How To Level the Local Food Playing Field
Jeff Gangemi Mar 29, 2012 The Beat 0 comments
Originally posted on the Slow Food USA Blog.
The numbers clearly show that demand for local food is growing. According to the USDA, the market for local food “sales to intermediaries, such as local grocers and restaurants, as well as directly to consumers through farmers markets, roadside stands and the like” could reach $7 billion this year, up from about $5 billion in 2008.
There are lots of ways to support the local food movement. Of course, starting a farm, investing in sustainable food businesses – even buying organic – all require relatively significant financial resources.
Increasingly – and particularly through the use of technology – people from all sorts of backgrounds are able to do their part to support the small farmers, artisans and entrepreneurs that are remaking how we eat in this country. Their message is clear: we can all do something to help fix what’s broken about our food system.
At the top of this local food “hierarchy,” there is an growing group of transplants from traditional corporate cultures – Wall Street, for example – who have reinvented themselves through food production.
One of them is Jon McConaughy, who left an executive position at the investment firm Credit Suisse and started Double Brook Farm in Hopewell, New Jersey. When it opens this fall, the farm will feed an on-site market and restaurant, which will also be supplied by a collection of on-site collective of artisans, including a cheese maker, a butcher, a baker, and others.
The entire operation is designed to create almost no waste, and will eventually require minimal outside inputs. McConaughy has brought not only his executive experience, but also a significant financial investment to building a closed-loop system. He and his wife, Robin, have also helped support food-related films, non-profits and some Internet start-ups.
Similarly, Dean Carlson, who left bond trading in 2009, has also made a significant investment in his own farm, 355-acre Wyebrook Farm, in Honey Brook, PA. “Monetarily, I have put in a significant sum now for the land, animals and restoration of the buildings. In addition, I have also changed my career and lifestyle to promote this farm. I truly believe that it’s that important,” he says.
But it’s not just career changers like McConaughy and Carlson that are moving into farming. Tom Stearns, founder of 40-employee, Vermont-based High Mowing Organic Seeds and an advisor to local food businesses, says he sees a variety of folks heading back to work on farms. “There are folks who are doing it as a second career, but there are lots and lots of young people getting into it, and feeling like it’s a hopeful option for them to pursue something really meaningful,” says Stearns.
There are also plenty of people that fall somewhere between the young aspiring farm worker and the career changer. That’s one big reason Stearns says he co-founded Slow Money in 2008, which organizes investors of various sizes and helps them direct more resources to small food enterprises, organic farms, and local food systems. “It’s a creative way for community members to make a small financial return and huge social and environmental return,” says Stearns.
For those of slightly more modest means, shopping at farmers markets, or buying a CSA share, are also great ways to help support the movement. “To be honest, I think the biggest thing most people can do is to choose local sustainable food as much as possible. That is the only way this will work,” says Wyebrook Farm’s Carlson.
But in many places, particularly urban areas, it’s often hard to know which brands are small and local, and which just appear that way. “Many of the brands that people think are small and local brands are actually owned by Coca-Cola,” says Stearns. “A lot of times large food companies make their products look homey to make people think it’s smaller,” because they rightly think people want that, he says.
That’s where a site like FarmPlate.com comes in. The site enables consumers to rate, review and “dig” businesses they support through an easy-to-use platform. Because Yelp, Urban Spoon and others already exist to help traditional food businesses and restaurants, FarmPlate.com is designed to provide a method of validation for all the players – not just restaurants – in the sustainable food ecosystem. That goes for CSAs, farmers markets, stores, artisan food producers, farmers, and many more. You can see our complete list of food web categories here.
By offering consumers the ability to search for and connect with sustainable food businesses in their area, FarmPlate aims to use technology to put them on a more level playing field with their conventional competitors. “FarmPlate is an incredible place to have people weigh in and validate that [a given food business] is a credible thing. It’s a chance for us to tell the story of our business, and for engaged people to participate and help lend some legitimacy to it,” says Stearns.
The more we legitimize individual food businesses like Wyebrook Farm and Honey Brook Farm, the more level the playing field will become.