For a homesteader, purchasing groceries could mean a simple step into their garden or, in the winter months, their pantry filled with fruits and vegetables that were canned in the warmer months.
Other than that it might mean a trip to the grocery store. Stepping into the grocery store, kicking the snow off your boots, you are welcomed by the warmth of the building and the variety of different fruits and vegetables that are definitely not growing in your backyard.
So, how do we determine what local food is and why should it matter to you, a homesteader?
Can We Define Localism and Local Food?
As a student learning about local food systems, we are starting to define our individual systems. Looking for the issues each system has, at first it seems easy to define our systems within boundaries created by the United States government, such as “my system is the state of Tennessee”.
The problem with that is West Tennessee has much different geography and demographics than in Eastern Tennessee, with their mountains and several larger cities.
For me, it would not be realistic at all since I live in Texas. It takes me less time to get to West Tennessee from my home than it would for me to visit the other side of the state. I chose, instead, to get very local, focusing on about an hour and a half radius of my home.
This seems reasonable to me and to a person living in smaller states, this would work well for them. They would be able to use statistics provided by the government or other individuals and groups that promote agriculture in their local area.
Others may define it differently. It is important to consider though what makes up a region. Part of that includes a community.
According to Dictonary.com, Community is defined as, “a social group of any size whose members reside in a specific locality, share government, and often have a common cultural and historical heritage.”
Given the definition, it is understandable that the first reason community is so important is that we are shaped by the people around us. If you live in a large city, then there is a good possibility that you can relate to those around you. If you live in the country, then the sound of roosters crowing and seeing your neighbor’s cow come to the fence area by your house is no surprise.
Likewise, the politics of the area make an impact on what you are able to do. For example, in Dallas, a chicken owner must keep their coop one hundred and fifty feet away from the neighbor’s yard. In a metroplex such as Dallas, that is no easy feat.
Austin, on the other hand, is currently offering a seventy-five dollar rebate to anyone willing to keep chickens in their backyard. The reason for this is that they are working on zero waste and realize that chickens, in addition to providing eggs, provide great compost.
Naturally, these two differences affect the community dynamics different as well.
Another reason community matters is it helps you get the most out of the local food. Say you grow a lot of your own foods but you have struggled to find someone that grows and sells wheat. Knowing a farmer in your community who might have that connection means you will have wheat that was milled yesterday at the farmer instead of weeks ago in a factory.
As shown above, having that connection to one another is invaluable. If you are in the city going to the farmers market and meeting your fellow rancher or farmer means having someone who will work with you to provide the best foods available in your area.
Why This Matters to Homesteaders
The first reason this matters to a homesteader is health. A great example of this is local honey versus commercial honey. Where bees go from flower to flower gathering pollen from the area, bringing it back to their hive, and making honey out of it. Most commercial bees are fed sugar. Like getting a small dose of an illness through a vaccine, eating local honey might save your allergy problems. Commercial honey will not do anything.
Local foods also provide us with a sense of seasonality. That grocery store we walked into earlier does not. Would you like strawberries in December? Sure. I personally cannot eat that fruit until April or May and part of the fun is the anticipation!
Another reason why we wait for produce that we could have year round is the taste. The taste of a local tomato is exponentially better than that bought in February at a grocery store. Not to mention, for all of the “variety” a grocery store promises, finding an heirloom tomato gives a satisfaction like no other.
Part of the reason this happens is because locally grown produce has more time to ripen. Many of the produce at the store are picked while still unripe and finish out their process after being picked and shipped to the warehouse it sits at before it comes to the store.
Local food helps the environment. I have a challenge for you. Go to your local farmers market and talk to your farmer. You do not have to go to the one with the USDA Organic label on their sign to find out that many of them use organic, sustainable practices.
These practices involve taking care of the earth so that it is as readily available to the next generation as it is to us, if not more so. Those farmers are creating sustainability for everyone around them – their business, their land, the consumer, their community and the world at large if we look at the bigger picture.
Another way that eating locally helps the environment is by reducing gas emissions. Cuesa.org provided a startling contrast of Chicago’s Terminal Market where wholesalers sell their produce and a local farmers market in the area. Apples on average travel fourteen hundred miles less if they are bought locally versus conventionally. That is a lot of gas that we could save meaning less CO2 in the air and cheaper gas prices because there would be more to go around.
Going back to the community aspect, it brings in more money locally than grocery shopping does. A farmer keeps that money and uses it in the same economy it came from. According to Michigan State University’s Center for Community and Economic Development, in the Grand Rapids area for every one hundred dollars spent locally, seventy-three dollars remains in the local economy.
What this means is that the farmer is spending the money to purchase seeds, farm equipment, even pay their bills locally with the money that you gave them to keep them working. If you own a local business, there is a good chance that the money you gave the farmer will come back to you.
What You Can Do
By supporting your local rancher or farmer, you are ensuring that their land stays farmland and does not get developed into something else.
When choosing your farmer, do your research. Visit their farm. If you have time, volunteer to see what all they do and how they do it. Make sure that you know you are getting the best price possible for your buck.
If searching for a rancher, again, visit the rancher. Make sure that the animals are able to live a natural life before they are slaughtered. Find out where they take the animal for processing. If you have any, don’t be afraid to ask questions.
If you do not have time to go to the farm or to a farmers market, find out about a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program in your area. Many will drop off at a central location, such as a place of business. A lot of times, there are customers who have been with that farmer for a while and can tell you what they like and don’t like about the program.
Above all, get out and become a part of the community in which you are creating your homestead. Learn and grow with our fellow farmers and cultivators of this great life here on earth.