Farm to table
Local food movement gaining traction in Virginia
- March 28, 2012
Shenandoah Valley farmer Joel Salatin says daily life used to revolve around food that was produced close by. But consumers have come to rely on fresh food being shipped from around the world, readily available year-round, regardless what’s in season.
Salatin, the owner of Polyface Inc., a 550-acre farm in Swoope near Staunton, believes the U.S. needs to shift back to locally grown food for economic and ecologic reasons. “Just like we can’t food bank our way out of hunger, neither can we import our way into food security,” he says.
Polyface, established 50 years ago by Salatin’s parents, has been a pioneer in sustainable agriculture and the local food movement. The farm hasn’t bought a bag of chemical fertilizer in 50 years, and its farming methods mimic natural patterns. Cattle, for example, eat forage only, moving to a new pasture paddock almost every day.
Polyface’s products, sold to a customer base of 3,000 families through more than 60 outlets, include beef, pork, rabbit, poultry, eggs and lumber. “We’re [consumers’] catalyst to health,” Salatin says. “That starts with soil and goes all the way through to the package they buy from us.”
A growing number of farmers and consumers appear to agree with Salatin’s sentiments. The U.S. Department of Agriculture says local food sales, which reached $4.8 billion in 2008, were projected to increase 45 percent to $7 billion in 2011. In Virginia, direct sales between farmers and consumers rose 72 percent to $28.9 million from 2002 to 2007.
A recently announced statewide initiative, Virginia Farm to Table, now seeks to capitalize on the local food trend to boost farmers’ profits and keep farmland from being lost to development. A key thrust of the plan is to encourage Virginia households to spend $10 of their food budget each week on locally produced food, a shift that would have an estimated $1.65 billion annual impact on the state economy.
The increased sales would be welcomed by Virginia farmers, who in 2011 received only 12 cents of consumers’ food dollar and are facing sharply rising costs for fertilizer and fuel.
Distributing food to consumers is an essential element of any local food marketing plan. Polyface which has an annual revenue of $1 million, sells its products through 50 restaurants and 10 retail stores. It also uses food co-ops, online distributors and an on-site store.
Local farmers markets represent one of Polyface’s channels of distribution. The U.S. now has 7,175 farmers markets, up 17 percent in the last year. Virginia has more than 200 farmers markets, of which at least 40 are winter markets, twice as many as there were in 2010, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Winter markets, which operate at least once between November and March, are a good indication of the growing clout of the local food movement in Virginia. “Consumers want to buy locally grown food throughout the year,” says Matthew J. Lohr, Virginia’s commissioner of agriculture and consumer services. “Winter or year-round markets are able to meet this need and bring in additional income to support farm families.”
USDA ranks Virginia ninth among states with the most winter markets. Across the U.S., the number of winter markets increased 38 percent last year, from 886 to 1,225.
“The increase in farmers markets is not surprising,” says Tony Banks, a commodity marketing specialist for Virginia Farm Bureau Federation, which is based in Goochland County. “For many Virginia consumers, shopping at their local farmers markets has become a part of their shopping routine, even if it’s seasonal.”
Direct marketing for farm products “is still a niche in our overall food industry,” Banks notes, “but local foods are here to stay. That’s a great opportunity for farms of all sizes, especially smaller farms, which frequently rely on relationships to build their customer bases.”
Another alternative for smaller farms are online distribution sites such as RelayFoods.com, an online grocery store based in Charlottesville that sells local produce and other food to customers in Central Virginia.
Arnie Katz, the company’s co-founder, president and chief operating officer, says Relay allows farmers to sell the products they have available on any given day without having to leave the farm. “For example, if a farmer has an unexpected early harvest of strawberries, Relay can make that available to consumers within a day’s time simply by updating a farmer’s product offerings on our site,” he says.
Katz, a graduate of the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, was born and raised in a kibbutz, a collective farm, in northern Israel. In coming to the U.S, he was stunned by the lack of sustainable agricultural methods and the high cost of fresh foods. He decided to do something about it.
While Katz still believes Israel holds a lead over the U.S. in sustainable agriculture, “the local food movement here has made great strides in encouraging sustainable farming,” he says.
Expanding markets for farmers is one of the issues addressed in the 38 recommendations made in the Virginia Farm to Table plan produced by Virginia Tech’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Virginia State University, Virginia Cooperative Extension, University of Virginia and Virginia Food System Council. The study notes, for example, that food purchases by schools, universities and hospitals present a huge market opportunity for local farmers. Nonetheless, processing, storing and distributing food for institutional customers pose big problems for small farmers. The study urges the state to remove bureaucratic barriers for local farmers and create an infrastructure that would help them crack this market.
Other recommendations in the Virginia Farm to Table plan include starting a marketing campaign to promote the purchase of locally produced food, setting up a website detailing resources for the local food movement and establishing a food system report card.
The lead director of the study is Eric Scott Bendfeldt, an extension specialist for community viability with the Virginia Cooperative Extension program based in the Harrisonburg office.
Bendfeldt says Virginia’s local food movement provides farmers with an opportunity to tell their story and better connect with customers and the general public.
“Local food is about giving food and farmers a face, proximity, relationships, community, local economies and investment, local identity and values, self-reliance, interdependence, freshness, taste, health, and more whole and less processed foods,” he says.
Bendfeldt says there will always be local regional, state, national and international food markets. The local food movement doesn’t involve “an either-or proposition,” he says, but instead provides another option for consumers and producers.
“With all of the discussion, we also have to ensure all Virginians have access to quality food regardless of their socioeconomic level and work to address food scarcity and insecurity in many rural and urban communities,” he says.