Regional Food Beyond the Farmer’s Market

Recently, the environmental news site Grist featured a commentary titled, "Forget farmers markets—I want to sell my pastured meat at Price Chopper!" The author, Bob Comis, is a small hog farmer from New York, and declares that it is time to move beyond Farmer's Markets and CSA's (Community-Supported Agriculture, where a person can buy a "share" of a farm's harvest and gets boxes of food throughout the growing season) to get regional foods into mainstream grocery stores.

It is time to make local passe. It is time to make regional the new local. Enough of farmers markets, CSAs, and direct on-farm sales. Yes, they are exciting — they feel like they are getting us somewhere. And, to be honest and give them their due, they have gotten us somewhere. The reality, however, is that they will never get us there, whither goest we must if we want to make a change — real change. I will say it as straight as I can: I want to see my pork in Price Chopper (a supermarket).

Comis' reasoning is that, while Farmer's Markets and CSAs are a great resource for both farmers, communities and consumers, to truly make an impact we must integrate local (and regional) food into the fabric of our everyday shopping lifestyles. This is especially true for Appalachia, where the extremely rural geography makes it difficult for Farmer's Markets and CSAs to provide enough income for small farmers to live on. On the other hand, if Appalachian produce and meats are available at the local IGA or Save-A-Lot, the number of potential buyers skyrockets.

It's not easy, of course. Supermarkets are often stricter about the produce they buy than someone at a Farmer's Market. There are standards for size, shape, color and packaging. There are more regulations to deal with when selling to a supermarket. Often grocers want more produce than one small farm can produce. And most of all, we need the infrastructure. Comis explains what we need:

• Regional distribution:

  • Trucking and rail, and yes, where appropriate, even barge
  • Distribution hubs (logistics and storage) to gather produce into regionalizable quantities
  • Regional distribution outlets

    • A plethora of mom and pop butchers
    • A plethora of mom and pop groceries
    • Supermarkets

• Regional wholesale markets and wholesale distributors without which regional distribution infrastructure is fruitless

• Regional processing:

  • Slaughterhouses with smallish to mid-sized kill floors
  • Mid-sized packing plants to break carcasses into primals and/or all the way down to retail cuts

• Regional-scale production infrastructures:

  • Scaled-up farms producing enough that when gathered by the regional distribution infrastructures can consistently and reliably supply regional distribution outlets

Comis naturally focuses on meat processing, but the same infrastructure is needed for produce as well.

While this may seem daunting, the process has already begun. In my previous post I mentioned Appalachian Harvest, a regional "brand" run by Appalachian Sustainable Development in Abingdon, VA. ASD buys produce from small farmers in Southwest Virginia and east Tennessee, transports it to their processing and packaging facility in Duffield, and ships it on to grocery stores across the region. In Morgan County, Ohio, the Chesterhill Produce Auction provides a place for grocery stores, restaurants, school cafeterias and the general public to buy in bulk from local farmers. Most states already have marketing schemes for their farmer's produce, like "Kentucky Proud," "West Virginia Grown," "Virginia Grown" and "Ohio Proud."

Of course, much more needs to be done. The infrastructure of a regional food system is still in its infancy, and we have a lot of work to do before it can benefit the region's farmers as a whole. But as interest in local and regional foods grows, so does the commitment to making sure Appalachia is part of the momentum.