Environmentally, nutritionally and economically, buying local and eating fresh make great sense. But shopping at a farm stand in Sacramento or Denver can be a bit different from buying local produce in Hartford, Concord or Bangor. Geography, climate and community impact your farmer’s approach to growing and consequently, your experience as a consumer.
So what would New England growers like us to know? Here are five points of interest from the farmer’s perspective:
- Their commitment. Our farmers want to be here for the long haul! A 2016 survey of 115 farmers by the Essex County and Merrimack Valley Buy Local Program (ECMVBL), just north of Boston, found that over 90% of farmers in the area expect to be in business for the next five years, while 80% expect to be going strong ten years hence.
- Our commitment.“If an additional 5% of the population in the area would buy $7.25 worth of products each week from farm stands and farmers’ markets it will keep local family farms from fading away” (ECMVBL). Unlike a huge national chain grocery store where our individual consumer dollars have an imperceptible impact, the economic scale of the locally grown food market is small and sensitive. Every dollar we spend—or don’t spend—is felt by local farmers and our consumer food choices actually do make a big difference. A strong commitment on our part is needed to make locally grown produce a viable reality.
- The high price of preserving land. Farmers helping to protect the land from encroaching over-development are significantly affected by the high cost of real estate here in New England, especially compared to most other agricultural areas. First, it simply costs more to own or lease the needed acreage; and second, housing costs for farming families who must live on the land are high in relation to income.
- Working with the growing season. The New England growing season is brief by any standard and to survive, farmers must dedicate themselves to maximizing its potential. This means that as consumers we must pay attention and be ready to act—a lot of wonderful food happens in a short time period here! In addition, new growing practices are helping extend the growing season so that farm stands once open only from June to September can now remain in business from April through November.
- Building a network. As an agricultural community, New England is no longer as strong as it once was. The kind of supportive infrastructure that farmers need to thrive is not currently in place, which means servicing tractors, repairing irrigation systems and finding answers to tough questions about pests or disease can be more of a struggle than they would be in say, Fresno or Des Moines. In addition, finding enough field laborers during the busy season is a serious problem for most area farmers.
Want to help support local growers in a concrete way? Here are a few simple steps: ask for locally grown food at your favorite restaurants, shop at a local farm stand and farmer’s market two or three times every week, consider CSA membership and signing on for some seasonal farm work, get others hooked into your Buy Local network, and remember to purchase non-food products such as crafts or landscape and bedding plants at local farms. Keep in mind these points from the farmer’s perspective, and you will be doing your part to ensure that farm-fresh food continues to be an option in New England for many years to come.