Category Archives: Local Food

A growing number of young Americans are leaving desk jobs to farm

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Liz Whitehurst dabbled in several careers before she ended up here, crating fistfuls of fresh-cut arugula in the early-November chill.

The hours were better at her nonprofit jobs. So were the benefits. But two years ago, the 32-year-old Whitehurst – who graduated from a liberal arts college and grew up in the Chicago suburbs – abandoned Washington, D.C., for this three-acre farm in Upper Marlboro, Maryland.

FARMERSShe joined a growing movement of highly educated, ex-urban, first-time farmers who are capitalizing on booming consumer demand for local and sustainable foods and, experts say, could have a broad impact on the food system.

For only the second time in the last century, the number of farmers under 35 years old is increasing, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s latest Census of Agriculture.

Continue reading A growing number of young Americans are leaving desk jobs to farm

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UMass Researchers Run Hydroponic Farm

Evan Chakrin, harvests leeks from a hydroponic raft bed Aug. 4, 2017 at the new UMass Hydrofarm he co-founded at the university with Dana Lucas, 21, a senior studying Sustainable Food and Farming. Overhead, LED strip lights supplement daylight for the plants.

AMHERST — Evan Chakrin, 33, spends his summer afternoons harvesting plants, mostly lettuce, at a hydroponic food farm.

He worked Friday afternoon, harvesting 10 pounds of lettuce that he was planning to donate to the Amherst Survival Center. He picked a head, doused it in insect soap and packaged it in a clam-shaped container.

Evan Chakrin harvests butterhead bibb lettuce

The hydroponic farm grows food without using soil. Started in the winter of last year, it is the first of its kind on the University of Massachusetts Amherst campus. The farm provides food for on-campus restaurants such as Earthfoods Cafe.

Chakrin, a junior studying horticulture, co-leads the farm with Dana Lucas, 21, a senior studying Sustainable Food and Farming, using techniques that they say will revolutionize the future of farming.

“It’s basically just using science to grow plants,” Chakrin said.  The farm grows everything from strawberries and tomatoes to lettuce and kale. It is housed in an underutilized greenhouse on the UMass Amherst campus. Chakrin and Lucas use the most common hydroponic techniques to grow their plants: raft systems and nutrient film technique channels.

Evan Chakrin displays the roots of strawberries growing in watertight channels using the nutrient film technique

The basic idea behind hydroponic farming is growing plants without soil, Chakrin said. Nutrients get dissolved into water surrounding the plants’ roots. This allows the system to be up to 90 percent more water- and nutrient-efficient than other types of farming. The system uses less water than an irrigated field. There is also no nutrient runoff into local water sources.

“We can totally control whatever we waste,” Chakrin said.

Lucas started working on the idea of creating a hydroponic farm in 2015, but she and Chakrin were not able to secure a grant until last December. The two received $5,000 and a previously underused greenhouse from the Stockbridge School of Agriculture.

“We were expecting a little space on campus, basically just a closet,” Chakrin said. “Then they surprised us with this.”

As soon as they got the space, they started working right away. They started germinating seeds, and by the middle of February, all of the systems were up and running. They then started selling their food to places on campus. The money from the sales goes into a fund that they can use to purchase more equipment or seeds.

Chakrin said selling the products allows them to be financially stable and gives the business a fresh, locally produced food option.

The farm will continue to grow in the years to come. In the fall, the two are teaching 12 undergraduate students in a one-credit practicum course about hydroponic farming.

The university offers many courses on the theories and science behind farming but not many on hydroponic techniques. Allowing other students to work in the farm gives them hands-on experience, Chakrin said.

“The techniques we use here are the main hydroponic techniques used,” Chakrin said. “This work is directly applicable to any of their food production goals.”

Chakrin said he hopes any students who are involved in urban food production get involved, even those not involved in the Stockbridge School of Agriculture.

The two also want to scale up their sales. Chakrin said he is hoping to start selling to bigger dining halls and other places on campus.

One of the benefits of hydroponic farms is that they can be used to grow food locally, even in urban areas. The lettuce grown at the UMass farm doesn’t come from some giant farm in California, Chakrin said. This reduces shipping costs and carbon costs for interstate shipping.

