallel system and let consumers decide—let the subversive power of free-market capitalism and democracy do its work—doing our best to bolster the conversation.

Take meat, for example. Buying it from local butchers provides the opportunity for ranchers like Scot Anderson to sell direct to the community. That butcher gets the business he needs to keep operations running, while bringing a passion for quality meat products to his neighborhood. That creates a transparent system, because the people involved at every step know one another. When you buy that steak you know it hasn’t come from a cow raised in the Amazon rainforest, where 100 million acres have been cut down to make pastureland in the last decade.

The local system allows people to examine their choices, preventing them from consenting unknowingly to practices they may or may not agree with. And when you know the person who grew your food it becomes much more than a dehumanized commodity on the supermarket shelf. It has a story; and that story is rooted in community. A healthy food ecosystem relies on the collaboration of many people, producing a marketplace based not on competition but on cooperation.

And that’s the difference local makes.

Mike MacKinnon sits around a big wooden table with his farmhands, serving up homegrown stew, talking, laughing. Soon the days will grow long, the vegetables will ripen, the goats will give milk, and the people will come. I ask him what he thinks is the best thing a person can do. He thinks it over, smiles, and says, “Just be good to your local farm.”