Experts explain local food

Monday, April 6, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 6:00 p.m. CDT, Monday, April 6, 2009
Dr. Kamyar Enshayan (center), director of the University of Northern Iowa Center for Energy and Environmental Education, makes a point during a discussion with members of the Columbia Farmers Market on Friday evening at Sycamore restaurant.

*CORRECTION: Eric Reuter is a local farmer. An earlier version of this article misidentified him as a certified organic farmer. Some sections of this article have also been removed due to inaccuracies.

COLUMBIA — Friday night at Columbia restaurant Sycamore, University of Northern Iowa professor Kamyar Enshayan, local farmer* Eric Reuter and president of the Columbia Farmers' Market and farmer Rex Roberts, gathered with other food aficionados to discuss the local food movement. Missourian reporter Hannah Ritchie joined their discussion. (This article has been edited for space.)*

Q: What is defined as “local food”?


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Reuter: Personally, I would define it as food sold direct to the consumer. It’s not a question of distance, it’s a question of how the food travels. If it’s passing through a bunch of different middle men, that’s different. Local food could be here from Idaho, which is hundreds of miles away. But it came from the farm to the consumer. ... To me, that’s what local is, it’s the direct sale. Distance is arbitrary.

Enshayan: Local, really, is a code word for a whole set of relationships. So, it’s between the consumer and the farmer, it’s about accountability, it’s about relationships, it’s about traceability, all of those things, it’s about community. So it’s about all of those things that make the eaters connected to their food.

Roberts: I came across a thing that’s kind of a guiding principle some time back that helps define local, and it is "let your food travel the shortest distance from the field to the plate." And that distance means in miles, it means in time, it means in processing.

Reuter: You know, half the trouble we’re having is that when you get something that goes wrong, which happens, because with food, it happens, when you’ve something that goes wrong in the world, you can’t even trace it. ... Local food and local farms are a way to get around that problem.

Enshayan: Local food is not anonymous. There is somebody you know that grew that food that you eat. It’s about connections, it’s about relationships, economic well-being, all of that.

Q: What’s the difference between local and organic?

Enshayan: In my mind, organic is also about relationships, but a more fundamental set of relationships, which is, it means the people who farm and the soil and the water, and all life. So it’s really [that] organic, as defined by USDA, refers to a particular method of farming. And all those relationships. "Localness" can encompass all of that, but it’s about more of an economic relationship. Organic is one way, what I think probably is the best way, of farming.

Reuter: The concept of local food refers to where the food is grown and how it gets there. The other, organic, refers to the discussion of how it’s grown but not about where it’s grown. ... If you feel very strongly about, say, pesticides, you might consider yourself more likely to buy an organic tomato from California than a local tomato from Missouri. … If you care more about the path of the food, you might say, “You know what, organic may be great, but I don’t want it shipped a fifteen hundred miles, I’m going to buy the local brand.” It’s a personal choice of what part matters to you.

Roberts:  Many people care deeply about organic methodology and organic principles, but the relationship often times overshadows that even. I’m not certified organic, and I’m too close to a conventional field to ever be certified organic. ... But I develop a relationship with my customers, and they will believe me when I tell them, you know, I do not use the chemicals that you are opposed to. And, to them, that is as important as the seal; over time, as we develop a relationship.

Q: What are the benefits of eating local food?

Roberts: We know where your food came from. Local food, by definition, should be much fresher. It often times is chosen for its eating qualities, its nutritional qualities, while food that has had to travel has been chosen for its ability to withstand mechanical harvesting, mechanical processing, transportation — all of those kinds of things.

Enshayan: All of those ideas that everybody mentioned, that you know when you buy local food, you are supporting all of those things. That means local relationships, supporting livelihood of local businesses that are around you, knowing the people who bring you the food that you’re eating, all of those things. So, I mean, primarily, that’s what it is. Supporting accountability, traceability, all of those things.

Q: How does the price of local food compare?

Roberts: Farmers markets are very comparable to grocery stores' products. There will be a few things a little higher, a few things a little less, but they are very comparable. ... We are offering a premium product, that [grocery stores] cannot even begin to compete with in freshness, and we are offering it as a competitive price. ... There’s a bad misconception that fresh produce from any source is expensive. People go out and say they can go out and buy this and this and feed their ... no they can’t. Especially when they start looking at nutrition per calorie. … If you’re looking at well-prepared nutritional soil, the studies are in: the nutrition is better. You’re getting better fresh nutrients, you’re getting better mineral content, it just goes on and on.

Q: What are the disadvantages of local food?

Reuter: Well, there are those who would argue that locally-grown food can’t feed the country.

Roberts: I suppose there’s a disadvantage to eating local, like a lack of longevity (in availability of seasonal foods)*.

