It’s a cool morning at Bio-Way Farm, a small certified organic operation in Ware Shoals. Chris Sermons, the farm’s owner, instructs his new helpers how to properly pick the produce they’ll be harvesting and selling that day. “You want to loosen the carrots like this before you pull them, or they’ll snap off in the ground,” he says as he demonstrates.
Sermons’ helpers are participants in the Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms program. Often referred to as WWOOFers, they perform short internships on organic farms around the country or even the world, learning on the job before eventually taking full-time paid positions or starting their own organic farms.
On this morning, the team is harvesting Nantes carrots, an heirloom French carrot originally bred in the late 1800s and revered for its flavor. Chefs also love it because rather than tapering from large to small, the roots are a uniform width all the way from top to bottom.
A short while later, coolers are stuffed full of a diverse and colorful selection of carrots and seasonal greens that were — until a few hours ago — still pulling moisture and nutrition from the rich, living soil on Sermons’ farm.
“Good soil is the foundation of organic farming,” Sermons says. “It’s what grows healthy plants and helps give my produce a better flavor.” Recent research supports this oft-heard claim, showing that organic food is more nutritionally dense than conventional food and that soil on organic farms around the U.S. has much higher soil organic matter and carbon sequestration capacity.
The coolers are loaded into Sermons’ truck and are soon making their way toward nearby restaurants. First stop: Stella’s Southern Bistro in Simpsonville and Stella’s Southern Brasserie in Greenville, whose menus boast local produce and meats.
Jason Scholz, Stella’s owner and chef, greets Sermons in the kitchen and checks off the items that he ordered by email earlier in the week. The two have worked together for more than a decade, ever since Scholz worked at High Cotton and was looking for area farmers from whom to buy local produce.
“Throughout my career, I always worked in kitchens where using local food was as natural as breathing. When I moved here in 2007, it was hard to find anyone selling local produce. Chris was pretty much the only game in town,” Scholz says.
After getting his check, Sermons continues to a handful of other upscale restaurants in the Greenville area, but his carrots’ journey is nearly complete.
That evening, Scholz and his team work magic on the carrots, transforming them into carrot souffle, carrot soup, carrot pudding, and other delicacies. Each dish is beautifully plated and whisked out to the restaurant’s patrons, where it’s happily received.
Although this local farm-to-table story no doubt stirs your appetite, it’s hardly representative of where most of the food in restaurants and grocery stores throughout the Upstate comes from. Despite the increasing popularity and success of the now decades-old “local food movement” both here and across the nation, very little of what a person typically eats is produced by local farmers.
Instead, most Americans get the majority of their calories from cheap, highly processed foods. Sodas, fast food, and TV dinners are derived from soybeans, corn, and various commodity crops grown on huge farms hundreds or thousands of miles away – farms that bear little resemblance to operations like Sermons’ Bio-Way Farm. Raw products from those farms then go through a string of middlemen and processors before making their way into either the middle aisles of a grocery store, a fast-food restaurant, animal feed, or ethanol fuel.
The results of this food system? On average, U.S. citizens spend less on food per capita at the cash register than any other country in the world – which is exactly what the system was designed to deliver. As Richard Nixon’s secretary of agriculture, Earl Butz, famously told U.S. farmers in the 1970s, “Get big or get out.”
Between then and today, despite a general population increase from 205 million to 323 million, the number of U.S. farms has dropped from about 3 million to 2 million. The primary strategy for making a profit when you have little control over input costs and no control over the final market value of your product is to get even more acreage under management (a farm netting $10 per acre per year can operate only if it has lots of acreage, lots of subsidies, or both).
Our ability to produce cheap food comes at a high price. As the Organization for Economic Development (OECD) reported in 2017, the U.S. now has the most overweight population in the world, with 38.2 percent of adults obese and nearly 75 percent of the population falling into the “overweight or obese” category. Preventable diet-related diseases such as heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, and many types of cancer are also rampant. The Center for Science in the Public Interest estimates that preventable diet-related diseases and illnesses cause close to 700,000 premature deaths each year and may cost us close to $1 trillion annually. This health crisis is also one of many factors contributing to the U.S. having the highest per capita health-care costs in the world.
Can the local food movement reverse these trends? The answer is unclear, and is debated by economists, sociologists, policy makers, and farmers alike.
In an ideal world, everyone — regardless of socioeconomic status — would have access to fresh, minimally processed, local, organic foods. However, doing so would require a societal transformation that is unlikely to happen overnight.
For decades, subsidies, research and development funding, and public policy have focused on building the food system we currently have, not one focused on supporting smaller, local farms growing diversified specialty crops and animals raised outdoors on pasture. As such, it’s largely the affluent who can afford such high-quality foods from local farms.
Many point out that poor and minority populations in the Upstate and beyond often live in “food deserts” where the only place to buy food nearby is a gas station or convenience store. Not to mention, even if fresh food were available, cooking is largely a folk art in 2018, a practice few have the knowledge, time, or tools to do.
