What should a ‘local’ farm (and farmer) look like?

Posted at 9:06 PM, Dec 06, 2012

By Ryan Goodman
(CNN) — The term “local” is used frequently in conversations centered on the American food system. Is it 50 miles from your home or 500? Must the food be purchased directly from the farmer? Can the food be sourced by a retailer and sold under a “local” label for stronger buying power?

I have listened to several panel discussions on food topics over the past year and the topic of local food sources normally pops up. Some of these panel discussions have included suburban or urban mothers and restaurant owners. When asked what they considered local food and farmers, a common theme arises, and it bothers me: the urban ideal of what local farmers should look like.

My family has raised beef cattle in Arkansas for several generations. Most of our cattle are shipped to the Texas and Oklahoma Panhandles and Western Kansas. These areas have ample feed available for cattle and farmers who specialize in feeding cattle until they reach their harvest weight. In these parts of the country, the land is flat, more arid, and conducive to higher populations of livestock than people.

We feed a few cattle for local harvest each year to feed our family and occasionally a neighbor will buy a fattened beef for their family. We have focused primarily on cattle production rather than adding in diverse local marketing. Is my family considered a “local farm” to our area? I would not have second-guessed that assumption a few years ago.

I grew up in the heart of Arkansas cattle and farmland. Our county produces far more beef and crops than could ever be consumed by the local population of 78,000. We are thankful for a national market to trade our cattle and be able to reinvest in our land and livestock and feed our families.

Now I find myself in Knoxville, Tennessee with a metro-area population over 700,000 people. We have several local farms and multiple seasonal farmers markets around town. There is a regional dairy brand and we are surrounded by cattle, swine, and poultry livestock farms as well as many vegetable farms. Unfortunately, there are far too many people in the area for immediate farmers to supply our food needs. We are thankful for a national market to bring in food supplies from farmers in more rural parts of the country.

Many folks, like the panelist moms and restaurant owners, look at my family and say we are not local farmers simply because we do not provide for their food preference. As a family farmer trying to make a living with the skills I know best, those statements offend me.

My family contributes to the local economy, buying our supplies in local shops and paying all of our taxes. We are every bit a part of the local community as anyone else. Why should we be looked down upon because we make a good business decision for our livelihood when marketing our livestock? Sometimes I wonder if America is just a country full of food snobs.

If there were a stronger demand for our beef in a local market, we would probably sell more beef to neighbors. If all of our neighboring farmers did the same, what would happen to the excess? Where would folks in places like Knoxville receive their beef? What about larger cities like Los Angeles, Atlanta, or New York?

Local food is a great choice and opportunity for many folks, but there is a stronger need for national markets to provide food on a consistent and broader scale. Farmers like my family should not be looked down upon because we do what is best for our future, our land, livestock, or even business.

Invest money in what you believe is important for your community, health and family, but do not look down on others because they make different food choices. Remember, you can make multiple choices; local on some things, national on others, and other people will make the right choices for themselves and their family. We should all be thankful for what we have. Things are pretty great and certainly could be far worse.

Do you want to discuss food options with more farmers and friends of agriculture? Try folks like the Zwebers who run an organic dairy in Minnesota, central Utah dairy farmer Trent Bown, Brian Scott who grows crops in Indiana, Alabama Slow Food farmer Jan Hoadley, Kentucky-based butcher Amy Sipes, blogger Janice Person, farming advocate Anthony Pannone and many others using the #agchat tag on Twitter.

What defines local for you? Should family farmers be penalized because they market a product to a national community? How can you strengthen the market for local products in your community? Let’s have a conversation.

Editor’s note: Ryan Goodman is a generational rancher from Arkansas with a degree in Animal Science from Oklahoma State University in Animal Science, and is currently pursuing a Master’s degree at the University of Tennessee, studying beef cattle management. He is one of many farmers using social media to bridge the gap between farmers and urban customers. Follow his story daily at or on Twitter and Facebook.

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