“I think it is a major loss that the average bite of food travels extremely far to get to our plates, and this is the solution to the problem,” Lucas said.

Lucas and Chakrin have started a consulting service for the future of farming, called Farmable. Lucas said the idea behind it is that any space, even small urban areas, can be made into a green space.

“Anywhere is farmable and this concept will revolutionize how urbanites are able to access food,” Lucas said.

A network of small farms and suppliers selling especially fresh food can produce inexpensive food!

By Katherine Whittaker June 27, 2016

Produce prices at your local Chinatown are likely a fraction of what they cost at other supermarkets, and if you’ve wondered why, you’re not alone. In an investigative report for the Wall Street Journal reporter Anne Kadet admits she always assumed the low prices were a reflection of subpar produce. But a deeper investigation of New York’s Chinatown with author Valerie Imbruce led her to the opposite conclusion, and reveals the hidden truths behind the neighborhood’s fruit and vegetable supply chain.

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The markets reduce prices by negotiating bulk discounts from wholesalers, said Wellington Chen, director of the Chinatown Partnership Local Development Corp.

Imbruce, who’s researched the Chinatown produce economy for over a decade, is the author of From Farm to Canal Street: Chinatown’s Alternative Food Network in the Global Marketplace. In the Journal she distills to Kadet the real reason Chinatown can keep prices low: “Chinatown’s 80-plus produce markets are cheap because they are connected to a web of small farms and wholesalers that operate independently of the network supplying most mainstream supermarkets.” While most of the rest of New York’s markets get their produce from the Hunts Point Market in the Bronx, Chinatown sellers work directly with small neighborhood warehouses. Since they’re operating in close geographic proximity, they can get fresh produce throughout the day from wholesalers, and therefore don’t need

Markets also cut costs by eschewing extra technology and certain aesthetic choices—the Journal points out that shelves “are typically made of plywood and lined with newsprint,” prices are scrawled on cardboard instead of printed on stickers, and credit cards are not always accepted. Chinatown retailers also manage to cut costs by “negotiating bulk discounts from wholesalers,” Kadet notes.

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People shop at one of Chinatown’s many green grocers along Mott Street in NYC

“All this translates into low overhead for the retailers—and low prices for shoppers,” the article points out. “The typical Chinatown produce markup is just 10% to 12% over wholesale, said Wellington Chen, executive director of the Chinatown Partnership Local Development Corp.”

And then there’s the variety. In Chinatown, Imbruce says, you can find anything from jackfruit to fuzzy squash and baby Shanghai bok choy, in addition to almost 200 other fruits and vegetables. Wholesalers in Chinatown source these interesting items from family farms growing Asian vegetables in Florida or Honduras. Imbruce mentions that she has visited more than 75 of these farms and saw very little exploitation; in fact, they were happy to be working for Chinatown wholesalers “because they could cultivate an array of crops, leading to economic and agronomic stability.”

But what may keep Imbruce coming back is, as she puts it, the adventure of learning about other fruits and vegetables. “It’s just a fun, happy place to go…And it’s always bustling.”

Farming the Front Lawn

July 23, 2017 – BAY SHORE, N.Y. — Jim Adams met his wife on a trip to Uganda a decade ago. Rosette Basiima Adams, 35, grew up in Kasese, a town, she said, where “everything we ate, we grew.”

“I went to see the gorillas in the Congo,” Mr. Adams, 42, recalled recently. But he left his tour group and ended up meeting Rosette, who was working at a hostel where he stayed.

Today, the couple are trying to grow a business cultivating crops on suburban lawns on Long Island. Their business, Lawn Island Farms, is the result of research and a desire to find a way to farm on the island.

“A lot of it was seeing America through Rosette’s eyes,” Mr. Adams said. In his wife’s hometown, he added, “all their food comes from within miles.”

With lots of ideas and little money, the Adamses began looking for land to farm. They started an online fund-raiser and posted fliers asking area residents to consider turning their lawns into small farms.

