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Chattanooga: ‘Buy Local’ Blossoms

July 3, 2008

By Tom Faure, Chattanooga Times/Free Press, Tenn.

Jul. 3–Each Tuesday in summer, Signal Mountain Farms owner Thomas O’Neal opens his tent-covered stand at the mountain’s Bachman Community Center and fills it with green diva cucumbers, dark-purple cabbage, yellow squash and about 60 other varieties of produce.

Customers mingle among quickly filling boxes, remarking how “beautiful” the vegetables are. Mr. O’Neal walks around genially, refilling the racks with certified organic produce and talking to customers.

Unlike your usual vegetable stand, however, only the wild sunflowers can be bought at Mr. O’Neal’s. He’s not there to sell; he’s there to pay back investors.

“These people are getting a good deal,” Mr. O’Neal said. “It’s a lot better for me. I don’t have to drive to Atlanta.”

Signal Mountain Farms is part of community-supported agriculture, a European-born, relatively new trend in the United States in which smaller growers, specializing in vegetables, sell shares in their harvests early in the year. For an investment of between $500 to $800 per year, the customer then reaps a certain amount of weekly bushels of whatever crops are in season, sharing both the risks and the rewards of the harvest.

Such relationships are one of the ways that smaller farms are surviving at a time when gasoline prices are biting deeply into profits and the ongoing drought is biting into the crops themselves. By turning into niche businesses that focus on the “buy local” trend, these farms keep afloat.

“There’s always farmers that are considering getting out. However, I think we’re on a trend a little bit for the smaller farmer to get back in, with the rising gas prices,” University of Tennessee extension agent Thomas Stebbins said. “I think we’re seeing a little bit of a trend to buy locally.”

The “buy local” trend — in which buyers are known as “locavores” — may lead some retirees, landowners or former farmers to try their hand at a few acres of sweet corn and sell their harvest at the market, he said.

“There’s a niche there,” Mr. Stebbins said.

A farm that’s small enough might evade the high energy prices that beleaguer large producers, he added.

PROFITS AND PESTICIDES

Generally, big farmers are not reaping high enough profits, even though the cost of food is rising, according to Joe Pearson, commodities director of the Tennessee Farm Bureau. Low consumer demand in response to high prices can hurt businesses, and, though faced with a slightly better climate this year, farmers still must deal with dry weather and higher costs from fuel and other necessities, he said.

“I know I sound like a broken record, but if you go back and start looking at the farmer’s (revenue) share, it is still very small,” Mr. Pearson said.

The buy-local trend’s image of high food quality and environmental friendliness also can help small farmers, officials said.

“Locavores” tout that local produce and dairy are more pesticide free and hormone free, since mass-produced foods often must be prepared for traveling thousands of miles from field to store, at which point they must maintain a long shelf life. Food scares such as the recent salmonella-tainted tomatoes only feed the “buy local” image, they said.

Greenlife Grocery assistant manager Lori Bell said such contamination incidents make customers more careful about where they get their food. She said her Manufacturer’s Road store can vouch for the food because Greenlife employees have visited the farms first-hand.

“We know the farmers,” she said.

Those relationships are about community and quality, but Ms. Bell said they also save fuel costs.

“The closer we get it, the less we pay to get it,” she said, later adding, “It keeps our money in our community.”

Signal Mountain customer Cathy Caughman said she enjoyed trying out some of the lesser-known vegetables such as the wild cabbage that Mr. O’Neal offers.

“I love to support local,” she said. “I’m excited that it’s organic. I think it’s healthy and it’s fresher.”

Still, Signal Mountain Farms only produces vegetables through October and mass producers are needed year-round, she noted.

Newsweek magazine recently reported that the number of consumers buying from local farmers’ markets, food co-ops and small vendors rose by almost 19 percent between 2004 and 2006, according to a Department of Agriculture report.

The cultural trend might be bolstered by the economic trend of community-supported agriculture.

SHARING THE WEALTH

Mr. O’Neal said word of mouth has helped his business grow since he started one of the first local CSAs 11 years ago. He has reached the point where he hopes to stop the commercial farming he does with Atlanta companies and expand his CSA business from the 60 shares he now offers annually to at least 120, he said.

Selling 50-60 shares or so adds up to a considerable up-front infrastructure for the local farmer, Mr. Stebbins said.

“You have to pay that money up front, because you’re supporting the agriculture,” he said. “That way they (farmers) can buy seed and get the crop ready.”

If the crops are destroyed in a storm, the investor loses the money, but Mr. Stebbins said it’s a fairly safe bet.

“I would say nine out of 10 times the person buying into it will reap the benefits,” he said.

Those who invest in his crops save about $30-40 per week from what they would spend on organic food at the grocery store or farmers’ market, Mr. O’Neal said.

Dr. Delton Gerloff, interim department head in the Department of Agricultural Economics at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, said there is little data available but that the prediction that small farms such as CSAs can do well right now “makes sense” because of the locally grown trend and the benefits to farmers who don’t have to transport their crops as far.

“We offer a better price and a fresh product that’s picked whenever they come and get it, instead of being picked two weeks prior then it’s shipped to the stores,” said Tunnel Hill, Ga., farmer Ken Durham. “It’s fresh.”

Crabtree Farms of Chattanooga offers 60 shares of organic produce from May through November at $800 for 29 weeks.

“People kind of buy in for the season, and I think with food prices this year, with energy prices, people have really been interested in that,” manager Joel Houser said. “We have 57 families now who get food every week.”

“It’s amazing to me,” he said. “I hadn’t been to the grocery store in a while and went the other day. I had sort of sticker shock. But then our (prices) are kind of just the same as always.”

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