Local Food Trends: Bucking Stereotypes

5 years ago

Intermediated Local Apple SalesLast summer, during a farm tour, one of our guests, a pre-teen boy, started talking about how great our breakfast must be. He waxed poetic about the bacon, eggs, sausage, and toast we must eat at the crack of dawn every morning. I'm not going to lie—before he was done I was beginning to wonder if the only place he'd even encountered depiction of farm life was in Charlotte's Web and was trying to decide how best (and most gently) to burst his stereotypical-farmer bubble. The truth is, most days, we eat cold cereal as we rush from bed to the day's chores, work and life—committments just like every other American family; it certainly isn't to say there aren't farm families out there who eat a big breakfast, we're just not one of them and we're not an anamoly.

As our society becomes increasingly removed from life on the farm, however, it seems stereotypes and misunderstandings grow almost propotional to the distance between consumers and the source of their food. While some stereotypes hold true—farming is hard work and often requires a lot of hours—others are outdated, inaccurate and misleading at best. And, as local food regains a foothold in our nation, we're faced with the shaping of new stereotypes specific to it, too. As a female hog farmer, I often note how scarcely women are represented in livestock production and lament how ubiquitously we're depicted as crunchy organic farmers market vendors. (Not that there's anything wrong with crunchy organic farmers market vendors. I'm just not one.)

Late last year, the USDA Economic Research Service released a report on the state of local food sales in the U.S. While some of what it revealed was hardly surprising other areas bucked convention—or at least conventional stereotypes—and I was happy to see it. What it ultimately revealed is the U.S. has a strong and deeply varied local food scene—one that's not always what we may think.

While the Midwest may be the nation's breadbasket, the Northeast and West coast far outpace any other region in local sales. And while farmers markets get a lot of press, intermediated sales of local foods—that is sales completed through a middle man, such as a grocery store—account for more than three times the value in sales as direct-marketed local foods. Meanwhile, most of those intermediated local foods—a staggering 92 percent—are produced by just five percent of the farms who report selling foods locally, and those farms aren't quite the quaint images you see on greenwashed packages. They're large operations that average $770,000 dollars in local food sales per year.

And those woman farm-operators I talked about? It seems they're not as common among the local food scene as we're often led to believe. In fact, female farm operators are actually less common on farms with local sales than on farms without local sales. It's a slight difference—10.2 percent facing off against 10.5 percent—but a difference nonetheless. Especially since farms with local food sales are so often tied to women in the media while farms with conventional, non-local food sales are almost always depicted as being run by men.

The report is quick to offer explanations for some of the statistics; proposing, for instance, that the "Neighborhood Effect" likely plays a role in the concentration of farms offering local food sales on the coasts.  Under this theory the presence of farms selling foods locally—and their related infrastructure, such as the long-standing network of farmers markets dating back to the 1970s in California—spur the creation of new farms and encourage further developments in the local food scene.

It still begs the question, though: if they're so inaccurate on a national level, where are these stereotypes coming from? Are women more common vendors at your local farmers markets? They are at mine, despite the statistics that leave them in the dust as primary farm operators of any kind. Have you noticed farms springing up in kind? Have the emergence of some direct-selling farms encouraged the creation of more in your area? What other trends are you noticing? Do they align well with the stereotypes you see in the media and society at large?

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Diana Prichard authors Cultivating the Art of Sustenance and is the owner of the small farm Olive Hill.

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