Farmers weigh impact of Localvore Challenge

October 1, 2007
ADDISON COUNTY — As the second annual Localvore Challenge came to a close late last week, many area farmers are saying they’ve seen an increase in local sales. Some believe the Addison County Relocalization Network’s challenge, which signed up area residents to commit to eating only foods grown within a 100-mile radius of their homes during the month of September, was a driving factor in their success.
Ben Gleason, who runs Gleason Grains in Bridport, said September’s numbers spoke for themselves. He estimated he sold about 7,500 pounds of flour and wheat berries during the month, compared with the 4,500 pounds he usually sells. He also harvested 700 pounds of black beans, a crop he has never grown before, and sold them all in two weeks.
“It kind of began right at the beginning of September and it still hasn’t ended,” he said of the hot streak.
Last year Gleason sold a little flour to the Salisbury Community School, but this year, he said, the word must have gotten out because he has sold his flour to schools in Vergennes, Ferrisburgh, Lincoln and Middlebury.
“That’s something that hasn’t happened before,” he said.
Gleason has the advantage of being one of a handful of wheat producers in the state, of course. So for those who took the challenge seriously, his farm was one of the only places to turn. Over the course of the challenge, he said he sold for the first time to people in Queensbury, Brattleboro, Bennington, Dorset, Manchester and New York state.
At the farmers’ market in Middlebury, many other local producers agreed that September was an especially good month for business, though some doubted that the challenge was solely responsible. They attributed their success to exceptionally good weather throughout the growing season.
Joan Cook from South Hardscrabble Farm in Bristol has operated a stand at the market since 1994. She said she has seen a big increase in people coming out to buy their food locally.
“The whole year really has been big, and this month has been especially big,” she said. “We’ve had people here I’ve never seen before.”
Jay Gradziel, who runs Baker’s Corner in Burlington, echoed that sentiment. He buys the berries and apples for his baked goods from Lower Notch Farm in Bristol and Crescent Orchards in Orwell. Being able to advertise those local ingredients has been a boon to his business lately. 
“In the long run, I get more customers because they know (my food) is local and they know that they’re getting good stuff,” Gradziel said. “They trust it, it’s good quality.”
For Gradziel and his customers, it’s important that the farmers put extra time and care into their products.
“They take more time to produce it,” he said. “They pick through each individual berry, and if it’s no good, they’re not going to put it in the basket.”
Sally Beckwith from Foggy Meadow Farm in Benson agreed that business has been good, but she wasn’t sure if it was a result of the Localvore Challenge.
“The people who are likely to buy have been buying all along,” she said.
Sue Evans, who grows berries at Marble Rose Farm in Middlebury agreed it was difficult to tell if the challenge had really affected the market.
“The fluctuation in our sales are due almost entirely to crop performance and not how many people are buying it,” she said. “If I have a good year it’s usually because there wasn’t too much rain.”
This year’s relatively dry season has been beneficial for many farmers, she noted, perhaps driving their businesses more than the perceived heightened interest in eating locally.
Karin Mott, produce manager at the Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op, agreed this was likely.
“Our sales are just three percent higher than last year,” she said. “Last year we had a terrible growing season. This year it was a better season, so that’s why farmers are feeling they’re selling more. To be honest I think there was more of a buzz during the challenge last year than this year.”
Still, over the last year or so, Evans said her wholesale sales, to places like the Middlebury Natural Food Co-op, have gone up tremendously, leading her to believe that challenge or not, people are just more interested in eating locally these days.
But Evans stopped short of saying the movement was becoming mainstream.
“The everyday person in Vermont, they’re still in the mentality that if it’s cheaper, it’s better,” she said. “As long as you’ve got your Wal-Marts and your Shaw’s and your Hannafords with cheap produce, people are going to buy it.”

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