Column #150

I’ve always been a big fan of buying local. When dealing with local merchants you’re building the local community which is a win/win for all.

But . . . of all the many reasons given that is the only reason for why buying local food is the proper thing to do. Unfortunately the rest of the nice sounding PC reasons for buying local have few pros and lots of cons.

Here are the reasons given for buying local that “do not hold water.”
●    Locally grown food tastes and looks better.
●    Livestock are processed in nearby facilities which is better than animals processed in large industrial facilities.
●    Food imported from far away is less nutritious because it’s older and has traveled on trucks or planes, and sat in warehouses.
●    Local food preserves genetic diversity in plants and livestock where there are many small farms.
●    Local food is safe.
●    Local food supports local families.
●    Local farmers who sell direct to consumers cut out the middleman and get full retail price for their food.
●    Local food preserves open space because farmers are less likely to sell farmland for development.
●    Local food keeps taxes down because farms contribute more in taxes than they require in services.
●    Local food benefits the environment and wildlife by protecting the ecosystem.
●    By supporting local farmers today, you are helping to ensure that there will be farms in your community tomorrow.

Perception of quality and taste rests in the minds of the beholder. I don’t think blind tests would always support a claim that local foods will have better quality with better flavor. There are many different micro environments. Even in Napa Valley the grapes in one area are considered better than others grown less than a mile away. The most favorable areas for various crops around our nation, and the world for that matter, were identified long ago. And they are being extensively farmed today under the most progressive standards because they are so unique for the crop of choice. So just because a local farmer grows a food crop, that doesn’t mean his crop will be the best because his environment may not be as favorable as others.

Farming is seasonal in that there are windows for planting, growing, and harvesting. For many crops the entire crop is ready for harvest over a period of a few short weeks. Berries, nuts, tree fruits, and vegetables have very short harvest points. This means that for most regions of the country local consumers won’t find fresh local food for most months of the year. Their only option for year-round fresh food is to deal with farmers far away. This is why there are international food exports and imports. Winter down under is our summertime.

The genetic diversity of crops and livestock is usually driven by growing season, consumer demand, economics, and regional environmental differences. Farmers and ranchers are striving to improve plant and animal genetics today just like they’ve been doing for 10,000 years. It’s a continuous process that all farmers work at in response to consumer demands. It doesn’t matter if the farmer is a ten-minute drive from your home or a two-day drive. Consequently, over the many thousands of years some species have been abandoned while others have been created.

When farming just a few acres, say five or less, it’s possible that a farmer on the very edge of town can efficiently advertise for direct sales. To be successful he must encourage a sufficient number of townfolks to drive to his farm to buy his total production over the space of a few weeks. But even an acre produces a lot of food. For example one acre can produce 250 pumpkins, or 35,000 ears of sweet corn, or 5,000 pounds of blueberries, etc. Farmers have various options for marketing their products such as wholesale markets, cooperatives, local retailers (grocery stores), roadside stands, and pick-your-own operations. The latter two require advertising, facilities, and staffing which can quickly wipe out the extra revenue from avoiding the middlemen. And then there is the headache of dealing with cantankerous consumers over small transactions. For these reasons the vast majority of farmers sell in bulk to wholesale markets, cooperatives, and local retailers.

From a layman’s viewpoint it may seem easy to put up a shingle and see people rush out into the country at harvest time. But it doesn’t work that way. In addition, when farming small plots all per unit costs are higher than when farming hundreds and thousands of acres. So the money is in the volume. There are approximately 2.1 million farms in America; the average size being 435 acres and 97% are family-owned. Most are not located close to large metropolitan areas.

The idea that only farmers close to town are concerned about food safety and animal welfare is preposterous. In most cases the larger family farms and ranches in the hinterlands are the more professional with the greatest number of college-educated operators. My experience is that on average they are better at food safety and animal welfare than the smaller, hobby, work-in-town farmer/ranchers.

It’s the same way with major meat processors and small meat processors. The low to high range of managerial sophistication in small meat processing plants is greater than exists in large processing plants. The large meat packing plants usually have the finest, most sophisticated machines and often the better educated managers. All USDA inspected meat plants operate under the same rules and the big ones have the advantage in being more responsive to inspector demands. The larger outfits are also far more efficient in terms of costs per unit.

When it comes to trucking, I knew a grocer in Atlanta that trucked in its produce twice a week from central California. Today it costs about $5,400 for the four-day refrigerated trip hauling about 33,000 pounds of lettuce or up to 44,500 pounds of potatoes. That’s 16.4 cents per pound for the lighter produce and 12.1 cents per pound for potatoes. One acre can raise enough lettuce or potatoes to make one full truckload. Trucking is a huge growing industry because of its many consumer benefits. Because of it, one billion meals a day are served in our country alone.

But how about nutrient deterioration? In all cases the nutrient values of fresh meats and vegetables will deteriorate once harvested. But refrigeration significantly slows the process and freezing virtually stops it. On the other hand nutrient deterioration is greatly accelerated on a hot day at an open-air farmer’s market. That’s why upscale grocers often have better quality produce than you’ll find at the local farmer’s market.