The Adamses have received more inquiries than they can handle.

For now, the couple is farming at two locations in Bay Shore: one is a homeowner’s front lawn; the other is behind St. Peter’s by-the-Sea Episcopal Church.

They sent the additional inquiries they received to Pennie Schwartz, a home-farmer in Southold, farther east on Long Island.

Ms. Schwartz, 61, a retired chiropractor, said she wanted to help the Adamses turn each inquirer’s lawn into “an edible space.”

“It’s called foodscaping,” she said. “It’s really getting people to understand that lawns are really environmental energy suckers, for lack of a better word.”

Ms. Schwartz studies permaculture, a phenomenon that she said “combines landscape design with sustainability and environmental ecology” — and holds a certificate from Cornell.

“I don’t want to put the lawn guys out of business,” she said. But, “with all the chemicals that go into it, and all the watering we have to do to keep it green, there are better ways and better things to do.”

Ms. Schwartz wants to set up systems that landowners can maintain independently; each system should meet the landowner’s needs.

In other words, a family with children can still have a swing set.

On the two properties they farm, Mr. and Mrs. Adams are cultivating crops that grow quickly and that do not require much space, like salad greens and radishes.

One evening last month, the Adamses’ 9-year-old twins, Daisy and Curtis, ran through the front yard farm here on Hyman Street in pursuit of a rabbit.

Ms. Adams planting sunflowers in Ms. Trimarco’s lawn. Ms. Adams grew up in Kasese, Uganda, a town, she said, where “everything we ate, we grew.” CreditJames Estrin/The New York Times

Mr. and Mrs. Adams had just planted sunflowers when the homeowner, Cassandra Trimarco, drove up.

Ms. Trimarco, a physician assistant, contacted the Adamses after noticing their flier at a coffee shop.

“It’s me kind of donating in a way rather than controlling, because I don’t control anything, and it’s wonderful,” she said. “They think they’re lucky, but I think I’m lucky.”

Original Post

Local Food: From Grassroots Movement to Mature Marketplace

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The term “local food” means many things to many people. For some it defines a particular geographic area, while for others it means good, high quality food. A recent survey published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Agriculture Statistics Service (NASS) reveals that, varying conceptions aside, the local food market has matured into an economic driver for farmers and rural communities nationwide.

The “Local Food Marketing Practices Survey” is the first ever survey conducted by NASS, in partnership with USDA’s Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food initiative, that provides benchmark data on local food marketing practices. NSAC worked closely with our allies in Congress to secure authorization for this survey as part of the 2014 Farm Bill’s Local Food Production and Program Evaluation Initiative. The Initiative was one of many provisions of the Local Farms, Food and Jobs Act bill, which Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH) and Representative Chellie Pingree (D-ME) and their many co-sponsors helped secure in the last farm bill cycle.

A Mature Market

Some critics of the local food sector characterize the industry as being small, niche, and disconnected with the production agriculture sector. Others generalize that interest is limited to beginning, urban, and “hobby” farmers. The results of the Local Food Marketing Practices Survey, however, paint a much different picture.

The survey, which includes information on both fresh and value-added foods such as meat and cheese, reveals that in 2015 over 167,000 U.S. farms produced and sold food locally through food hubs and other intermediaries, direct farmer-to-consumer marketing, or direct farm to retail. These sales resulted in $8.7 billion in revenue for local producers.

To appreciate how truly robust this level of direct local food sales is, we can compare these figures with those of another agricultural sector that, though now well-established as an economic powerhouse, previously had to fight against the “niche” label – the organic industry. In 2015 direct, or “first point of sale”, organic revenues were $6.2 billion. This figure provides a strong signal that the local food sector is and will be a significant market and source of revenue for farmers going forward.

According to the 2012 Census of Agriculture, the total market value of all agricultural products sold in 2012 was $394.6 billion. Local and regional direct food sales represented roughly two percent of the total value of agricultural products at the time of the survey. Subtracting out agricultural sales of products not consumed directly by humans (e.g., animal feed, tobacco, trees, cotton, etc.), local food’s percentage of total direct sales grows to about 3.5 percent.

