By Robert Turner
The grow local, farm-to-table movement has gone from niche to mainstream and changed restaurant menus across the country and around the world.
In Asheville, where I live, a sizeable proportion of the restaurants now promote local and organic food on their menus. They may not tell you the chicken’s name or post a picture of the chicken you’ll be eating tonight (thank goodness), but they often post the name of the farm and sometimes show a picture of the farmer that grew the food. One evening in July of 2014, as I sat eating my organic-free-range-local-chicken—let’s call her Stella—at a trendy Asheville restaurant, I had to ask myself, “Why is all of this happening?” What’s more, I paid $18 for my chicken.
The rapid growth of Whole Foods and stores like it also gives evidence to this movement. Farmers markets are part of the same trend, and they’re sprouting up everywhere. The number of farmers markets across the US has skyrocketed. The US, in 2016, had an estimated 8,669 farmers markets in operation, which represents a five-fold increase since 1994, when there were only 1,755. The Asheville region has 15 farmers markets operating on different days and at various locations. Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs are a newer trend, and there are more than 40 of them operating now at farms around Asheville. In a CSA, people buy a “share” from a farmer at the beginning of the season and pick up a box of fresh, organic vegetables from the farm or a pickup location every week.
Yes, it’s about healthier organic food without all the chemicals. And yes, it’s about supporting local farms and farmers. But what’s behind it all? What’s really driving it? It didn’t make economic sense. To use less efficient production methods to produce product at a higher cost and retail runs contrary to the normal business principles that I’m familiar with.
I was about to learn that some different principles are at work here and, clearly, a lot of people are perfectly willing to pay a much higher price for an egg, a tomato or a chicken. I have noticed that the chicken at Whole Foods sometimes comes with a pretty picture of a farm on the packaging, and I started to wonder if the organic chicken farmer wasn’t really selling chicken, but instead an idea, or a lifestyle, or a principle, or beliefs and values, or something else.
How do you price that? The question throws economists for a loop. They don’t have a model for that. People who shop at Whole Foods jokingly refer to it as “Whole Paycheck,” but they still shop there. This must drive economists nuts.
It wasn’t until I started an organic farm that I really began to understand what’s driving the movement for a lot of people. It’s not just about fresh food and saving local farms. It’s about food sovereignty, security and community resiliency. The average vegetable in your grocery store travels 1,500 miles to get there, and 20 percent of the food Americans eat now comes from a foreign country (that’s one out of every five bites that you take). The movement, for many, is about saving the farming infrastructure and the capacity to grow our own food locally so that we’re not so dependent on food from global corporations and far-away places, which is a prudent thing to do in an ever-changing world.
Robert Turner is the director of the Creekside Farm Education Center in Arden and the author of Carrots Don’t Grow on Trees (February 2019). To learn more, visit EatYourView.com.