Petersen: Support for local food is still just a fraction of the population
Special to The Union
At 20, I moved onto five acres in a remote corner of California’s inland coast with a plan to live differently than I ever had. Wide-eyed, full of idealism and a bit nervy I had no idea what I was doing. I learned.
We peeled logs for a cabin. We captured rain from the roof in large tanks. We made electricity from the sun and wind. We learned what grew in the fog-hugged foothills of the Pacific Northwest. And what didn’t. Oftentimes we learned the hard way.
I poured through Territorial Seed catalogues every winter and chose my selections carefully by the warmth of the wood stove. I fantasized about having a small family farm one day. I read Eliot Coleman’s “Four Season Harvest” and John Jeavon’s “How to Grow More Vegetables” with gusto.
In some ways, it was all very romantic. In other ways, I couldn’t think of anything more real and right on.
Two decades later, my fascination with the farming life lures me still. Two summers ago, I worked a season at an organic produce farm and a small dairy, earning a minimum wage income and an abundance of the best food on earth.
Earlier this month, I had the good fortune to attend the Eat Local Placer Nevada Project Community Dinner hosted by UCCE. About a hundred people turned out for the event at the North Star House to honor local farmers and eat a delicious meal prepared using locally grown food. Proceeds from the event will purchase fresh produce from local farms for the Food Bank of Nevada County this winter.
As a regular Saturday booth vendor at the Nevada County Growers Market this summer, I looked forward to saying “hello” to farmer friends and buying my weekly vegetables. When I shop at BriarPatch Co-op, I intentionally seek out food from farms I’ve been to, grown by people I know.
That’s why it comes as a surprise to me to learn that even with a farmers market available nearly every day of the week in Nevada County, the number of people who actually buy their food from local farmers remains low, as few as two percent of the population, according to Cindy Fake, Horticulture and Small Farms Advisor for University of California Cooperative Extension Placer/Nevada Counties.
“We just feel like we’ve scratched the surface as far as getting people aware of and buying local produce. It’s still a very tiny fraction of the community. The reality is different than what we think it is,” said Fake.
For people who are accustomed to their routine of shopping familiar supermarket aisles, the outdoor farmers market can be intimidating, said Fake. UCCE has been working to change that habit by offering tastings at farmers markets, recipe cards and redeemable produce vouchers.
“For some people it’s just outside of their comfort zone. A higher percentage of people buy at a grocery store in Nevada County, but still it depends upon a lot of different factors. The thing that comes up most often as a deterrent in our surveys is convenience. People don’t want to go out of their way to buy local,” said Fake.
A misperception of cost can be an impediment, too. A recent survey conducted by the cooperative extension found that foods found at the farmers markets and foods found at the grocery store are actually comparable in price.
“Overall there’s not much difference, but it’s perception. Some people perceive that farmers markets are more expensive,” said Fake.
Getting past that obstacle is a challenge. Introducing people to local farmers, taking them on farm tours and hosting farm dinners are steps in the right direction.
“It’s about connecting people to farmers and getting people to talk with farmers,” Fake said.
At the UCCE dinner, farmers ate at the tables with us nonfarmers. We all knew who the farmers were by the red bandanas they wore. When Fake asked them to stand, I cheered and cheered.
As corny as it sounds, I can’t think of a more deserving group of folk to be my heroes.
No longer living off the land, I can’t wait to get back to it. In the meantime, I notice the folks who are living that lifestyle now.
The ones making a wholehearted go of it. They work hard. They grow our food. They build a community.
Sometimes I worry about these smart, young people, so determined to make farming their livelihood. Some of our region’s young farmers are entering their 30s now. They are settling down, having babies.
Can they raise a family on a farmer’s wage? Do they have the tools, the land and the community support they need to make a farming life sustainable as a career path? How important is local food to all of us?
With just two percent of the population buying locally grown food, there’s a lot of room for growth to support area farmers.
I am encouraged by the busloads of school kids now visiting local farms.
Next week, local chefs will visit 2,000 students in 18 area schools as part of Sierra Harvest’s “Tasting Week.” This is good news for parents who want to see local food become the norm for school meal programs.
After three years writing for The Union’s Farm to Table page, reader interest and knowledge remains strong.
In coming months, as the harvest season winds down, there is still so much to write about.
Contact freelance writer Laura Petersen at email@example.com or 530-913-3067.
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