According to a report by the Farm Credit Council using data from the 2012 Census of Agriculture, “if “direct-to-consumer” (a sub-sector of the larger local food market) were a commodity (e.g., cattle or grains), it would be the 4th largest commodity as measured by the number of farms engaged in the practice.” Direct-to-consumer sales is only one portion (one third of the total market value captured by the NASS survey) of the larger local food market, however. Given the industry’s strong sales record and steadily increasing consumer demand, the significance of this sector to the agricultural economy can no longer be denied.

But what about the farmers? Could hobby farmers really be producing $8.7 billion worth of agricultural products? The short answer is – no. According to the NASS survey, 77 percent of farmers who used direct marketing to sell their products were established farmers, having farmed 10 or more years, with the balance representing beginning farmers. These seasoned and newer producers are the backbone of the local food industry and their rural communities. They are helping to drive the shift toward more healthy, local, and seasonal foods.

The Details Behind the Data

Recognizing that past Census of Agriculture surveys were missing key components of the local and regional food economy, the Local Food Marketing Practices Survey was developed in order to create a baseline for the local and regional food economy. This information, in turn, would help producers, businesses, and policymakers make better decisions about investments in the sector.

While the nature of the survey makes it somewhat difficult to draw broad conclusions about future growth in the sector, we can make some sound projections by examining the data on the value of agricultural products sold directly to individuals for human consumption. According to the 2007 Census of Agriculture, the value of agricultural products sold directly to individuals for human consumption was $1.2 billion; according to the 2012 Census the total had only risen slightly over five years, to $1.3 billion. The NASS Local Food Survey, however, shows a significant jump taking place just two years later. According to their data, the direct-to-consumer market had grown by $1.7 billion (a total of $3 billion in revenue) from 2012 to 2015.

This dramatic increase in revenue reflects the growing consumer interest in local and regional foods and in direct-marketing outlets such as farmers markets and community supported agriculture programs. Although we cannot use changes in direct-to-consumer sales as a perfect proxy for the trajectory of the larger local food industry, the data do clearly indicate that the market is growing.

This growth has been due in part by the efforts of the USDA to promote local and regional food systems, as well as by policies and programs championed by the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC), including: the Value Added Producer Grant program, Farmers Market and Local Food Promotion Program, Local and Regional Food Enterprise Guaranteed Loans, Farm to School grant program, and the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program.

Local Food and the 2018 Farm Bill

The current Farm Bill is set to expire at the end of September 2018. Throughout 2017 and 2018, the Senate and House Agriculture Committees will be undergoing the complex and difficult work of writing the next farm bill. As Congress, the new administration, and farm and advocacy groups begin these discussions, the importance of the local food sector of the agriculture economy should not be underestimated.

The 2014 Farm Bill included historic investments in the local and regional food sector that have undoubtedly helped, along with growing consumer interest and demand in all things food and agriculture, to drive growth within that sector. NSAC urges Congress and the new Administration to continue building on the successes of 2014 and driving growth in this sector and in rural America. We look forward to working with policy makers and our members and partners to ensure the continued development and prosperity of this important market and movement.

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Local is the “new organic”

Written by  Deena Shanker for Quartz

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Local food is following organic into the mainstream

As consumers pay more attention to what they eat, the desire for food produced nearby is starting to gain more traction. In a survey of more than 1,000 US consumers conducted by Cowen and Company, 39% of respondents ranked “where food comes from/’what’s in my food’” as either very or extremely important, beating the 29% who placed the same level of importance on healthfulness. And while both “local” and “organic” labels are (often mistakenly) considered indicators of health, 43% of participants said that they would be most likely to purchase groceries with a “locally sourced” label, compared to organic’s 19%.

These consumers seem to be putting their money where their mouth is: Sales of local food increased to $11.7 billion in 2014 from about $5 billion in 2008, according to the USDA. “Local food is rapidly growing from a niche market to an integrated system recognized for its economic boost to communities across the country,” Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack told NPR’s The Salt. (Sourcing foods locally also increases food security, even if its environmental benefits are sometimes questionable.)

