By Elizabeth Winslow
Photography by Jody Horton
A family sits down to a dinner of fresh, locally grown greens and vegetables and grassfed, pastured meats—a simple picture of a meal that represents connection to community, reinvestment in the local economy, concern for the environment, stewardship of our natural resources and attention to personal health. Fortunately, as our local food economy expands, it’s a scene that occurs more and more often in homes. But as the demand for local foods grows exponentially, so does the difficulty in getting that food to the table.
“There are three main challenges to growing our local food economy,” notes Edible Austin publisher Marla Camp. “First, there’s a lack of direct distribution channels for getting food from the farmers and producers to the end sellers, or retailers. In addition, resources for the local food-production system, such as slaughterhouses for meat producers, affordable commercial kitchen facilities for food manufacturers and water resources for growers, are also lacking. And third, incentives for conservation, organic certification, sustainable farming practices and cooperative business models for food production and distribution are in short supply.”
To help address these and other concerns caused from rapid growth, Camp assisted in forming the Sustainable Food Policy Board (SFPB) in early 2009. The SFPB acts as an advisory body to the Austin City Council and Travis County Commissioners Court to improve the local food economy by monitoring the availability, sustainability, accessibility and quality of local food. As SFPB chair, Camp spends a great deal of time listening to the concerns of both food producers and end sellers. She’s also traveled throughout the U.S. and visited many communities where the local food system is struggling, as well as communities where it’s thriving. “A common characteristic in communities that have thriving local food systems is collaboration,” she says.
This recurring theme of productive collaboration inspired Camp to organize what she hopes will be the first of many Farm-to-Market Roundtable conferences. In March, local farmers, ranchers, producers, chefs, restaurant owners, retailers, co-op operators and nonprofits were invited to convene and add their voices to the exploration of new and improved ways to support and grow the ever-expanding local food economy. Camp hoped that participants such as Boggy Creek Farm’s Carol Ann Sayle, Greenling Organic Delivery’s founder Mason Arnold, Tecolote Farm’s David Pitre and Whole Foods Market’s Southwest produce and floral coordinator Chris Romano—along with many other folks deeply committed to, and involved in, the local food system—would offer insight from their unique vantage points.
Roundtable moderator Pat Abrams—an organization development and HR strategist and professional moderator—began the discussion by asking participants to note one thing they’d like to take away from the day’s conference. Comments ranged from a desire for better collaboration between growers, sellers and retailers, to learning how to buy local food more efficiently with fewer phone calls, to wanting a better understanding of sales and marketing channels for local foods.
“We think it’s great that there’s media hype about local food,” said Montesino Farm’s Melody McClary. “Movies such as Food, Inc. and Fresh have really brought the idea of local food to the public eye. We just need to be sure that we harness all of that energy and attention in the right way, and create a local food system that makes sense for everyone. Now is a great time to be having this conversation.”
Once the group’s larger goals were identified, Abrams broke the participants into smaller groups and asked each one to examine the economic, environmental, social and cultural trends impacting the local market—what’s working well and what’s not. Growers were justifiably concerned about the quality and integrity of their products after they’re handed over to someone else en route to the consumer. They also expressed concerns over proper food handling, and whether or not end sellers would accurately represent the terms “local” and “organic” and be clear about their sources. In turn, end sellers wondered if farmers would be able to consistently deliver the products they needed at a fair price. Both growers and end sellers agreed that nonprofit support systems for local food, such as Sustainable Food Center, Slow Food USA, Eat Wild and LocalHarvest, have been excellent resources for coordinating farmers with market needs. Robert Mayberry, executive chef at the University of Texas at Austin, described the success he’s had working with Andrew Smiley of Sustainable Food Center’s Farm to Institution program. “Without a resource like this,” said Mayberry, “I would never be able to serve the amount of local food that I do. These folks have created a system for sourcing local food that I would not have time to do on my own.”
Perhaps most importantly, the groups identified what success would look like in a thriving local food system. From the farmers’ perspective, success meant ample resources like land and water to allow for the production of affordable, sustainably produced food that can be sold at a fair price.
“We just want to sell everything we grow and make a living,” emphasized Richardson Farms’s Jim Richardson.
To end sellers, success included a plentiful supply of locally grown foods, access to serve and sell as much of it as possible and agreed-upon quality standards. All participants, however, agreed that success really begins at the consumer level. An educated public is more likely to support public policy that rewards local, sustainable farming endeavors and values local food production enough to allocate public resources and funds to help keep it affordable. An educated public also understands what seasonal availability means and appreciates when retailers and chefs work with what’s coming from the local fields rather than from trucks and other climates. To further this line of thought, a buy local incentive program specifically for food was introduced. Edible Austin will work with Sustainable Food Center, the Texas Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association and GroAct to identify, and publically endorse, participating end sellers committed to buying local food. An online listserv to help connect these businesses to local farmers, producers and food manufacturers is also in the works (see FARM TO MARKET RESOURCES below).
Discussing education naturally led the group to look at the communication, or lack thereof, between the various stakeholders in the local food system. It was agreed that a real need exists for better networks and connections between busy growers and end sellers. Successful models of connection were examined, like FarmsReach, an online marketplace where sellers list available products and buyers log in to purchase and arrange for delivery. The service is easy to use and free while allowing producers to set their own pricing and arrange their own deliveries. Buyers benefit by having a simple and reliable way to source local food for their businesses. The group also explored various collaborative models for aggregating and distributing local foods. Calvin Daily, a regional sales manager from Organic Valley—a farmers co-op that sells dairy products, juice, meat and produce—spoke to the group about the benefits of the co-op model and how to avoid selling out cheap to corporate food-distribution companies. The Organic Valley model has been extremely successful and grown to include 1,652 farms across the country. Discussing the path of that success led to ideas for other ways to apply the co-op model, like a convenient, accessible rancher-owned slaughterhouse for affordable local meat producers.
“We started out exactly like you,” Daily told the group. “Just a handful of farmers in a room trying to figure out how to make it work.”
Everyone participating in the roundtable discussion agreed that the success of the local food system is vital to our community. Roadblocks are out there, but fortunately so are the answers. And as Wheatsville Co-op’s Johnny Livesay pointed out near the end of the discussion, “All of the solutions are right here in this room.”
Farm to Market Resources
• FarmsReach, an online farm-food marketplace that connects farmers to business buyers, was founded in 2007 by a team of technology, agriculture and sustainability professionals based in the San Francisco Bay area. FarmsReach organizes harvests from ranchers and growers, helps with customer service and provides a destination for prospective customers. Distributors use FarmsReach to connect with their buyers and sellers, while end sellers use it to find new sources for fresh food, place orders and communicate directly with producers and distributors. farmsreach.com.
• Local Austin Food Yahoo group, provides a forum for communication between Central Texas farmers and other producers of local food, and those who professionally resell that food either by transforming it into delectible dishes (chefs) or offering it for sale in stores or in other forms (products). It allows for nearly instant communications among all users regarding issues such as availability of farm products, chef needs, customer demand, pending regulations or legislation and upcoming events of interest to users. To join, go to groups.yahoo.com/group/localaustinfood.