Driving to Swamp Rabbit Cafe & Grocery to get groceries or a meal isn’t a viable option when you don’t have a vehicle and have to take public transportation to work two minimum-wage jobs just to make ends meet. These realities are especially problematic for children who develop flavor preferences and eating habits very early in life – patterns that will impact both their long-term health and their school and career performance. (Any teacher will tell you that a hungry child or a child who has had a soda for breakfast is not going to perform optimally in the classroom.)
Farmers like Chris Sermons recognize these systemic problems but are largely helpless to do much about it — they have to earn a profit, and doing so requires them to sell their produce to the highest bidder.
Thankfully, there are positive trends that provide a ray of hope. As the demand for local and organic produce increases, private investment and public policy are slowly working in lockstep to develop better food options that are more accessible to everyone.
Two decades ago, unless you were a gardener, getting local or organic food in the Upstate was virtually impossible. Now, there are multiple weekend and weekday farmers markets. You can buy CSA (community supported agriculture) shares from local farmers, paying them up front for produce that will be harvested and delivered throughout the season. Chefs and restaurant owners recognize that the higher quality of fresh local produce combined with consumer demand means they also need to offer local food on their menus to stay competitive. Grocery stores, schools, and hospitals are also sourcing from local farmers. Feed & Seed is scheduled to open later this year, becoming the area’s first “food hub,” a critical piece of infrastructure that aggregates, markets, and distributes local farmers’ produce to local and regional institutional buyers, wholesalers, and retailers. (Grow Food Carolina, based in Charleston, is the Lowcountry’s food hub.) This will allow Upstate farmers who partner with Feed & Seed to focus solely on production rather than also having to handle marketing and sales.
Scholz’s experience is indicative of what’s happening in the Upstate: “In 2007, I was begging people to bring local produce to us. Now, I have to tell these newer local farmers, ‘No, I’m already in a committed vegetable relationship.’”
These encouraging local trends are also happening in virtually every urban center around the United States. Studies on the impact of local food systems generally show positive effects for local economies: Rather than money leaving the area and going to support nonlocal farmers, brokers, wholesalers, and corporate shareholders in an increasingly centralized and consolidated system, the dollars are kept circulating in the local economy. This translates to more local jobs, higher incomes, more local investment, and healthier food options. If these local farms are also certified organic or sustainability-minded, there are also a host of ecosystem service benefits to boot (cleaner water and air, low/no pesticide contamination, etc.).
In an increasingly polarized political climate, local food might just be one issue that we can all unite behind. Whether you’re a hipster looking for an unforgettable dinner for an Instagram post or a weather-worn farmer looking for a market that will value generations-old family heirloom produce, the local food movement provides a beneficial solution.
However, the challenge for all participants in this growing movement won’t be how to get quality food into the hands of those who can currently access and afford it, but how to ensure that underserved demographics can enjoy the economic and health benefits of local food, as well. The seeds to that future are being planted today, but there’s still much work to be done.
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CONSUMER CONFUSION: LOCAL? ORGANIC?
To be labeled “certified organic,” a farm or product must adhere to strict federal guidelines under the USDA’s National Organic Program, and participants are inspected annually by third-party agencies to verify program compliance (Clemson’s Department of Plant Industry serves this role locally).
When it comes to the term “local,” there are no universally applicable definitions or enforcement agencies to certify label claims. (The same is true of the label “SC Grown.”) The 2008 Food, Conservation, and Energy Act passed by Congress defines “local” as food that doesn’t travel more than 400 miles from farm to consumer, but the act did not contain any enforcement criteria, which has led to widespread label abuse (foods from other states and regions being labeled as “local”).
As such, some states have stepped in with their own “local” definitions and regulations. For instance, Vermont requires that local-labeled items originate within 30 miles of the point of sale. Adding more confusion, individual companies like Whole Foods and Walmart also have their own definitions of local: a seven-hour drive from the store, or produced within the state where the store is located, respectively.
Local is a spectrum. The less distance a product travels from its point of origin to its point of purchase, the more local it is. Despite consumer confusion, local doesn’t necessarily mean organic, as local farmers can still use conventional, synthetic pesticides and fertilizers prohibited on certified organic farms.
THE LOCAL FOOD TIMELINE
- 1970 – There are 340 farmers markets in the U.S.
- 1984 – The first CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) operation opens.
- 1990 – The number of CSAs in the U.S. grows to 60.
- 1994 – The number of U.S. farmers markets grows to 1,755.
- 1996 – First farm-to-school programs start in California and Florida.
- 2003 – TD Saturday Farmers Market opens in downtown Greenville.
- 2004 – The number of U.S. farmers markets grows to 3,706.
- 2005 – The number of CSAs in the U.S. grows to 1,046.
- 2006 – Hub City Farmers Market opens in Spartanburg.
- 2007 – Oxford’s Word of the Year is “locavore,” and the National Farm to School Network is established.
- 2008 – U.S. local food sales reach $5 billion.
- 2009 – 2,000 U.S. schools participating in farm-to-school program; 2,932 CSAs in U.S.
- 2011 – Swamp Rabbit Cafe & Grocery opens in Greenville
- 2014 – The number of U.S. farmers markets grows to 8,268.
- 2015 – U.S. local food sales reach $8.7 billion.
- 2015 – SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) redemptions at U.S. farmers markets increase to $19.4 million from $4.2 million in 2009.
By Aaron von Frank