Supermarkets and restaurants, meanwhile, are trying to meet this demand. Grocery stores are stocking local foods in their produce sections and offering customers the opportunity to sign up for shares in Community Supported Agriculture, Supermarket News reported earlier this month. (CSAs are subscription services between farms and customers, where the full season is paid for upfront and a box of fresh produce is delivered or picked up each week.)

Online grocer FreshDirect has a “Local” section of its site that even lets consumers shop according to the state the food is from.

Chefs see the growing interest in local ingredients, too. In a recent “What’s Hot” survey on restaurant trends conducted by the National Restaurant Association (NRA), 82% of the nearly 1,300 chefs surveyed identified locally sourced meats and seafood as a hot trend on menus, while 79% said the same about locally grown produce. That made them the top two trends out of the 198 listed. “Organic produce,” meanwhile was number 25. (The bottom two: Chicken wings at 13% and gazpacho at 10%. So 2012.)

To get in line with that trend, restaurants put the word “local” or “locally” on 11.3% of US menus in 2014, according to data from Datassential. That’s still behind organic’s 18.7%, but it’s catching up. In each of the past four years, “local” has been added to menus at a faster pace than “organic.”

atlas_NJe1wc1t@2x (2)While grocers and restaurants are trying to meet the demand for local food, factors like geography, logistics and weather can make this a challenge, especially if the menus weren’t originally designed with local ingredients in mind. LYFE Kitchen, a chain that incorporates sustainability into everything from its building design to the way it cleans tables, only realistically aims for 20-30% of its springtime ingredients in its New York location to be locally sourced, Fortune reported.

Startups like Good Eggs and Nextdoorganics can get local groceries to individual customers in a handful of cities, but anyone that cooks or sells in large quantities faces bigger hurdles. The NRA recommends cultivating relationships with nearby growers, shrinking menu offerings, and managing customer expectations—all local, all the time is a nearly impossible goal for even the most dedicated eatery.

Original Post

Local food could be a “big deal”

FarmersMarketBy Dan Nosowitz

Eating a local diet—restricting your sources of food to those within, say, 100 miles—seems enviable but near impossible to many, thanks to lack of availability, lack of farmland, and sometimes short growing seasons. Now, a study from the University of California, Merced, indicates that it might not be as far-fetched as it sounds. “Although we find that local food potential has declined over time, our results also demonstrate an unexpectedly large current potential for meeting as much as 90 percent of the national food demand,” write the study’s authors. Ninety percent! What?

Researchers J. Elliott Campbell and Andrew Zumkehr looked at every acre of active farmland in the U.S., regardless of what it’s used for, and imagined that instead of growing soybeans or corn for animal feed or syrup, it was used to grow vegetables. (Currently, only about 2 percent of American farmland is used to grow fruits or vegetables.) And not just any vegetables: They used the USDA’s recommendations to imagine that all of those acres of land were designed to feed people within 100 miles a balanced diet, supplying enough from each food group. Converting the real yields (say, an acre of hay or corn) to imaginary yields (tomatoes, legumes, greens) is tricky, but using existing yield data from farms, along with a helpful model created by a team at Cornell University, gave them a pretty realistic figure.

Still, the study involves quite a few major leaps of faith because it seeks not to demonstrate what is possible for a given American right now but to lay out a basic overview of the ability of local food to feed all Americans. It’s not just projecting yields for vegetables grown on land that is today dominated by corn and soy. The biggest leap of faith is perhaps an unexpected one and is surprisingly underreported: Why do we even want to adjust our food supply to be local in the first place?

“Local food is kind of largely rejected by a lot of scientists from earth and environmental fields because the greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation of food from the farm to the retailer is actually really small compared to all the other emissions,” said Campbell, an associate professor at UC Merced. (Zumkehr is one of his students; the two fused their research to attempt to answer this question.) We take it for granted that eating locally must provide a huge boost to our environmental bona fides, but if the only consideration is emissions from the trucks, trains, and planes that bring us food from elsewhere, we’re mistaken. Looking at our diet as a whole, the total amount of emissions that come from transportation is somewhere around 10 percent—hardly the biggest factor. The bulk of emissions emerge from the farm itself, from the actual growing and production of the food.

