Local Food

Digging into the movement

by Natalie Berkman


The local food movement has grown immensely popular in the past 10 years and offers an alternative to the industrial agricultural system. While the movement is quite successful, it is not without its flaws. Instead of looking at the movement solely through outsider books, I will explore its successes and shortcomings through interviews with six small farmers as well as journal articles written by leading scholars in the movement.  

The objective of today’s local food movement is to reconnect people to the land. The movement began as a reaction to shifting agricultural techniques after World War II, when farms started to expand exponentially and chemical pesticides were readily available and inexpensive. The local food movement values the producers instead of solely appealing to the consumer. Alison Hope Alkon and Julian Agyeman, leading critics of the local food movement, write: “The food movement narrative also argues that linking producers and consumers will endow both with a sense of the social and environmental processes through which their food is produced.”

Local food has been immensely successful, resulting in a decrease in commercial fertilizer use (1,022,036 farms in 2007 and 877,907 farms in 2012) and an increase in farmers markets. It has created a market for small farmers. Doug Wiley, owner of Larga Vista Ranch near Pueblo, Colorado, told me that he and his wife had to “stop advertising because we didn’t have enough food.” People “became involved emotionally and mentally” through their milk share program, where members can pick up weekly deliveries of milk and eggs in Colorado Springs. All the farmers I interviewed agreed that the market for local food in Colorado Springs has not yet reached saturation. In addition to providing a dependable customer base, this direct farm-to-consumer model allows all the farmers to keep more profit than farmers in the industrial model. There are fewer hands in their pockets, so famers keep 70 cents of every dollar instead of the 10 cents that industrial farmers keep. The model not only benefits the producer, who retains a higher profit, but the consumer, who feels powerful in abandoning the monotony of the industrial model. Don Lareau, owner of Zephyros farm in Paonia, Colorado, referred to this as “undumbing” the consumer. 

So how could the movement fail if demand outweighs the supply? The farmers had little critique of the movement other than it isn't doing enough. Doug exposed the movement's shortcoming as the “unwillingness of people to inconvenience themselves.” There seemed to be a common theme throughout these interviews—consumers like the idea of eating local, but then fail to take the actual steps in supporting the movement. Don gave an example of apathy: “Restaurants buy from us, nodding to the local, but the Sysco truck still comes in and out of the back.” Perhaps people enjoy creating the impression that they support local farmers but aren’t so passionate to abandon all non-local food. Converting one’s consumption habits to 100% local sources is easier said than done. Even at Colorado College, where the majority of students are environmentally-conscious and aware of what they eat, only a handful of people show up at the student farm’s workdays. This compares to what the farmers witness everyday: the student farm isn’t the most accessible place on campus, and driving to various markets or farm pick-ups takes time and effort. 

While a shortage of consumer activity could be explained by apathy, it could also be explained by financial inclinations. A willingness to spend moneymay be the crux of the issue. According to the USDA website, Americans spend less available income on food than any other country in the world. That’s 6.6% of our household income, compared to the 14% spent in France or the 45% in Kenya. These statistics are frightening, especially since the United States has the highest average household expenditure. However, the issue is far more complex than it may seem. Most countries maintain the local model of agriculture; no other country relies so heavily on industrial agriculture or the capitalist structure as the United States. Our existing framework makes it almost impossible for U.S. citizens to change their consumption habits. As one farmer said, “Don’t hate the player, hate the game.” 

Then there’s the lack of people wanting or willing to become farmers. Craig McHugh, a Colorado Springs farmer who started Pikes Peak Small Farms, put this concept into perspective for me. “Everyone has great plans for local food, but no one wants to build a farm. That’s the 1,000 pound gorilla sitting in the room.” If existing farmers have more demand than they can cover, the pressure lies on the willingness of people to farm. Because the local movement is such a small section within the greater picture of our food system, perhaps the farmers want more demand not for themselves, but to encourage more people to start farming.

The main criticism from scholars is the lack of social justice associated with the movement. Masanobu Fukuoka, a forefather of the alternative food movement, warned us, “If natural foods are expensive, they become luxury foods and only rich people are able to afford them.” Unfortunately, this has become the reality of the local movement. Critics argue that the local food movement has become a monoculture itself, supported by like-minded middle class whites that all have the same ideas for changing our food structure. Because this movement is so one-sided, its broader success in such a diverse country is doubtful. 

