Consumers develop taste for locally grown food

 

 

Ordering a cheeseburger at a corner drive-through isn't as appealing as it once was to Jonah Magney.

Since his parents started operating Gingersnap Hollow Farm this year in Harlem, the 16-year-old has received hands-on experience raising poultry. He also has learned more about big agribusiness and the hormones and chemical additives that often go into meats and other food products.

"It's definitely changed the way I look at a fast-food cheeseburger and the food we buy commercially," Jonah said.

The Magney family began raising chickens and turkeys in February. They plan to start raising pigs later this year, then tend to sheep and goats and grow vegetables next spring.

"I think that for us eating this way is definitely a choice," said Angela Magney, who operates the farm with the help of her husband and three children. "It's cheaper and easier for us to go out to Walmart and buy something, but I value what I am putting into my family's bodies."

The interest in locally grown food has spiked in recent years as families become more wary of the hormones and steroids added to their food, and some balk at what they see as an overly industrialized process of handling animals.

In Georgia, the number of farmers markets increased from 12 to 85 between 2004 and 2009, according to Georgia Organics, a nonprofit that promotes sustainable and locally grown food.

The community-supported agriculture model, which allows people to buy "shares" of a farm's harvest and receive food throughout the year, also is growing. The number of such models has increased from eight to 50 since 2004, and the number of shareholders has grown from 405 to 3,235 since 2005, according to Georgia Organics.

"We're not talking about huge numbers now, but the rate of increased interest is surprising everyone," said Michael Wall, the communications director for the nonprofit.

Nearly 1,000 farms participate in the state's Certified South Carolina program, which began as a pilot in 2007. About 300 restaurants participate in the Fresh on the Menu program, which requires them to use at least 25 percent local products on their menus.

Good for economy

Recent studies have shown that eating local foods can be good for the economy. A University of Georgia study this year found that if the state's 3.7 million households each spent $10 a week of their food budget purchasing Georgia-grown products, it would add more than $1.9 billion to Georgia's economy.

A University of South Carolina study this year assessing the Certified South Carolina program found that consumers in a survey said they were willing to pay about 25 percent more for locally grown produce and animal products.

For many consumers, buying locally grown stems from a desire to know where and how the food they eat was produced.

Some people have been turned off to processed foods and grocery store meats and produce by works such as Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma and the documentary Food, Inc.

That was the case for Carla Wilson, a Grovetown mother of three who was inspired to start buying from the Augusta Locally Grown farmers market in Evans and try her hand at growing some of her vegetables organically.

"I guess we just want to eat food that we know where it came from," Wilson said. "It tastes better, and it's better for you."

Demand increases

The Augusta Locally Grown market was started three years ago by Jan Perry, who had been visiting a farmers market near Washington, Ga. A friend suggested she begin her own market in the Augusta area.

When Perry started the market, there were only three growers participating. Augusta Locally Grown is now operated by Kim Hines and has 16 growers and about 220 registered customers, with an average of 40 to 50 customers buying food a week.

"When you're feeding growing little ones, it's good to know what you're putting in them, especially with the meat," said Meghann McLeroy, a Martinez mother of four, as she picked up a recent order of vegetables from the Evans market.

Perry said she believes in the health benefits of locally grown food and in supporting local farmers.

"Why should we be eating food imported from China? That makes no sense," she said.

Quality has cost

Locally grown food is usually more expensive than grocery products, but that's because local farmers often use more labor-intensive methods such as organic growing methods and free-range livestock, Hines said.

"It also takes a mindset to invest in farmers who are going to do that kind of work," she said. "Whenever I pay that extra $1.50 for a dozen eggs, I am reminded that that farmer was out with her chickens that morning."

For some growers, farming has always been a way of life, and the locally grown movement is a way to tap into a new market.

For others, such as Mark Billings, of Legacy Family Farm in North Augusta, raising animals was a way to connect with his family and grow food in a sustainable way.

Billings, who worked in medical sales for 20 years, has between 50 and 100 customers who buy the farm's beef, chicken and lamb. He said he believes more people are getting into small farming partly because of the ethical issues involved with large-scale farms.

The Magneys' farming venture began as a search for healthful food but has expanded to a community-supported agriculture model that has 20 members and a 15-acre farm.

"It just was really hard to find the type of meat that we wanted," Angela Magney said. "I wanted to eat healthy, and I wanted my family to eat healthy."

That desire blossomed into feeding other families, who have helped the farm get off the ground with their dues.

Web resources for locally grown food

- Augusta Locally Grown farmers market (www.augusta.locallygrown.net). This Evans market takes orders on its Web site and offers three pickup locations for its customers each Tuesday. From 4 to 6 p.m. at the Augusta Jewish Community Center on Weinberger Way; from 6 to 7 p.m. at Fireside Outdoor Kitchens and Grills on Broad Street; and from 6:15 to 7:15 p.m. at Riverwood Barn at Riverwood Plantation in Evans.

- Augusta Market at the River (www.theaugustamarket.com). Operates downtown at Riverwalk Augusta and Eighth Street from the spring through October.

- Garden City Organics (www.gardencityorganics.com), Broad Street store that offers locally grown produce and meat, a community-supported agriculture model and garden tools to help people grow food organically.

- Georgia Organics (www.georgiaorganics.org/foodguide/LFGguide.pdf). A guide from a statewide nonprofit that helps promote local growers and organic practices in Georgia.

- Earthfare (www.earthfare.com). A Southeastern grocery chain that sells organic food. There is an Earth Fare in Martinez at 368 Furys Ferry Road.

- Local Harvest (www.localharvest.org). A national Web site that connects consumers who want to eat local food with local farms and CSAs.

- Certified South Carolina (www.certifiedscgrown.com/). A state Department of Agriculture effort that promotes food grown in South Carolina.

- University of Georgia study (www.caed.uga.edu/publications/2010/pdf/CR-10-03.pdf). A study that details the possible benefits the state could reap from locally grown food.

Is locally grown safe?

Consumers often tout the benefits of eating locally grown food because many of the small farmers they buy from follow organic growing practices and abstain from chemicals.

Whether that food is safer than buying from a grocery store, however, largely depends on the practices used by each farm -- large or small, said Brian Mansfield, the director of business development for PrimusLabs.com, a California company that helps produce growers track their food safety habits.

Food safety audits should be done by a grower annually, Mansfield said.

Foodborne illnesses occur for a number of reasons, and sometimes fault lies with how the food is prepared, he said.

"A lot of foodborne illness occurs just in someone's kitchen," he said.

-- Erin Zureick, staff writer