We Still Need More of Us as We Keep on Hearing about Them

February 13, 2012 at 12:01 pm

Us: 30 to 40 percent of the customers of restaurant chain Lettuce Entertain You who “seem to value local produce. “Them: People supplying such produce such as Heritage Prairie Farms and Klug Farm.  All this comes from an article in Sunday’s Chicago Tribune, which also notes that the percentage of folks valuing local food just five years ago was a mere 10-15 percent.  The article reports that this increase in interest in local food supports area farmers.

Bronwyn Weaver, co-founder of Heritage Prairie, said growing interest from hotels and more casual-dining chains is proving to be a shot in the arm for many small farmers. “When they embrace local foods, it really can make a huge difference to the farming community; it really helps to make us viable.”

See it’s good that a nice jump in us gives a good jolt to them.

A thriving local food system, obviously, needs us and them, united in a virtuous circle. Us want to forsake the industrial food chain, and them area growers, ranchers and artisans produce what feeds us better. There is, however, an on-going argument over which comes first, the us or the them. Virtuous circle or not, the system must start somewhere. A lot of the people thinking about our foodshed want to begin with them, the suppliers of local food. I maintain, have maintained, am supported in this maintenance from this recent Trib piece, that demand drives the system. On one hand, I read that 30-40% telling restaurant chain LEYE, and I think that’s plenty of room for growth and improvement. On the other hand, I see that as a pretty decent number already.  More importantly, I see how that number influences farm production as the article shows.

What a lot of people tell me is that there just is not enough local food around to meet the needs of us, the existing forty percenters. It’s a supply problem that needs better transportation and more uniform packing. Or put it this way, there’s certainly a problem supplying all the lettuce and tomatoes needed to garnish the plates dished up at area establishments. And I really do think it’s a good thing if people can make it more possible for Big Bowl to use local bok choy and Chipotle to get their carnitas from area hogs. Still, I believe that change, any change will come from market demand.

Demand to eat local food and people will sprout up to meet your needs. Listen, I worked ten years for, at the time, the world’s largest professional service firm. I know a thing or two about the way business works. We need not just demand but clamor. Frustration. Farmers and ranchers should feel a palatable sense of desire. The more they feel, the more they will work to quench.  I guarantee.

Yet, we cannot desire an abundance of local tomatoes. Shifting a little tomato production around will not drive a local food system. Rather, we must demand what local food really can offer us. It means demanding a good supply of freshwater fish, from the Great Lakes and area aquaponics over habitat destroying ocean breeds. It means adjusting our diets so that asparagus comes to the forefront only in May and recedes by the end of June. Demand a diet heavier on cattle in the cold but focused on sweet corns and fresh beans when it’s hottest. See, here’s the thing, instead of trying to manage a supply for what they want to sell us, why not boost a demand for what others can truly and easily do.

There are tweaks and investments necessary to increase the supply for real local food. Hoop house construction adds so much. There can be fresh greens like spinach, lettuces and rocket on all but the coldest days. Hoop houses also create more variety in the early Spring, crops like salad turnips and young carrots and enable the Fall season to last much longer. The other needed investment is cold storage for root crops, onions, and the like to be around. Do this.  Like Heritage Prairie, as the article shows their hoop house built to meet the demand for their winter products. It does not seem like a complicated tweak or a large investment.

My take away from this informative article remains, don’t worry about what they are doing. Worry more about what you are doing. Are you asking for local foods. Are you buying what’s in season on the Local Calendar. Are you selling your friends on the virtues of local foods? We’ve grown from 10-15 percent to 30 or 40 percent. Our growth has inspired changes in farm production. Our growth has inspired the opening of stores catering to us. Just last week, we saw the opening of Publican Quality Meats. Think what will happen with even more of us.