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Buying local

05/23/06 12:00AM By Vern Grubinger
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(HOST) A recent study shows that Vermont consumers lead the nation in support of local food production, but commentator Vern Grubinger says that same study suggests it wouldn't be very hard to do a great deal more.

(GRUBINGER) Across the nation, the call to buy local resonates as a way to obtain healthy food and support local farms.

Or does it?

A recent study suggests that the inclination of consumers to buy local food is, well, localized.

More local food is sold in the Northeast, on the west coast, and in the upper mid-west than in the middle of the country. A map of these sales looks a lot like the red state, blue state map of political affiliations! Could Democrats really like farm fresh sweet corn and tomatoes more than Republicans? Well, the research didn't ask that question.

The question that was asked, by the Vermont Sustainable Agriculture Council, was: how much local food do Vermonters actually purchase? The Council hired David Timmons at the University of Vermont to look into it. One thing he found is that it's not an easy question to answer.

The majority of food purchases occur at supermarkets, but there's little data about where that food comes from because it's supplied indirectly, through wholesale distributors. Direct markets appear to be a better indicator of local food consumption.

Direct markets are where farmers sell products straight to consumers, at places like farmers markets and roadside stands. Luckily, the U.S. Department of Agriculture tracks the value of those sales in every county of the country, so it's possible to look for patterns and trends.

Compared to other states, Vermonters buy a lot of local food. In fact, we lead the way, with almost twice the direct market food sales per person than the next highest state, Maine. New Hampshire is number three, so it appears that northern New England is the nation's local food hot-spot.

But when you look at the value of those sales, it's not so impressive. On the average, Vermonters buy a whopping sixteen dollars of local food per person at direct markets each year. The national average is a paltry three dollars. In terms of consumer support for local food, there's plenty of room for improvement. Of course, these figures underestimate local food sales a bit because they don't include supermarkets or food co-ops.

Direct market sales aren't the salvation of agriculture, but they are important. In Vermont, they're worth ten to twenty million dollars annually, depending on how you measure. That's a tiny part of agricultural markets, but it's critical to many farms that sell fruits and vegetables, maple syrup, flowers and cheese. Direct markets are also important to beginning and part-time farmers.

Local food from direct markets offers benefits for consumers, too. It's fresher, and of higher quality than food that's traveled from distant places. Buying local also adds money to our local economy instead of shipping it out of state.

Imagine the impact if we could double the sales of local food in Vermont. How many farms would improve their profitability? How many new farmers could we attract? It's hard to say, but it sure would be a move in the right direction.

Vern Grubinger is the director of the UVM Extension Center for Sustainable Agriculture.
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