Buying local food makes sense. It helps small farmers, is good for the environment and the food tastes fresher.
But even as farmers’ markets open across the region and Rural Roots, a nonprofit organization promoting sustainable agriculture, gets set to launch a Buy Local campaign this summer, it’s difficult to say what “local” means.
For the Buy Local campaign, Rural Roots officials define it as the Inland Northwest, though officials say the word has different meanings for different people and always raises interesting debate.
“It’s very subjective to your own opinion,” said Jennifer Farley, communications director for Rural Roots. “We don’t pinpoint it to miles. Our thinking is more regional.”
Even within the Inland Northwest, it’s possible to deem products more local than others. “A strawberry grown on a farm in Walla Walla is more local than one grown in Twin Falls,” Farley said.
Marlene Nelson, chairwoman of the Moscow Farmers’ Market Association, defines local this way: “If you’ve grown it and can get it here, then it’s local.” She counts as local farmers from Walla Walla, Clarkston and even Royal City southwest of Moses Lake, who she says get up at 3 a.m. to make it to Moscow by 8 a.m. on Saturdays during the summer market season.
Kelly Kingsland, of Moscow’s Affinity Farms, likes to think of local as coming from no more than 50 miles away, but also says she considers farmers from Walla Walla or Royal City as local.
In general, even products coming from 100 miles away are better than a typical food product on consumers’ tables, she says. Kingsland compares the idea of local with a widely used statistic that the average food product travels 1,300 miles to get to a consumer’s table.
“We don’t need to be shipping things all over,” she said. “Sure, if you want a banana, OK. But if you need a head of lettuce that can be grown by your neighbor, no. Thirteen hundred miles is kind of overwhelming.”
Some farmers’ markets use a 50-mile radius to define local and govern which vendors are welcome. Others use an adjacent county rule.
The Farmers’ Market at Sandpoint pulls vendors from adjacent counties in Washington, North Idaho and Western Montana, in part because there are limited opportunities in such rural areas for small farmers to sell.
“I think it is very important to provide an opportunity for small acreage farmers, market and backyard gardeners to have a place to sell their excess produce, herbs and flowers,” said Diane Green of Greentree Naturals and a Sandpoint Farmers’ Market vendor. “Anything that can be done to aid in the survival of such endeavors is a good thing.
“The key for farmers’ markets is that they provide local produce that is grown by the person who is selling it, not something that has been purchased from 100-plus miles away and resold by someone who doesn’t have a clue on how to even grow the product,” Green said.
That sentiment is echoed by many farmers at markets throughout the region. And most markets have rules governing the reselling of produce, some more strict than others.
Spokane Farmers Market, for example, does not allow any resellers. Vendors can sell only what they grown or make, says Steve Smoot, president of the Spokane Farmers Market Association.
Likewise, Kootenai County Farmers’ Market rules state that all items must be grown, raised or crafted by the person selling it.
At the newer Spokane Neighborhood Farmers’ Markets in Liberty Lake and the Moran Prairie neighborhood local means Spokane and North Idaho, said Holly Parker, the markets’ manager. The markets’ guidelines do allow a reseller to bring in produce from Washington but only items that local farmers are not selling at the market. For example, a reseller may bring in watermelons to sell because local vendors are not selling them. Parker said the reselling rule is working out well, giving consumers more variety but not compromising what local farmers are selling.
As produce flows into markets this summer, consumers might notice “buy local” stickers on some of the items. Rural Roots will be distributing the stickers to its members to use to help them promote their local products. Resellers wouldn’t meet the guidelines for the campaign, Farley said.
Looking for the Buy Local stickers, as well as checking out farmers’ market directories can help consumers know where their produce is coming from. But an even easier way, several farmers said, is to simply ask the vendor.
“People are expecting to meet a farmer,” Smoot said. “That’s got to be what we’re about.”
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