Who Defines the “Local” in “Local Produce?”

  I’ve never been known as one who has a propensity for stirring the pot or being a malcontent. However, when things I’m passionate about are sullied and bastardized by folks with no real credibility in the realm of the things I care about…

  This story really starts two years ago when I was trying to find a good mid-week market for our farm. We’d made a lot of great new friends in Greenbelt, Maryland, at our Sunday market there, and many of them expressed an interest in buying our products during the week. With this in mind, I searched for and found a market that both suited our needs (nearby to Greenbelt, middle of the week) and showed an interest in having us as a vendor. While this market had another fruit vendor, the specialty vegetables and the wide range of tree fruit we offer was going to fill a significant void, we were told. It seemed like a great fit, and I was told to expect confirmation of our spot once the board met and approved us.

  Just a few weeks later, I get an email from the manager of this market apologizing profusely, explaining that the board ruled that we could not enter the market because our farm was in Pennsylvania. At this time, there was already a vendor from Pennsylvania attending this market—a vendor whose farm was three times the distance from this market as ours. What’s more, a few of the Maryland growers were traveling twice as far to that market as I was. No matter. Local is defined in whatever way best suits those who are defining it, and I’d better look somewhere else for a farmers market. Frustrating as this was, this was a private market and they were free to create whatever nonsensical “rules” they’d like, even at the expense of their own market, as in this case. This market continues to have vendors from other states. We have not been asked back.

  When I was in college, I spoke to several grocery store produce managers who told me local produce is defined as anything that gets to the store on a truck in one day or less. Pressed further, these managers couldn’t tell me if one day meant one day’s travel, one 24-hour period, or 24 “truck hours” (as truckers cannot drive 24 hours straight legally). Their definition had to maintain plausible deniability and be elastic enough to suit their needs. The conversation ended…abruptly.

  But fear not, locavores! The Maryland Department of Agriculture is being proactive, issuing new regulations to define local. Admittedly, at the time, I had a feeling that my State Department of Agriculture missed a real opportunity to step up and provide a great model other states could follow. All the same, it was a breath of fresh air that this selective, self-applied definition of local was going to be really challenged, by my estimation, for the first time!

  And, as has happened so many times to me as a young adult in the business of local agriculture, my faith and anticipation were quickly proven to have been poorly guided.

  Two years removed from the market fiasco, and I’m still trying to market our products to folks in Maryland who are clamoring for them. After having missed the event last year, I acted quickly to insure I’d attend the 3rd Annual Maryland Buyer/Grower Meeting, having had a positive experience at the Innaugural Event. Today, I was informed that I would not be able to attend the event this year, based solely on the fact that my farm is in Pennsylvania. When pressed for an explanation of this policy change, I was told by Mark Powell, Chief of Marketing (contact info) that the buyers at this meeting were there to buy locally from Maryland farmers and my inclusion might “confuse” them. That is to say, the Ag Department believes that Maryland is more local than Pennsylvania. If my fruit travels 70 miles and an Eastern Shore grower travels 120, then I’m trying to confuse you—tricking you into buying something that isn’t local by traveling over state lines.

  For me, local should be defined by the consumer. If you’re reading this and you want to buy your food locally, you get to decide! What’s local to you doesn’t have to be local for your neighbor. If you’ve tried products from 50 miles away and the ones from 100 miles away are better, you’re free to make that choice. We do not need to start playing the more-local-than-thou game; it’s going to make things ugly for everyone. In a perfect world, every person purchasing local farm products gets to assign the value they see fit without a journalist-turned-ag marketer placed between you and I to prevent it from happening. At the end of the day, if you want a local product and you think 70 miles is closer to your home than 120 miles, I think you should be able to make your mind up for yourself—whether the government thinks that’s confusing or not!

  And if you’re looking for an organization built on local food facilitation, not obstruction, learn more about Future Harvest CASA.

Ben Wenk is a seventh-generation farmer and an occasional contributor to Apple Journal.  This article originally appeared on his website: Three Springs Fruit Farm.  If you want a picture of what it’s like to be a small farmer in the heartland these days, go there.  Highly recommended!

About Ben Wenk

PSU Agroecology graduate, farmers market man, seventh generation family farmer, fruit grower
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One Response to Who Defines the “Local” in “Local Produce?”

  1. Got to agree with you, the whole idea of local doesn’t seem to make sense, some folks want to say a 5 or 6 hour distance (within the same state) is local, but a 1 hour distance across a state line is not. Seems to me it will vary….a 2 hour drive in the east could cross multiple states, whereas in the western US 6 hours may be within the same state, but not sure that it should be considered local either. Seems to me, local is an hour or two distance from your home.

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