Enshayan: Also, people will say local food is inconvenient. But the inconvenience and disadvantages are in the eyes of the beholder. So you can say it’s inconvenient to go to the farmers market or inconvenient to cook. That’s really it. Local food means you have to cook. That’s not a disadvantage, it just means you have to pay attention.

Q: Has interest in local foods grown?

Roberts: I was at a Missouri-based seed company yesterday. ... They geared up this year expecting an increase in demand. They have been overwhelmed. … They have run out of seed. … It’s not just them. … The local food movement is not popular because it is the politically-correct fad of the year. It’s popular because it’s right.

Q: How are people trying to increase interest in the local food movement?

Roberts: We’re just trying to field it.

Reuter: Industrial food is doing it for us. Peanut Corporation is our best advertising of the year.

Enshayan: Really, what this points to is that we’re going to need a lot more farmers. If you take this to its logical conclusion, then we’re going to need a lot more farmers. … It’s not easy to raise new farmers.

Reuter: The barriers to starting a farm are much higher than they used to be. The regulatory, the financial, the liability, the tax burden is much higher than say 50 years ago.

Roberts: And the age difference is very apparent at this table.

Q: What are the threats to local food?

Enshayan: The biggest factor that allowed us to abandon the wonderful system of local agriculture to feed ourselves was, and continues to be, cheap fuel, that has allowed us to ignore our own agriculture and import everything. … When you see grapes from South Africa in your local grocery store in Columbia, there is something wrong.

Reuter: The biggest barrier to me is well-meaning government.

Enshayan: Laws don’t encourage small-scale agriculture.

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Eric Reuter April 6, 2009 | 7:02 a.m.

As a participant in this discussion, I'm fairly disappointed with the article. First and foremost, I was never contacted to review quotes, despite the Missourian's standing policy on that and despite giving the reporter my card. I need to clarify some fairly glaring errors; many of the statements are edited or presented in a way that changes their meaning or does not reflect the nature of the conversation, and many are just downright wrong:

(1) I am not a certified organic farmer. Our farm is in in the process of certifying and expects to achieve that later this spring, but there is a significant legal difference.

(2) If I actually said local food could be from Idaho, "hundreds of miles away", that was a poorly phrased statement that would have been nice to clarify.The point I was making in the wider discussion was that drawing a line of distance saying "this is local" is less relevant than the fact that the food did not pass through processors or shippers, thus preserving the primary link between customer and producer which is the best guarantee of food safety that we have.

(3) I specifically requested that the reporter not use my example that "Let’s say heaven forbid my farm makes a mistake", because I was unsure of the implication it would make if used improperly. The point was that local foods are not perfect, but any problems that do arise will remain local and contained by the sheer nature of the marketplace, and can be far more easily tracked and dealt with by the basic fact that the customer knows exactly where the food came from in the first place. "I cannot afford a single mistake" was said in the context that my relationship with the final consumer, and my presence in a local community, means that I have a far stronger incentive to sell a safe and healthy product because of the public inspection I recieve every time I sell at the farmers market and every time a customer visits my farm. That is not something the public can do with regards the large-scale agriculture.


(Report Comment)
Eric Reuter April 6, 2009 | 7:03 a.m.

(4) The quote on raw milk at the end leaves out a great deal of context for that statement and does not represent the situation accurately. For one thing, yogurt and many cheese are made through processes that DO pasteurize the milk; that's the whole point. It's arbitrary to allow raw milk sales but not sales of yogurt, which is raised past the temperature considered "safe".

(5) The quote from Rex Roberts saying "I suppose there’s a disadvantage to eating local, like a lack of longevity" is taken dangerously out of context, and seems to imply that locally-grown produce has a shorter shelf life. Any customer could tell you that a farmers market vegetable will last much LONGER in the fridge, becuase it hasn't sat on a truck and a shelf for weeks before purchase. What Rex was referring to was the longevity of the SEASON, meaning you only have local tomatoes for half the year rather than all of it. That's a very significant difference that was made clear in person, but did not make it into the piece.

Moreover, the larger point I was making in this section of this discussion was that many of our food safety laws are fairly arbitrary as to what they allow or don't allow. We don't even define what safe food is, just what processes are supposed to result in it. Thus we say that this kind of dairy or this kind of slaughterhouse is safe, but this kind is not, regardless of the actual bacterial counts or other tests on products coming from those places.

(6)The article is poorly edited, even accounting for an accurate transcript of recorded speech. There are periods missing all over the place and some very strange constructions that don't represent the speech patterns of anyone there. I realize it was a busy night and the tape recorder probably had trouble, but the result is jarring to read from a literacy standpoint.

I appreciate the author's interest and time in spending the evening with us, and I don't know at what stage of the process all this crept in. But it's pretty disappointing to have to post such a long correction list that could have been dealth with in one phone call, as is supposed to be the policy.

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