Recently I was asked how I felt about the local food movement. My answer was; I am all for it up to a point. In fact, I am a willing participant in it. Each year we market a few head of the calves and lambs we raise locally. I must say that interacting with my customers is one of the things I enjoy the most and maybe one of the most unrecognized benefits of locally produced foods.
One of the things I do tell my customers is that the product I am providing is not more nutritious than the meat you buy in the grocery store. However, I do think that I have a better product. My beef is aged before it is cut up and that makes for a much better eating experience. I have my hamburger made much leaner than most of what is bought in the grocery store. I also probably feed my animals longer and give them more grain than most of the beef or lamb on grocery store shelves. Finally, I believe that I have animals that produce genetically better beef than the average calf.
All of this adds up to a better product, not a more nutritious one. However, because I feed my animals longer and because my hamburger is leaner, I must charge a premium price. Unfortunately, the higher price probably excludes many consumers. I cannot speak to others who raise livestock, crops, fruits and vegetables for local sale, but my breakeven price for the livestock I raise is much higher than the larger, commercial feeders. If you will let me revert back to my Ag economics background, it is simply the economies of size; they can spread costs over a much larger area and purchase inputs at a discounted rate.
I agree that there probably is some intangible feeling that locally produced food is better. I think the consumer has an idea that it is fresher and tastes better and they could be right. Either way, it does give some farmers and ranchers an opportunity to produce locally grown foods and increase their profit margin. The same person who posed the first question to me also made the statement that maybe every farmer or rancher could benefit from selling some of their produce locally. After some windshield time to think about it, I think there may be some merit in that statement. Please hear me out.
Each time I deliver my beef or lamb, I have the chance to interact with a consumer. It gives me a chance to get to know them and them a chance to understand what I do. Jennifer observes that I can only make one or two deliveries in a day because I spend so much time talking to my customers. Part of that is because I like to chat with people but part of it is because I am proud of what I produce and I like to share it with anyone who will listen.
These chats over deliveries have given me the opportunity to talk about antibiotic use, growth promotants, livestock handling and husbandry. I have had the chance to tell about our history in agriculture and out plans for the future. In the end I leave the delivery with a better understanding of the consumer and, I hope, they have a better understanding of how their food is produced. That is where I think every farmer and rancher would benefit from selling something they produce locally.
I do try to leave my customers with the thought that we still need large scale commercial food and fiber production. While I truly believe the beef and lamb I sell is a higher quality product, I also understand it is not affordable or right for all consumers, it is not a bargain. I believe that we need to produce food in a much more economical manner to feed the growing population in more urban areas who might not have access to locally grown food or the income to purchase them.
So the answer to the question is that I do believe that the locally grown food movement is a good thing as long as we realize that all farmers and ranchers are in the same boat. We need to keep that in mind and we need to remember that we all must row the boat together. The bottom line is that there is a place in agriculture for all farmers and ranchers. At less than two percent of the population we need all hands on deck, big or small to produce enough food and fiber for a rapidly growing population.