Evidence of this claim can be found in Ron Finely’s Ted Talk, “A Guerilla Gardener in South Central L.A.” Finely planted gardens in vacant lots in his South Central L.A. neighborhood where “drive-ins are killing more people than drive-bys.” Instead of offering a presumptuous post-modern criticism of a popular catchphrase, he gets the same message across by simply offering an alternative–“Plant some shit!” It’s interesting that none of the farmers I spoke with brought up any of these issues. While I’m sure most farmers are aware and even concerned with the social injustices associated with local food, their first concern is to make a living. 

Local is not inherently good and the movement cannot bring about systemic change on its own. One writer provides a case study of local Iowan banquet dinners, which serve Tyson chicken and CAFO-raised pork. Local has undertones of nutrition and sustainability, but this becomes jaded when talking about local dinners in Iowa, the monocropping mecca. In Arizona, supporting local farms in such an arid, water-scarce environment might not be as sustainable as purchasing imported produce from more farming-appropriate regions. The catchword “local” creates a local/global binary, causing each to exist separately from one another. Focusing solely on one scale while ignoring the other causes the alternative food movement to be just that—an alternative—instead of directly challenging the industrial system. 

The farmers also agreed with the shortcoming of the local movement as a true alternative. Don had some interesting ideas about large-scale organic farms: “I don’t discount what the small farm movement is doing, but to really change agriculture globally, it’s some of these large scale farms that will come into play,” he says. Coming from a small famer himself, it seems accurate that large-scale farms have more potential to address change than small farms. The farmers only continued this seemingly defeatist attitude. Doug agreed about the limits of the local food movement, explaining, “We are just a tiny fraction of the food system.”

Why is anyone a small farmer if they’re doubtful of their own ability to bring systemic change? When I asked the farmers this question, I received some passionate, almost religious answers. Doug told me, “Some people go to big churches. I go out and see the sun rise. You can’t replace that any other way.” The truth is that these people are not farmers because they want to change our food system, they’re farmers because they love the earth and they love the soil. 

The local food movement challenges the monster that is the industrial food system. But this industrial system is all around us, whether we are conscious of it or not, and reframing this entire system through small farms could be impossible. The fact that the local movement has even been able to exist within this framework speaks for itself. However, improving the industrial model on its own will not bring about a more socially just, sustainable food system. We must forgo the local/global binary and instead examine the end goals to proceed with whichever system will solve the matter best. 

While I’ve learned the danger of proposing a single solution to this growingly convoluted process, any possibility is always exciting. If we continue to foster this movement in a socially just way, its livelihood, along with improvements on the larger scale, offers change. This relates back to the theory of economies of scale. For example, increasing federal Farm Bill funding to support small farmers will be unsuccessful without altering local zoning requirements that allow for people to farm near cities. Marsden Fund projects offer a solution to improve large-scale farming. Results show that the low input, high diversity plots produced more food and fiber while improving soil quality. This research is important in convincing the masses that moving to more sustainable farming practice is imperative. It provides hard evidence that natural farming produces greater yields and profits than conventional farming, as opposed to the less convincing argument from “California hippies and East-Coast elites.” 

Lynn Miller, the editor of the Small Farmer’s Journal, believes in accentuating the celebration aspect of food in order to expand the movement. People are more inclined to become involved in the inclusive, celebratory aspect of food. While it may be impossible to know for certain, these suggestions address many of the issues of the local food movement. They do not enforce the problematic local/global binary and do not have social justice repercussions, but they expand the food movement beyond consumer demand, possibly inspiring more people to become farmers to share in that celebration while improving soil and environmental health. However, it’s important not to get too caught up with one solution, as our agricultural system is constantly changing and evolving. 

Exposing the issues of the local food movement is important not to discredit it, but to make it stronger. If we want to take down the industrial model, the local food movement must perform to its highest potential. And while the famers I spoke with are skeptical of their impact on our food system, I would argue otherwise. Take Doug, for example. He directly affects the 150 people in his milk share program. Taken from the perspective of the 439,886 people in Colorado Springs, let alone the 318 million people in the United States, this number may seem like nothing. But that’s 150 more people connected to Doug’s values and directly tied to his land, reconnecting with Wendell Berry’s agrarian dream. Doug told me, “The most rewarding part of feeding these families is seeing pregnant women picking up milk, then seeing their kids later and they’re [six feet tall].” The scale of this celebration along with this passion for farming is too large to be discredited. As Millersaid, “These farmers are providing high quality foods and ever growing soil health in their area. How could you not call that success?”