In a country, now so often headlined for its gun laws and obesity, as we travelled around the United States last month, we saw change happening on the ground, change that rests in the hands of the mothers and fathers who make choices about the food that their families eat.

It was most heartening to see for ourselves a growing awareness and activism surrounding the importance of good quality food. And a profile on ‘local’ seems to be gaining momentum. Admittedly, we were looking for it, but we also found it readily in so many ways. Our travels were in the north and north-east of the US – Vermont, Massachusetts, New York City, northern Michigan, Ohio and Virginia. This region is considered the power base of the US with Boston, New York and Washington DC in close proximity to each other. So hopefully trends there will also move elsewhere.

Buy local

It makes sense, of course, that to really access good quality food, ‘local’ needs to be part of the equation. Too much world travel is not good for keeping the nutrition alive and well in our foods. And ‘local’ was the theme that we kept stumbling across. Relationships directly between farmer and retailer/restaurant seemed to be strong, aided by and helping to strengthen the local economy model.

In Burlington, Vermont, we ate at a locally owned restaurant, ‘Skinny Pancakes’, where they promoted their own use of local produce and took it one step further, also promoting on their wall a list of other restaurants in town who also source local produce as part of their practice.

The Local Foodshed Map in Skinny Pancakes restaurant, Burlington, Vermont.

In Traverse City Michigan, we ate at a Trattoria Stella, an Italian restaurant. They promoted their ‘local’ badge very strongly. On the blackboard at the entrance and on their menu, they listed all the local farmers who supply them. They also change their menu every day based on what produce is available.

Daily menu at Stella's Trattoria, Traverse City, Michigan, showing which local farms have supplied their ingredients that day.

Charlottsville, Virginia, boasts Mudhouse Coffee, a very connected local coffee shop. Their local farmer suppliers are up on the blackboard for all to see. The day that we were there, used coffee granules were for sale for $1 for local gardeners and composters to take advantage of. There was also a local free range turkey supplier offering tastings of his produce. While the turkey was delicious, there was a slight mismatch between the turkey and the quality and source of the white, heavily processed hamburger bun that he offered as an option to eat the turkey meat! We chose the tooth-pick tasting option instead!

Mudhouse farmers

Organic Foodstores

One step up from local is those who promote local produce that is also organic. The ‘local’ component is still very important as organic foods can still be stored for extended time and transported all over the world. We mostly found this ‘local and organic’ promotion in the organic food marketplaces. They were all quite an adventure. There was very heavy promotion of the farmers from whom the fruit, vegetables and meats had been purchased. Large photographs hung from the ceilings.

Sweeter Song Farm

I have not seen this level of acknowledgement anywhere in Australia. We saw it frequently in health food stores during our travels in the USA.I predict that this is becoming good business, as the consumers seem to be once again keen to have some connection with their food source. Not only were there large photographs of the farmers on the walls, but the price tags also listed the variety, price and name of the farm. In Charlottsville, we came across an organic food store which has introduced the P6 model to filter their purchasing options. A P6 producer/farmer must be a combination of two out of three criteria – local and/or from a co-operative or non-profit farm, and/or be a small farmer/producer. Not all their produce fell into this criteria, but the ones that did were promoted that way. They told me that they introduced this new model because the ‘local’ description was being misused by supermarkets, calling produce from the other side of the country still ‘local’. It’s interesting to me that the supermarkets have made that move. They only ever respond to something that has a clear financial benefit. It shows that consumers are genuinely interested. It’s very disappointing that they are being misguided by these large retailers.

One network that we stumbled across was The Vermont Fresh Network. It is a farm and chef partnership, ‘connecting chefs, farmers, food artisans and diners’, aimed at promoting local fresh produce. It’s another way of highlighting restaurants that are using local produce.

Farmer Direct

In Vermont and Virginia, we spent time with two organic farmers who both supply direct to the public as well as direct to local restaurants.

The farmers in Vermont came from Hazendale Farms. David has been in the business for more than two decades, having converted his farm from a dairy in earlier years. He’s not fond of chemicals, so he chose organic farming. One additional benefit to him for becoming an organic farmer, is the consistency of price compared with non-organic produce. The day that we were there was order day. David phoned the local restaurants and retail outlets, listed off what he had available and they chose what they wanted. I didn’t hear one mention of price. They have long-standing relationships. Of course price matters, and it’s a commercial transaction, but local relationships are quite personal, and for those relationships to last in the long term I think they really do have to be to the benefit of both parties.

Hazendale Farm Stand

David and Diana also have a purpose built produce shed for retail sales of their own. They sell their own produce as well as stocking cheeses and craft goods from other local farmers. Diana is a master basket weaver as well. Signs are good. I hope it lasts for them. For that family, they are now exploring the possibility of further diversification by brewing kombucha. This represents a new market opportunity with traditional fermented foods and drinks once again gaining popularity for their digestive qualities.

