Consumers Have Some Choices to Make as the Local Farm Model Goes Corporate
People are paying more attention to their food. They look for words like “locally sourced” and “organic” and “sustainable,” and they prioritize restaurants with local authenticity over carbon copy chains. It couldn’t be long, then, before an entrepreneurial spirit would corporatize, scale up and mass produce the local farm model. BrightFarms, a New York-based greenhouse farm builder, is a soon-to-be “local” example.
Calling it a “national brand of local produce,” BrightFarms hopes to capitalize on the local food fervor when they establish a greenhouse farm in Wilmington by the end of the year, their fourth farm. The others are in Bucks County, PA, Culpeper County, VA, and Rochelle, IL.
The Wilmington facility, a 160,000 square-foot greenhouse, will be a source of year-round salad greens, herbs and tomatoes, and it’ll employ 30 local laborers. Through a hydroponics system, they’ll use roughly 90 percent less water than traditional farming methods. They’ll also enlist an army of good insects to kill off the Leafminers and Aphids, a practice called Integrated Pest Management.
Through these techniques, BrightFarms is much more sustainable than traditional farms. And, operating out of Wilmington — fewer than 60 miles away from Columbus — they’re certainly more local than most large produce suppliers. They’re a few steps toward organic, too, leaving out GMOs and pesticides.
So they’re checking off a few boxes. But, what it means to be “local,” and “sustainable,” isn’t defined in legal terms, meaning companies can slap those labels on their produce while only adhering to a few standards.
And, with companies like BrightFarms coming from out of state and profiting from the growing “locavore” population, smaller family farms already supplying fresh, sustainable, locally grown food could suffer. Still, local family farms that grow an organic, sustainable food supply can’t keep up with increasing demand. In that case, a farm this large-scale might be necessary.
“We would be more interested in helping beginning farmers get established on the land and existing farmers scale up their production as a way to help meet the demand for local produce than we would be interested in supporting corporations from the outside coming in and taking those food dollars away from them,” said Carol Goland, Executive Director for the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association (OEFFA).
Those dollars aren’t just evading the hands of farmers either. They leave the local economy entirely, contributing to the already large number of dollars that leave the region and the state. This means money that could be improving life in Columbus is being sent off to New York or Colorado or California instead.
To keep those dollars here takes a local-centric approach to consumption: buy produce from local markets that has been sourced from local farmers. Chuck Lynd, from Support Ohio Local Economies (SOLE), compared this choice between local and nonlocal farms to choosing between Lucky’s and Weiland’s.
“Kroger, Giant Eagle, Save-a-Lot — the traditional supermarkets — are now competing with Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, Lucky’s, Fresh Thyme, etc.,” Lynd said. “SOLE understands that we are in a transition period, but we are working to move more capital to Main Street so that independent grocers like Weiland’s, Hills Market, Bexley Co-op, etc. can recapture market share.
“When that happens, it will revitalize our neighborhoods by taking advantage of the local multiplier effect and making more dollars available for public services.”
Plain City farmer Barry Adler, who owns the sustainable farm Rainfresh Harvests, said it’s ultimately up to the consumers to be informed on where their food is coming from. Some grocers do the work for shoppers, posting where the day’s produce is grown and how far away the farm is. Others force shoppers to do their own homework, a barrier for busy urbanites. Add in the fact that buying local is often more expensive, and the practice could even be considered a luxury.
“Local farmers gotta tell their story, I guess, and get their information out on how their crops are grown, and let the consumer make those choices,” Adler said. “Do they wanna buy from a corporate farmer or do they want to buy from a truly local sustainable grower?”