POSTED ON JULY 15, 2009:
Although "local washing" abounds, the real-deal veggie fields continue to spread
Let's play a game. Which sounds more appetizing: A peach sprayed with pesticides and picked hard and green in an industrial orchard in California, processed and packed at a sprawling, faceless, corporate farm and trucked a couple thousand miles to your local grocery store...
Or, a peach picked ripe at a farm in a city you could, despite the geography courses at your public school, pinpoint on a map, delivered to your farmers' market totally free of chemicals, long-distance travel damage and other modes of interference and sold to you by a friendly guy in a hat who reminds you of your grandfather?
Wait. There wasn't really a choice presented there, was there? It's one of those "duh" decisions. Who in this day and age doesn't want unmitigated, fresh fruit grown by people they know? After multiple food safety scares, documentaries extolling the nutritional merits of fresh-picked produce and all those blurbs on TV about how we should all be reducing our carbon footprint, demand for food grown within a stone's throw from home is on the rise.
But, you already knew that. So do the major grocery stores. Remember the fanfare on TV and in the papers when Wal-Mart jumped on the local food bandwagon a few years ago with its announcement that it would start sourcing some of the products on its produce shelves from local farmers? And you can't enter the produce section of the local Whole Foods market without catching the banner above the door shouting about the store's locally grown herbs. Food Pyramid also toots the local horn, boasting "home-grown" cantaloupe and peaches from Missouri and Arkansas tomatoes.
Catch the sale ad from Tahlequah-based grocery Reasor's lately? Check out the "We Know the Grower" profile piece, printed right below that week's loss-leaders. There's even a family photo. The imagery makes the farmers seem like individuals, even if they are part of large, national growing groups headquartered up to 2,100 miles away.
Local washing is "a big topic of conversation amongst a lot of local farmers," said Bibi Becklund, the farmer behind The Living Kitchen Farm & Dairy in Bristow. She's seen her share of April grocery store kiosks full of big, red tomatoes and huge watermelons, all under a sign printed with the words "Farmers' Market."
"I have to laugh," she said, not willing to name the store where she saw the sign, saying only the location was local. "That is, clearly, working within the realm of deceptive advertising. They're claiming it's the farmers' market, which, obviously, there's no way that's true. There are no tomatoes or watermelons in Oklahoma in April, anyway."
When Chelsea Coleman, half the brains behind Bixby's Bootstramp Farm, stumbles upon these insidious marketing campaigns, she thinks, "They are making money off of my hard work, and I'm not getting anything out of it. They're making money off the idea of local farming. Consumers, paying for the idea of local farming doesn't benefit the local farm. You have to buy the actual produce."
"There's a lot of it going on in Tulsa, unfortunately," she added, not willing to name names.
She did say, however, that in her dealings with the local Whole Foods location to try to get Bootstrap Farms in its produce section, "they have totally given us the runaround."
"Their produce manager is awesome. But, it took my partner, Don Drury, and I a long time to get hold of the right people higher in the chain. Even then, they were not responsive. We had to call three and four different people to get to the right person. Then we were forced to fill out and turn in forms, and there was always a discrepancy between what forms we knew we sent in and what forms they said they'd received from us.
"Our experience can't speak for the company as a whole," she added. "We still want to do business with them, but honestly, we've given up on them for now."
While their experience with Whole Foods was less-than-savory, they got a call from Wal-Mart, looking for local farmers offering their volume requirements.
"We buy a lot of local products, Porter peaches, mushrooms and potatoes included," said Wal-Mart representative Bill Worth in a phone interview.
"Wal-Mart looked up local farms and called all of us," Coleman said. "We don't have enough for them this year, but the farmers they are working with are getting good prices from them. We were surprised."
"I've been contacted by Wal-Mart buyers looking for local farms, too," said Doug Walton, coordinator of the community food projects at Kerr Center for Sustainable Agriculture.
"To me, that's a good sign. Whether or not it's going to pan out in the best interest of local farmers as far as being a vendor for an entity such as Wal-Mart is yet to be seen. I know for some people it's working. They're of a scale where that works."
Because whether or not a food is local isn't regulated by any authority (as is organic food), grocery stores and restaurants are tempted to get in on the action and use it to their financial advantage, Becklund said, "even if they can't always deliver that product."
"We've all seen it for years on milk cartons--green pastures filled with cows, photos of some family on the back by the nutrition facts. Now the local food movement is a lot bigger, really even more so than the one based on organic food. There are dollars to be made. It's hard to resist capitalizing on such a huge, moneymaking trend."
It's not fair to demonize all restaurants that look to carry local food, since they often start with good intentions.
"Say you want to feature lettuce from Three Springs Farm of Oaks, Okla., in your salads. So, you make a pick up on Saturday. By Tuesday, you're out. They could reprint the menu, or they could go to the grocery store and make a not-so-local substitution. One is much easier than the other. So, they get behind, and sometimes, they cheat," Becklund said.
Her advice to restaurateurs? Cheating isn't worth it.
