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Jeff Sharp: Toward A More Efficient, Sustainable Food System

This article is part of Earth Eats' coverage of the 2010 Food in Bloom Conference held in Bloomington, Indiana from June 3-5, 2010. Jeff Sharp of Ohio State University's School of Natural Resources presented his research "Agricultural Economic Development at the Rural-Urban Interface: The Role of Community Policy and Organization to Local Food System Development" as part of a panel called "Urban Agriculture and Policy".

Jeff Sharp: We see a lot of enthusiasm for local food systems these days, and people are concerned about a lot of different aspects of the food system.

The opportunity exists for communities that care about this to purposefully act, coordinate, work together to create food system opportunities – for farmers that go to market –  the creation of a farmers' market creates an opportunity for farmers and consumers to interact.

Some communities have invested in creating kitchen incubators, where you take food entrepreneurs and assist them in the development of their food idea.

There are a lot of people out there with great ideas about food products that they think are healthier, safer, more nutritious, and there are ways that communities can act collectively to support that.

So one of the research questions we're really attending to lately is 'how do communities organize to support food system development and what are the opportunities of that?'

Megan Meyer (Earth Eats): What are some obstacles that communities face in finding more opportunities to interact with farmers?

JS: I think there are a lot of things that we're maybe bumping into. I think we probably don't have enough production. There's a lot of enthusiasm for this and a lot of people are interested in accessing local foods.

But we probably don't have quite the number of producers in the Midwest that we need to meet some of the demand – because I think there are opportunities for scaling up production.

Right now we see a lot of local foods at these small and medium-sized farms scales going into farmers' markets or restaurant sales, or other kinds of community supported agricultural endeavors.

Farmer Collaboration

For a farmer that's a nice revenue stream. But for a farmer who wants to scale up a bit, they need to build their operation – maybe collaborate with other farmers and access distribution.

So that's the other key, if we can get production ratcheted up, another ingredient we need to go along with that is intermediaries – distributors that are accessing this local production.

So right now, in various pockets in the Midwest, we have distributors that are trying to access modest production here and there.

What is probably needed to go to the next step is producers that produce larger quantities and distributors that are able to access that.

And the distributors can tie into other chains, so that there might be small and medium scale grocery store chains that would be interested in accessing more local product.

There might be institutional settings where it would be of interest, dining services. I'm sure Indiana University probably would love to source more local, but they're dealing with 18,000 students on campus eating daily and just the logistics of serving that large a population.

We need to develop these intermediaries that can bridge the the consumption and the production side. But we also need to develop more farmers.

The Local Food Distribution Problem

MM: Can you tell us why small- and medium-sized farmers have a difficult time being picked up by distributors?

JS: There are a lot of dimensions to how we may a local food system efficient.

There are some concerns that local is not inherently more sustainable, because if you're a small producer and you're producing a small box of say, of produce, and you're taking it into town, you're spending a lot of energy to transport that a little ways.

There's a reason why the global food system works the way it does, and that's because you have large quantities fitting onto large trucks, that travel great distances. And per unit, it might actually be more energy efficient than the smaller scale producer.

If a producer is producing just one or two boxes of product, the distributor, it's a big investment for them to stop out at that farm. A distributor – a distribution system – might not even come to them if they don't have at least a palette worth of product, which justifies them maybe sending a truck out there.

There's just a lot of energy invested in this.

Two Strategies For A More Efficient Food System

So, two strategies:

One would be for the producers to figure out how to ratchet up production so that they can produce in those quantities.

That takes some skill development, and I suspect we're going to see some break-through firms within the Midwest as growers become more skilled. They're going to be able to produce in larger quantities.

The other possible solution is: How do we create aggregation points? How do farmers cooperate and partner to fill that truck?

Produce Auctions: Bringing Farmers And Consumers Together

One thing that's happening – I suspect that Indiana does have some, I know Kentucky does and Ohio does – produce auctions, where you actually have Amish producers that have started up these produce auctions, where literally you have buyers come to an aggregation point and there's a number of people there that are bringing their product and the buyers and the sellers meet up.

The buyers can fill whatever quantity they need because they have access to a large amount of product.

Those systems that figure out how to aggregate production and get it into the system are probably what the next steps are.

The challenge is that we just don't have all the different pieces built. It's going to take time and it is going to take entrepreneurship. And there's some risk involved in them.

MM: A lot of people define local differently, so based on your research, how do you define the term local?

JS: That one's all over the place. I reduce it down, oftentimes when I think about food system development, I seek – I think a lot of us are seeking – a food system that is more sustainable, environmentally sustainable, socially just, and provides economic opportunities, or is at least economically justifiable.

Local is not inherently more sustainable and environmentally beneficial than globally-sourced food.

Because you can have globally-sourced food or fair trade items that are socially just and maybe meet certain environmental standards.

I sometimes put the equation as 'What are we trying to achieve with local?' and 'Does local achieve that?' And then let's try to develop the local that meets those goals.

Defining Local, Why Is It Important?

It gets out of that black box of trying to determine, well, 30 miles out from the farmers' market is the end of local, or within the borders of Indiana is local.

Those all become problematic, especially on border towns – like the Cincinatti areas right on the border of Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio. What do you do down there with local? Do you privilege Ohio as being local? Or Kentucky as being local? Or Indiana as local?

So I think that's a real challenge. I think the consumer is stuck having to deal with a rather ambiguous label.

It's going to cause some problems for the whole food system development effort if we invest everything into simply "local is this".

I think we need to  be attentive to what the goals are of local – if it's sustainable, safe, nutritional, it was produced in a socially just fashion, animals were treated well, et cetera. I think a lot of different food systems can meet those expectations.

I think that's what we need to gravitate toward: Whether it's local and it meets those goals, that's great; if it's global and it meets those goals, that's great.

But let's at least determine whether they're being done in a sustainable fashion.

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