Contributed by Luke Felty, ’18
According to the 2012 Census of Agriculture, there are over 800 farms in Madison County. Dairy, beef, eggs, and produce; there’s a huge supply of food being grown right here, but how much of that food gets consumed here? Direct to consumer sales, like farmers markets, offer an important outlet for small farms, but why aren’t there more restaurants featuring products from some of these 800 farms? Working alongside the Partnership for Community Development (PCD), I set out to help identify the barriers to local food access that make local food systems more difficult to interact with than traditional systems of distribution. The PCD is a not for profit economic development agency, but what does local food have to do with economic development? Why should we want local food in our area restaurants anyway?
100 years ago, about 40% of the U.S. workforce was engaged in farming. 200 years ago it was 90%. Today, only 2% of the population works as farmers. This number seems a little low, especially when you’ve lived in Madison County, a place where the countryside seems to sustain a nearly endless supply of quaint farmhouses and towering silos. The truth is, however, that most of the food we eat isn’t from this area unless we make a concerted effort to attend farmers markets each week, buy a CSA share at Common Thread, or seek out local food specials on menus. Before we can understand why that is the case, however, it’s important to first understand the importance of local agriculture sales to our economy.
Simply put, money spent on local food is more likely to return to the local economy than money spent on products that have been shipped long distances. The purchase of local products is an investment in the local economy. That is the economic development aspect of the project, but local food represents much more than a strengthened economy. Some opt to buy local due to environmental concerns because food often travels over 1,000 miles to reach its final stop, which also raises concerns about freshness for some. Others value the important relationships that can be built within the community through local foods. This bond forms one of the key benefits to buying local; in addition to a strong local economy, it helps to promote a strong local community. However, for all of the benefits there are just as many barriers to overcome before local foods can be more firmly established in area restaurants.
To identify these barriers, I spoke with restaurant owners and producers in and around Hamilton. The information we gained from these interviews will inform the action plan that the PCD will begin developing in order to increase local food sales in restaurants. But what are the barriers? The three most commonly recognized barriers were: distribution, volume, and cost. The first of these, distribution, refers to the delivery network that connects farms to restaurants and supermarkets. The most commonly used distributor in the U.S. is Sysco, but there are many smaller, local-oriented distributors as well. In order to get local food into restaurants, a distribution network must be established that can reliably transport an adequate volume of food. Such local distributors exist but are spread rather thin. Interestingly, existing distribution networks make it easier to buy produce from New Mexico than produce from Ithaca. This means that restaurant owners and producers must bridge the gap without a middleman, which requires hours of communication and deliveries every week. For many this is impractical and difficult, resulting in a widespread preference for traditional distribution systems.
The second barrier, volume, concerns the relative smallness of Madison County farms. Assuming that a distribution network did exist between farms and restaurants, there is still no guarantee that farms would be able to produce enough to meet a restaurant’s demand. This makes buying local a potentially risky proposition for restaurants which must ensure the availability of all menu items. Lastly, cost is a barrier insomuch as restaurant owners must be able to maintain certain profit margins to keep their businesses afloat. Though most consumers say that they’re willing to pay a higher price for local foods, restaurant owners still have to keep prices in a competitive range with the market average. Similarly, farmers have to earn enough from each sale to sustain the farm and its workers. As a result, there can be a disconnect between farmers and restaurant owners.Why sell your produce to a restaurant at a steeply discounted rate when retail and farmers market sales provide a more profitable source of revenue?
Other issues, such as seasonality of produce and lack of time also act as barriers to integrating local food in restaurants, but according to my experience these three are the most limiting. While these barriers will likely be difficult to overcome, the benefits to incorporating local foods into restaurants should be worth the effort. If you’ve sampled the greens at the farmers market, you’ll know what I mean.