"It always gets back to the customer. Your employees turn over, and they talk. It all comes out. In the end, you lose the faith of your customers."
When Becklund worked as a prioprietor chef at the Seattle restaurant La Medusa, she had to do a lot of planning and forethought to stay true to her local ethos.
"I had a farmers' market right across the street, and it was still really hard work," she said. "I had to be willing to take something off menu if I didn't have the product. I knew my customers would appreciate it, rather than have me run to the grocery store for Tyson chicken when my menu boasts chicken from so-and-so's farm."
So, going local takes a lot of effort. The distribution and communication infrastructure between restaurateur, grocery store and farmer just isn't there, and who isn't busy these days?
"It takes a lot of effort at first, I know, but once you establish a process, it runs so smoothly," Becklund said. "Then, you feel so much better about the product you're serving. You have to get through the rough patches of training staff, running out of product, your own lack of planning."
The practice of local washing is "a moving target," Walton said. "Sometimes, intentionally and not, they'll have something that's local, then it's gone. The labeling and pricing may not change or get updated.
"Part of the challenge is many of the retail grocers, even if they're local and independent, may not have a lot of experience with sourcing locally," Walton said. "Certain aspects of dealing in local food systems are inefficient.
"Large retailers that have access to the global distribution system place an order any time they wish, and they know it will come next week on the truck exactly as they requested. The local food system doesn't offer that infrastructure. It requires additional effort on the part of the retailer to seek out local sources. They won't do it unless they see an economic benefit," Walton said.
Let the Buyer Be Asking
"It's our responsibility if we care where our food comes from to ask. It's a fair question. Honestly, that's what it's going to take--people asking questions. The more people ask, the more those retailers hear those questions, the more they're going to work to make it possible for consumers to buy local," Walton said.
But, when it comes to connecting restaurants and grocery stores to local farmers, who makes the first move? The answer to that question depends on who you ask.
"You have to make time to go talk to farmers. We want to sell to restaurants, and we want to sell at a fair price," Becklund said.
"There's a lot of chatter around about local food. Unfortunately, here in Oklahoma, there's not a great deal of farmers who have volume or quality for a store of our size to get involved with," said Mark Faust, vice president of produce and floral operations at Reasor's.
"Another thing is, they don't contact us. If I could get a consortium of growers here in Oklahoma, I'd love to deal with them. But, we haven't been contacted. Our efforts to help people to put something together hasn't been fruitful."
Reasor's has managed to establish a working relationship with Shelby Farms of Webber's Falls in Muskogee County, buying watermelon and cantaloupe farm fresh, for real.
"We have tried to get other local relationships like those, but growers just don't have the volumes to be able to come to us."
"What we have done instead is develop relationships with growers around the U.S. We go to their fields, we see their commitment to quality and green farming practices, and we strike relationships with them so we can bring that product to our stores here in Oklahoma.
"These relationships are with companies who have been in business for years. They're family farmers. They might be part of a large group of growers. But, the idea is to personalize that and say we know and have met these people. They exhibit the growing practices and quality standards we want at Reasor's. Our signage in our stores shows that, and we put them on our ads. I mean, I've personally visited these farms.
"I think we do a better job on our signs that indicate where a product comes from than I've seen elsewhere. We indicate that on signage or packaging, much of the both, whether it's from Canada, Mexico, wherever.
"There's mutual responsibility here," Walton said. "Consumers need to ask questions, and retailers need to be as accurate as possible--forthright and accurate about what products they have for sale and, as often as possible, provide the origin of where that produce came from. To me, that's something that many people are interested in, even if they don't think to ask."
A few local restaurants and grocery stores have earned the rave reviews of their local farmers, including first and foremost Libby Auld, proprietor chef at Elote Cafe & Catering at 5th and Boston.
"Elote is among the honest," Becklund said. "If Libby doesn't have local product, she doesn't try to imply that she does. I see her at every Wednesday and Saturday farmers' market."
"Elote is awesome. She does what she can locally without raising prices. Also, Hibiscus Caribbean Bar & Grill on Brookside has bought a lot from us, too," Coleman said.
"We e-mailed a lot of restaurants over the winter because we wanted to meet to see what they'd be interested in carrying through the growing season. Libby was only one who took the time to meet with us," Coleman added.
The grocer leading the way to local sourcing is Blue Jackalope, 306 S. Phoenix Ave., owned by Scott Smith.
Smith carries produce grown in the community garden across the street from his store, and he carries produce grown at Bootstrap Farm, among others. Anyone who shops there should take the time to look over their receipt--Smith prints from where his products hail next to each item.
"Scott Smith is awesome. He's great about price. He's been really good to work with, and we sell a lot of stuff out of that little store," Coleman said.
"Customers don't want to go someplace and have to ask a bunch of questions," Coleman said. "In Tulsa, though, you have to. We can get to that place where that's not necessary. It starts with places like Elote, where people know they're getting a good deal--the most local, organic and natural stuff the chef can afford."
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