So, Why Should You Care? Campbell thinks there’s a distinct connection between eating locally and tackling those farm-based emissions. The elephant in the room, he said, is the move from an animal-based diet to a plant-based one. Environmental and food scientists trying to reduce emissions are focused much more intently on that switch than on local food, but Campbell sees the two as related, largely because those who eat locally also tend to eat a much higher concentration of plants. “You walk into a farmers market and into a grocery store, and it’s like two different worlds, you know?” he said. “A grocery store has some vegetables hidden off to the side, and at a farmers market it’s all about the vegetables. That’s not a trivial issue.”

To tie all of those new acres of vegetables imagined in the study to local consumers, each acre was assigned to a nearby city, with no overlaps. This is tricky, especially in dense megalopolises like the Northeast Corridor and Southern California; land in, say, northeastern Pennsylvania lies within 100 miles of both New York City and Philadelphia. “We added this optimization model that decided which units of land to allocate to which particular cities to maximize the total number of people in the U.S. who could be fed locally,” said Campbell.

So that 90 percent number doesn’t mean that any given American can have 90 percent of his or her food needs met by local food, nor does it mean that 90 percent of all Americans will have all of their needs met by local food. Instead it’s a national average: In some parts of the country, people could have all of their needs met, but in, say, New York City, only about 30 percent of the people could have their food needs met by local food (assuming that we tear up all current crops and plant more smartly). Oddly enough, not all major cities have this problem. Chicago, for example, is a wonderland in terms of local food potential. “Chicago stands out. All the high-population cities seem to have lower potential, but Chicago has a lot of cropland around it,” said Campbell. Chicago’s advantage is partly because, unlike in the Northeast, Southern California, or even South Florida, it doesn’t have any major satellite cities nearby. But it’s also because there are a ton of farms within even 50 miles of Chicago, much more than in the Northeast, for instance.

Dense cities aren’t just difficult to feed because they’re dense; the Northeast also suffered a huge collapse in nearby farmland as farming moved to the Midwest in the 20th century. But that farmland, or a lot of it, anyway, could still be resuscitated and used to feed the cities. Campbell sees that as a possibility with a huge amount of potential. “If you put the farms close to the cities, it opens up new opportunities to basically recycle water and nutrients between the cities and farms instead of relying on things that might require fossil fuels,” he said. A robust urban composting program, for example, could supply nearby farms easily, reducing the reliance on fertilizers that maybe aren’t so good for the environment. (Cheap synthetic nitrogen fertilizers put a massive strain on the environment in about a dozen ways; using less of them can only help.)

“This is kind of the first attempt to quantify what the potential is, so we decided with the first number to just see what the upper limit is, the greatest possibility,” Campbell said. This isn’t a change that we could just put into effect with a few clever laws or behavioral changes; it would require an overhaul of the entire economic system and would probably cause the collapse of the world economy as we know it.

But that isn’t the point. The point is to have a baseline, an upper theoretical potential, of whether feeding the country locally is even possible. It certainly seems that it is. The next step, both for Campbell and Zumkehr and for the others that will inevitably riff on their work, is to refine this data. Right now it doesn’t include any climate data, for example: An acre of land in Michigan does not have the same growing season as an acre of land in California’s Central Valley. (Currently, the model takes an average of the annual production of each acre, but it doesn’t include any tips for how to conserve the harvest so that it feeds people above the Mason-Dixon Line during the winter.) Another issue: Our food preferences now are significantly global, and there are lots of important and popular foods that can’t be grown in the U.S. at all (think coffee or chocolate).

It’s important to understand the limits of this study, but it would be equally foolish to disregard it. This is research that thoughtfully begins the conversation about legitimately feeding the country locally. It’s a conversation that’s going to get louder and more important in the years to come.

Original Post

Author Dan Nosowitz is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn. He has written for Popular Science, The Awl, BuzzFeeᴅ, Modern Farmer, Gawker, Fast Company, and elsewhere.