Eat Local to Help Real Farmers Feed Us
Jun 28, 2013 01:40PM
By Kim Rice
DFW residents looking to fully capture the local flavor usually don't have to search beyond their own neighborhood farmers’ markets. But many North Texans don't know that shopping there is also the path to a greener diet. "Know who you are buying from, and buy local," says one of the region's top sustainable foodies, Brian Cummings. The founder of EatGreenDFW.com, a popular website helping consumers stay on top of locavore living, Cummings says cleaner food is more often found close to home. Local produce can reduce exposure to pesticides and help consumers avoid genetically modified (GMO) food.
These farms, he notes, are less likely to use large-scale crop chemicals. Also, shoppers can ask farmers about their pesticide usage. Best of all, GMO seeds are almost never introduced into local crops. They are more often used in the industrial food system, especially for animal feed. "The goal is to have the shortest distance from farm to consumer," says Cummings. "There's a simple traceability in the local system that doesn't exist in the national one, and not only does locally produced food provide superior nutrition, it simply tastes better."
Today, only about 5 percent of farms in the country are engaged in local food systems, but there is an increasing demand nationwide for their crops, and the flourishing DFW farmers’ markets mirror that trend. When Cummings began his site in 2006, he could only identify seven farmers markets in the area. Now there are about 22.
However, some of the "farmers’” markets have turned into "distributors’" markets, in which vendors simply sell produce purchased from a wholesaler. The Downtown Dallas Farmers' Market is one, says Cummings; only a handful of true farmers still come. This issue may be remedied soon, however, because the city of Dallas voted to sell the market in late March. New owners have ambitious plans that reportedly include redeveloping it as a true local market, as well as providing residential space, retail and restaurants.
So which are the best genuine farmers' markets around? Cummings says that those found in Coppell, White Rock and McKinney top the list. Also outstanding is the Collin County Market, which was started by an organic farmer in Plano. They all have one thing in common: they carefully police their vendors to make sure the produce is truly from local farms. While some area crops are certified organic, many farmers limit pesticide use, but are not able to manage the rigor of the certification process. Most are delighted to tell potential buyers about their farming philosophy; some will even open their farms to visits.
Of course, local and organic is the pinnacle of the green food supply. Numerous North Texas groceries, including Whole Foods and Central Market, make organic and local produce available, but often their purchasing requirements are too large for small area farmers. One Dallas company has found a new way to bring a locally grown organic product to consumers. Urban Acres market, in Oak Cliff, has developed a co-op style produce system, with pick-up locations all over the DFW area. Through relationships with more than 50 local farms, the company obtains a variety of organic fruits and vegetables and divides them into individual bins. Its members, which currently number more than 1,300, stop by every other week to collect their produce. Members can also add on farm-fresh pasture-raised Texas eggs and local Texas honey.
With all the positives of buying local, why it isn't more broadly embraced? One reason is regulation. Whatever their political persuasion, both farmers and locavores tend to agree on one point: there need to be fewer government-imposed barriers to getting locally grown food on their tables. "There has been extraordinary opposition, supported by deep pockets from big businesses, for any regulations that make it easier for local farms and food producers," says Judith McGeary, executive director of the Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance. "Corporate concern is less about market share and more about the fact that the farms' existence raises questions about how food is raised. If the local farm movement goes away, big business can stock stores with low-quality food and there's no other option."
She adds that because they are small businesses, local growers are more responsive to consumer pressure and frequently run their operations with greater concern about pesticide use, GMOs, animal welfare, environmental concerns and human rights.
Kim Rice is an environmental health writer in Dallas.