The Value of Local

Convenience and price. We know it drives the market, pressures sales, and influences choices. There are convenience stories, convenience checkouts, and conveniently located impulse buys at the ends of aisles or at the checkout. Entrepreneurial farmers have all hear it: “Oh, I was at the grocery store, so I just got it there instead.”

Box stores are the imperial kings of convenience. They have teams of marketers that study which corner has the most traffic, which demographics will purchase what types of items, and which methods of display sell the most product. They also have a huge network, volume, and sales base to often push product prices below the cost of production, just to get you hooked.

Small scale, diversified, and sustainably minded farmers jump into the playing field of food sales with several disadvantages—their budget is small, their network is just budding, and the marketing team is usually themselves. They can’t afford to open their shop or stand at the sought-after corner in town. They can’t be open 24-7 because there’s no money to afford employees, let alone perhaps pay themselves for their labors. And they can’t lower prices below what it costs to produce their foods. These simply aren’t means for keeping the family farm.

But these same entrepreneurial agrarians have many things that the big-ag-driven markets and retailers do not. They have heart and soul and ethic invested in the area, in the people who live here, and the land. They care about the health and well-being of the community, bringing personal attention to their product from soil to salad, grain to bread, or chick to egg. All along the way is care for the earth, for the plants, for the animals, for the people, for each other. No entrepreneurial agrarian dreams of “getting rich” off what they do—they have chosen this journey because they care deeply about wholesome, natural foods sourced directly from their place of production.

But because these same farmers can’t occupy the busy corner and be entirely convenient for everyone at all times, that does mean that enlightened eaters often need to take an extra step to reach out and choose local. Maybe this involves driving out to the farm, joining a CSA program, or asking their local or co-op grocer to carry a farm’s wares. Often it takes the incentive of clients asking for certain local products to wake retailers up to the fact that buying local impacts their own business viability as well.

This has been witnessed by our farm over and over again, where what began as enthusiasm for choosing local gradually wanes to “It was easier to buy organic lettuce from California off the delivery truck.” Again, convenience and price waves its magic over the consumer, distracting them from the real and visceral need of the small farmer to build and keep a dedicated client base that believes in their work.

Recently, we’ve been teaming up with Namakagon Grocer in Cable to carry our aquaponics fresh produce as part of her weekly produce buying club. Unfortunately, there were not enough orders to bring up a shipment this week. Some folks also had questions about whether our “product was 100% organic or not.” This is the message I wrote in return:

Hi Alyssa,

Sorry that folks didn’t order enough to bring a shipment. With tomorrow’s storm, though, I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to make it between 2 and 3 in the afternoon.

I’m happy to share more about our practices. Instead of having a “top down” method where an outside agency gives us a USDA stamp of organic approval, we choose a “bottom up” approach where people can learn directly what our practices are, get to meet us, and tour the farm. Our practices truly are “beyond organic,” with an emphasis on sustainability, permaculture, cradle-to-cradle systems, multi-speciation, and rotational diversification. I have looked into the applications for MOSA organic certification, and how we farm is actually much stricter than the MOSA regulations for organics.

For instance, in our aquaponics greenhouse, because of the fish, we cannot use ANY sprays on the plants. Even certified and naturally-derived pest sprays like Neem Oil will kill the fish. This makes an aquaponics greenhouse “hyper organic.” Just think that, if this chemical can kill fish, what is it doing to you on your food? Fish emulsion is the number one fertilizer used in organic cropping, so aquaponics takes that yet another step so that the fish and the plants work together in a symbiotic relationship that allows the water to be constantly recycled, instead of a one-way system of buying concentrated emulsion and adding it to the field.

In all our endeavors, we work towards improving our sustainability practices (sustainability, ultimately, is a journey rather than an end), lessening our carbon footprint, and sourcing locally. Each year we add a new tier to this process, like sprouting our own fodder for livestock feed, switching to a heritage grazing pig (kunekune), etc. When we think about improving the overall health of the community—what my mom and co-owner Dr. Ann Berlage calls her current medical practice—growing local, sustainable, wholesome, and biosecure foods creates the greatest impact. The recent climate change report shows even more how fossil fuel emissions (exacerbated by the constant stream of shipping, including foods) poses a real threat to the world’s ability to support our beautiful and precious biome. If we can get more folks to find the value in local, and the people who are on the leading edge of making this happen regionally, then we all put our best foot forward to making real impact.

In our latest monthly email, I also compiled some thoughts on why local and sustainable is the choice above big-ag organics, which I’ve copied below:

Know Your Farmer: While a USDA Certified Organic label can tell you some things about how a food was raised or processed, the system is still fraught with loop-holes that allow growers to get away with sub-standard practices if they are “at the risk of losing their crop.” Knowing your local farmer, seeing her farm and facility, and learning her practices is the best way to build a food relationship you can trust.

Food Miles and Middle Men: Travel can be exhausting for people, so imagine those greens or fruits that have rattled about in trucks, loading docks, and warehouses for days or even weeks before reaching store shelves. Many products are gassed to make them ripen or keep cut ends from oxidizing. The process passes through many hands, creating layers of separation between you, the farmer, and the land. Going direct to the source makes sure you get the freshest product ever and that you know where your money goes.

Impact on the Local Economy: Studies show that for every dollar given to a farmer, 90 cents stays in the community—a huge difference from big market outlets. Your farmer shops at the local feed store, the local hardware store, etc. How you vote with your shopping makes a direct impact on what resources and networks continue to flourish in the area.

Preserve Sustainable Farming in the Area and Food Security: Most folks don’t know it, but the average city has enough food on the shelves for three days. Should an interruption in transportation occur, food shortages could be a serious concern. Supporting local, small, and sustainably minded farms in your area encourages and preserves a network of local food system to keep the specter of hunger at bay. It also tells your local farmers that you care about their lifestyle and dedication to the land and community—that you want to see them keep the family farm going for generations.

Please feel free to forward this email to your client list, if you feel this would help answer their questions about what we do and learn more about our sustainably minded operation.

Again, sorry that it didn’t work out for this week. Let me know if you have any thoughts towards next week.
Laura Berlage


This spring, and in all seasons, remember your local, sustainable farmer. The pressures of big-ag (often hidden from the consumer) are all intended to shrink and crush your ability to actively choose where your food comes from. Be an agent for choice—support your local farmer. Make that extra effort to say “I care” in an unfair playing field and know that your efforts do make a difference. See you down on the farm sometime.