Pledge to spend 10 percent of food budget on local goods

Maybe it's the hubbub of drivers, cyclists and walkers that tip you off or maybe it's the market tents hovering in the distance. There's a farmer's market ahead with tables full of colorful goods and for many people, that's an opportunity to browse and buy local.

Twenty years ago, these pop-up venues were few and far between. Today, the state Department of Agriculture lists more than 120 farmers' markets and over 100 farm stands. Recent press releases report that the state has one of the fastest growing agricultural sectors in the country.

Yet agriculture has always been a risky way to make a living and there's plenty of reason to think that remains the case.

For example, in an Aug. 10 New York Times op-ed, shellfish and seaweed farmer Bren Smith of Stony Creek opined that despite the apparent traffic at weekend farmers' markets, most farming operations run in the red. Sales volumes are too low, costs and taxes too high and subsidy systems distort the economics, he says. (See "Don't Let Your Children Grow Up to Be Farmers")

Though consumers can't influence business costs or taxes quickly or directly, they can make a conscious choice to buy from state-based producers.

Now, CitySeed, a New Haven nonprofit that promotes local food, and the University of Connecticut are bringing out a 10 percent campaign through BuyCTGrown.com. Partipants promise to spend 10 percent of their budget on locally produced products. Nancy Barrett, a 10 percent campaign program manager from the Tolland office of the UConn Extension System, says, "The campaign is meant to raise the awareness of people and businesses about their buying habits. We aim to influence a shift in local purchasing." At this writing, the campaign has 116 business supporters and more than 400 individual participants.

A quick visit to BuyCTGrown.com offers the visitor a 10 percent pledge form. After the pledge, you'll be reminded once per week to enter your weekly purchases of locally-sourced agricultural or garden products. You can even place a value on your own homegrown fare and add it to your "locally sourced" total.

The web site also offers a searchable database with hundreds of state-based operations, including small farms, pick-your-own, farm stands, farmers' markets, community supported agriculture, farm-to-table restaurants, and events such as fairs, tours, workshops and cooking classes.

But will people take the time?

Nancy Barrett points to North Carolina, which, after four years, has one of the most successful "buy local" campaigns. North Carolina consumers have been enthusiastic participants. According to Barrett, "They've tracked purchases of almost $63 million in locally grown and produced foods as of this month."

A Massachusetts organization called Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture also runs a successful campaign there called "Be a Local Hero."

Wherever they are, local purchases help not only individual producers but the broader regional economy.

Fred Carstensen, UConn professor of finance and economics, and director of the Center for Economic Analysis, was a coauthor of a 2010 study titled "Economic Impacts of Connecticut's Agricultural Industry." It showed that every dollar spent in the state's agricultural industry, roughly an additional dollar was retained in the state. For every million dollars in agricultural sales, there is potential for 13 to 19 jobs.

"This almost certainly understates the impact of sales through local farm markets and other Connecticut-grown efforts," says Carstensen, "because a much higher share of the income from sales would typically remain in the state. Agriculture has a very high value-added component because so many of the inputs are also local and, heavily, because labor is local."

According to Carstensen, "If households made a consistent effort to buy local, it would have a measurable beneficial impact on the state's economy and job creation."

In a more personal sense, buying local helps make it possible for local producers to persist in their ventures. It may even give them the confidence to encourage their children to become farmers.

For extensive lists of state-based producers, visit the Department of Agriculture's CTGrown.gov.

For a searchable database, or to take the "10% pledge," visit BuyCTGrown.com or call 203-773 -3736.

KATHY CONNOLLY OF OLD SAYBROOK IS A LANDSCAPE DESIGNER AND GARDEN WRITER. SHE CAN BE REACHED AT KATHY@SPEAKINGOFLANDSCAPES.COM.

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