Just by purchasing food people are supporting the entire nation’s agricultural community. It doesn’t matter if a farmer is located in the middle of nowhere in the western Nebraska prairie or just outside your city’s limits. They all raise food for a living. Land taxes are the same issue whether a farmer is close by or far away. In all cases farmers and ranchers are concerned about the land they own which provides their living. Of course farmers are everywhere and it’s not just “your” local farmer that helps create a better environment. All of them do.

The food shopping guides for food are:
●    Seller Integrity
●    Nutrition
●    Freshness
●    Selection
●    Value
●    Convenience

Needless to say, the integrity of the seller comes first. If they misrepresent their products, all other factors can’t be properly weighed. Most food labels are usually meaningful except nutrition numbers are nearly worthless compared to ingredients. Most of the deception in the food business is in the health food sector. Many health food products are sold with feel-good PC rhetoric and/or scaremongering stories instead of authenticated facts. There is no question that many grass-fed claims are actually bogus! Organic, free range, natural, and heritage claims imply better nutrition and safer foods yet they are not safer or more nutritious than similar conventional foods. Brown eggs and white eggs are the same other than the color of the shell. Nuts are sold as healthy alternatives for fat and other nutrients without disclosing they are major sources of Omega-6 that contribute to the Omega-3 deficiency. The list goes on.

My primary reason for eating is to obtain proper nutrition to fuel and maintain my body and health. That means I want nutrient dense and diverse, low glycemic foods with equally balanced essential fatty acids. The best foods for individually providing all of the requirements in spades are grass-fed and Omega-3 meats, wild caught seafood, green leafy vegetables, and a little fruit.

Freshness is critical because nutrient levels are time sensitive in terms of harvest timing and the time from harvest to consumption. The harvesting of vegetables, fruit, nuts, and meat is normally timed to coincide with their peak in nutrients and overall quality. But nutrients and quality go downhill quickly when harvesting is delayed or immediately after harvesting. When partial crop harvesting is used by small local farmers to meet demand that’s one reason why “freshly harvested” may so delayed it’s not the most nutritious. The bigger operators always strive to completely clear a field at top speed because their crops are often graded and that impacts the price they receive.

Most large grocers are supplied by centrally located, large volume, refrigerated warehouses that are experts in just-in-time-delivery from the field to the grocers’ shelves. That minimizes inventory investments because newly arriving inventory just replaces inventory that just went out the door. Refrigeration for meats and vegetables slows the deterioration. But coolers only buy so much time. In all cases freezing does the best job for retaining nutrients in meats and vegetables that were harvested at peak freshness.

You can’t always judge a book by its cover. Some stores carry lower graded produce and meats, some carry higher graded products. Higher grades actually look better in all respects and their beauty often reflects their freshness. Sometimes though, lower grades may have minor blemishes or size issues that do not reflect negatively on their freshness or nutrition. Judgement is required.

Selection is important and modern grocery stores are wonders for providing a wide range of products. Of course most of their products are for consumers who eat for pleasure rather than nutrition. But still, good grocers provide some options for more astute shoppers. In vegetables and fruit, most large grocers excel in providing a wide range of options. But when it comes to healthy grass-fed meats their options are few at best. For sure they do not carry Omega-3 meats. But you can find those options online. There are many online grass-fed meat stores but, once again, not all of them are legitimate. Selection also varies dramatically from store to store. Once gain judgement is required.

Everyone wants a square deal. Sales and discounts are appreciated. But the first four guides can’t be sacrificed for a cheaper price. In all cases, if you desire a unique product it will cost more than products that trade in much higher volumes. For instance the volume of Omega-3 meats is minuscule therefore they cost significantly more to raise, transport, process, and market than conventional meats.

Convenience is important. Travel time, gas, wear and tear on the vehicle, time searching the isles, dealing with the crowds, walking in bad weather from and to the car, and waiting in line is becoming more of an issue these days. It’s super convenient to shop online and have shippers deliver to your door. Surprisingly a shipper’s environmental impact for delivering a box to your door and the doors of many others the same day is usually less than 120 individuals separately driving to their local markets. Boxes are recyclable and even stores recycle the boxes their products come in. Shopping online offers an even greater selection than any one store can possibly provide and often at better values.

Another advantage of online shopping is that specialty stores have larger customer bases. My experience has been that having customers coast to coast is critical for survival. It’s a rare community that can actually support a local ranch or farm that specializes in science-based products that are not mainstream. So the internet is an excellent two-way street that brings specialty farms and ranches into your homes everywhere. Now that’s community.

To your health.

Ted Slanker

Ted Slanker has been reporting on the fundamentals of nutritional research in publications, television and radio appearances, and at conferences since 1999. He condenses complex studies into the basics required for health and well-being. His eBook, The Real Diet of Man, is available online.

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