By Seth Coffman
Shopping locally for food is a rewarding experience. The money you spend supports local businesses, farmers and entrepreneurs. Add free samples, creative recipes and live music and shopping locally moves beyond just a commercial experience to a fun outing, offering something for everyone.
This is what my family experienced and enjoyed this summer, visiting our local farmers' markets on Saturdays and farm stands on the way home from work. We purchased fresh eggs, greens, honey and apples, and sampled local barbecue. But we also met the growers and producers of these products, something we can't do at chain grocery stores. Sharing this connection with the food we eat is a uniquely local experience and one I look forward to continuing this fall and winter.
Typically, food in the U.S. travels 1,300 to 1,500 miles before it reaches a fork, and it takes four to seven days before reaching grocery store shelves. But that is changing. U.S. Department of Agriculture research last year shows that 40 percent of fruit and vegetable growers sell in local or regional markets. And it's not just small farms - the study showed farms grossing less than $50,000 a year to more than $250,000 a year rely on local markets. Larger farms tend to sell to processors, grocers, regional distributors and restaurants, whereas smaller farms tend to sell directly to consumers. The markets for local foods are growing across the country. Virginia now has more than 170 farmers' markets, double the number from just five years ago.
Continuing growth in purchasing local foods can have a big impact. The Virginia Food Council estimates that, statewide, Virginians could generate $1.65 billion in local revenue annually by spending $10 a week on locally produced food. In Shenandoah County, if every household spent just $10 a week on locally grown farm products, we would generate an additional $9.6 million in revenue this year for local farmers. According to the USDA, every $1 million in sales in local markets supports 13 full-time workers. So, eating local is not just good for our health and nutrition, but also has big potential for job creation and economic opportunity here in Shenandoah County.
To increase awareness of the benefits of buying local, Shenandoah Forum launched an "Eat Local Buy Local" campaign in May that ended on Oct. 6. Our challenge to encourage residents to spend at least $10 a week for 10 weeks on locally grown products was part of a broader yearlong campaign launched by the Virginia Food Council.
Buying fresh and eating locally does not have to end with the summer. Living in Virginia's fifth largest agriculture-producing county provides lots of opportunities for Shenandoah County citizens to get local produce and support local farmers this fall and winter. We can continue to visit our farmers' markets - most remain up through October - and keep shopping at our family farm markets. Check their hours, but most stay open through November and then have shortened hours through the holidays and into the winter. In Woodstock and Mt. Jackson, there are several smaller markets open throughout the year offering a selection of local and Virginia grown products. New this fall, and continuing through the winter months, Swover Creek Farm in Edinburg will host a food tasting - a great opportunity to sample a variety of local fare. The next tasting is 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 27.
Another option is joining a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) provider to enjoy a weekly delivery of local products. Sinclair Farms in Mt. Jackson is one of our local CSAs, and offers several options for weekly deliveries.
Or, if you don't want to cook, there is the option of eating out. Cristina's Café in Strasburg, open from Thursday through Sunday, has a great menu selection of local foods, and look for Woodstock Café to increase local food menu choices - according to recent news they will begin to source much of their menu items from a newly purchased farm in Edinburg.
If you haven't yet joined the local food movement, how about kicking off your own campaign on Food Day 2012? Celebrated annually on Oct. 24, this is a nationwide celebration of healthy, affordable and sustainably produced food. For more on local events, visit fooddayshenvalley.wordpress.com.
Most importantly, commit to spending more of your food dollars on our local agricultural products from farms operated by your neighbors, and make an investment to keep Shenandoah Valley agriculture strong.
For more ideas on where to find local foods, check out the 2012 Shenandoah Valley Buy Fresh Buy Local Guide, now available online at buylocalshenvalley.org.
Seth Coffman is chairman of Shenandoah Forum, which is a group of citizen volunteers that was established in 2001 to encourage active and informed citizen participation in maintaining Shenandoah County's rural, agricultural and historic character, a healthy environment, and sustainable economy. Visit ShenandoahForum.org for more information.