The farmer in Virginia is probably by now one of the world’s most famous farmers. A film about his family and his farm has been nominated for an Academy Award. He also featured several years ago in ‘Food Inc’ which also won an Academy Award. He travels the world promoting consumer and producer choice as well as healthy food systems.

If you haven’t already guessed, his name is Joel Salatin.

We visited Joel one morning and spent a few hours looking around Polyface Farms. He’s third generation on the farm and he proudly told us that in more than fifty years they have never planted a seed, added any fertilisers or used one drop of chemical.

Joel and MB

All of their production has occurred by developing an engaged ecosystem where poly-culture reigns, with well managed plant and animal diversity building the robustness of the soils and producing cattle, pigs, chickens, eggs, rabbits and turkeys for sale. I was most interested in the pigs. I’ve seen in Australia replicas of his cattle/chicken combination, but never seen pigs the ‘Joel Salatin way’. So off we went in the ute to some of his leased farm land to mobs of pigs grazing in the same rotational manner as the cattle. Although, one difference to the cattle is that they are supplemented with grain. We saw landscapes that had been converted from overgrown bramble to long lush pasture in just a few years, with no assistance other than the pigs themselves.

Polyface pigs

Joel Salatin certainly has a profile, and it was built from the ground up. He has a following in the US and Australia with farmers starting to convert their farms to the ‘Joel Salatin’ model. Many people hold Joel on a pedestal. He’s a maverick who has proved that very high production can occur on our landscapes when all parts of the ecosystem are able to build from each other, rather than being separated and manipulated as independent parts. He’s also human. He’s admired all over the world, but he’s still got angry neighbours who are afraid of his natural way of farming. Like all of us, Joel will continue to learn and he’ll make more changes I am sure. What I hope does not change is his zeal for natural systems and freedom of choice for consumers and producers. He is an inspiration with an infectious enthusiasm that continues even after sharing his story and his farm with thousands of listeners and visitors over the years. Thankyou Joel for sharing your commitment with the world in such an engaging and uplifting manner.

Is this just for the high-end consumer?

‘Local’ is good for many reasons. I think that local economies need to strengthen again for the benefits of both social health and food health. In the end, this shift in interest towards a more local supply and demand economy needs to also reap sufficient financial rewards for its participants. Money still talks. If the consumer creates the demand, then this newly developing ‘old’ model will have more success at evolving. Then farmers will be tapping into a consumer driven system. As we look around, it appears that consumer interest is continuing to rise. This shoots home a message to me that we consumers really do have an influence in our free market economies. Finding ways to exert that influence is the choice that we have to make. With this reinvigorated consumer demand for ‘local’ and ‘organic’ produce, the local retailers want to meet that demand so that they can promote it to their customers, and the local farmer wants to continue to sell locally too. Like all farming, it’s constant, hard work. When there is a personal connection between the grower and the consumer, it should also be more meaningful, and this must help when you rise with the roosters every morning.

It would be easy to say that this trend we are observing is socio-economic because organic foods are definitely more expensive than non-organic, and the recent fashionable nature of ‘local’ produce at restaurants is a point of difference in the marketplace. But there are good stories in less fortunate regions of the US as well. We just haven’t been there. Here’s a link to a fabulous TedEx talk showcasing urban farming in low socio-economic parts of Los Angeles.

Conversation at dinner after the launch of Eat … Think … Heal was engaging and far-reaching. It extended to cities like Detroit, considered to be a food desert, with fresh produce apparently very difficult to find. It has a dwindling population, deserted houses and a decaying economy. We discussed tremendous opportunity for the re-birthing of a city, with a new social fabric, with food at its heart. What better way to give an old automobile city a modern soul? The community need for healthy food is very obvious, there’s space made itself available in the form of deserted housing blocks, there’s no current supply in the city, the people are crying out for cheaper, healthier food to supplement their lower incomes, and the children could be engaged in local community activity. And so the conversation progressed, then ‘voila’, two days later, this media report from the Detroit News was sent to me by a friend and colleague at dinner

Then, another surprise. While we were travelling south from Michigan through Ohio, we pulled up at a highway food stop. To our surprise, a fast food chain called Hardee’s is now serving a ‘natural’ burger with grass fed meat patty, no hormones and no antibiotics. The bun still leaves a bit to be desired, but it’s an interesting move that must be driven by some level of consumer demand.

I think it’s good news to be seeing this trend in a nation with the highest obesity rates in the world and extraordinary levels of chronic illness. Our own country of Australia is also touted in the same direction. Increased access and focus on fresh food, local and organic if possible, can only be of benefit to our societies.

Good things can rise from the ashes.