Searching for the Moon

Shannon Clark's rambles and conversations on food, geeks, San Francisco and occasionally economics

Why I buy local (and organic)

Posted by shannonclark on December 27, 2008

I buy almost everything locally, mostly from small, often independent (or at least local small scale chains) stores. Most of the food I eat and cook for my friends comes from local shops and for the most part local farmer’s markets. For the most part I buy organic produce, eggs, milk and other products including meat when I can. The rest of my meat is at a minimum free range and cage free (though as I noted in earlier blog posts I was against the recently passed Proposition 2 which mandates larger cages/cage free raising of poultry in CA).

However, when you talk about Organic (especially certified organic products) and the dilemma of large scale businesses starting to produce and others to sell organic products the arguments against buying organic usually assume that people buy organic because of health concerns (no pesticides etc) or from a belief that the flavor is better. And then an argument is made that the health claims are dubious and the flavor differences minor.

That is not, let me repeat, not why I buy organic or why I mostly shop locally.

I buy locally and buy organic for many other reasons. First and foremost I prefer to spend my money with people who care about what they do – who value their own labor and strive to be the best at what they make. I have to eat, I far prefer to spend my food dollars as directly as possible and with vendors who are passionate about what they grow and/or sell. That passion translates in no small part into a focus on selling high quality (and in the case of food usually great tasting) items.

Organic farming is also highly innovative farming. It is looking for creative and as importantly sustainable ways to grow and cultivate products. This innovation usually permeates all aspects of a good organic farm’s business – from the soil to the packaging they use to present the final products at the market.

I usually go to the Ferry Building Farmer’s Market run by CUESA (The Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture), a group well worth supporting if you have money to donate and/or employer matching funds to use before the end of the year.

At the market this morning, a smaller scale market between the Holidays, I spoke with one rancher who sells a wide range of meats they raise and slaughter themselves. Usually they have poultry but he said that they would not until the spring due to it being out of season for chicken at the moment. While that means that today they lost a bit of my business, it also is a reminder of the seasonality of all food and it encourages me to look at other proteins this month.

Another merchant, Frog Hollow Farms, who I personally think is one of the premier orchards in the entire US (and probably the whole world for that matter) unveiled new packaging they designed specifically for their pears. It suspends each pear in an individual sling of material so it neither touches other pears nor touches the overall packaging, they keeping their amazing pears fresher for longer and bruise free.

Shopping at the farmer’s market, which I do nearly every Saturday morning, gives me a real appreciation of the seasons here in northern CA, by going to the market without planned recipies or menus most of the time I have learned to buy just what looks the best at the moment. I also always talk with the farmers about what is really good at the moment, usually they offer samples, and I then adjust my menus. At the moment there are some great pears, lots of citrus, still great brocolli and caulliflower and indeed quite a range of other flavorful vegetables.

By being flexible I am also able to spend not much more (indeed less usually) than I would if I were shopping at a large, national supermarket chain. Today one of the butchers at the Ferry Building had a special on Sirloin Tip steaks (free range and locally raised and very very good, I’ve had them before) offering 5 individual steaks – ranging between 1/2 to 3/4 of a lb each for $20. I don’t eat a lot of red meat, but that is 5 quick and tasty dinners or lunches in the next week (or longer if i freeze a few) for $4 a meal. And these steaks cook in about 5-6 minutes total in my cast iron skillet on the range top.

For the most part I buy my meats from my local butcher’s shop, a store which has been there since 1889 (making it probably the oldest continously open butcher’s shop in CA), Drewes Bros. Christmas Eve there was a line of over 60 people waiting to pick up holiday turkeys, hams and standing rib roasts. They only sell extremely high quality, mostly local products from passionate producers and offer great service and very fair prices (often cheaper than large supermarkets in fact). Plus they greet me by name when I enter or stop by.

I would much rather that my spending support such a fantastic, local treasure, than to help pad the profit margin of a large supermarket chain such as Safeway (and full disclosure, I say this as someone who does in fact own a few shares of Safeway).

I choose to buy mostly organic because to grow vegetables or to raise animals in an organic manner requires a lot of attention to detail, it requires a committment on the part of the farmer and most of the time it also involves returning to a focus on seasonality and on techniques such as crop rotation and multiple use farming. By “mulitiple use” which isn’t quite the right term I mean techniques such as raising both crops and animals and via rotation grazing those animals on some fields for a few years, then alternating with growing crops on those fields taking advantage of the natural fertilizer from the grazing animals.

When I do shop at larger stores a Safeway or a Trader Joes, I try to mostly buy organic, seasonal, and when possible local products from those stores as well. While I prefer to buy closer to the actual producer, such purchases do help shift large dollars to organic methods – and in turn that means more people working on innovation around large scale, organic agriculture. That, in turn, lowers costs (for the farmers as well as consumers) and should draw more and more farmers and farmland into organic methods.

In the long run that should also have an impact on US (and other countries) agricultural policies which currently prevent many of the simplest and in fact easiest forms of organic techniques – such as wide scale crop rotation or cover crops (which US policy prohibits on farms recieving certain forms of subsidies such as corn or wheat – they can’t use fallow fields to grow market crops such as vegetables or fruits).

From a health standpoint one of the best aspects of buying seasonally and fresh is I can spend around the same amount as I would at a big chain, but instead of getting lots of calories from say processed baked goods, I can get far fewer calories but much more flavor from a perfectly ripe local pear.

I’ve chosen to emphasize quality over quantity in my food buying.

So please do go out and sample your local farmer’s market (there are new markets opening up and extending their seasons all throughout the country). Also when you are choosing where to live, look to live somewhere where you can walk to a local shop to buy great quality local foods. Since my butcher’s shop is literally on my way home (it is across the street from the Muni stop I use to get downtown most days) I can pick up a piece of meat or fish for my dinner and walk home – with less effort and time than navigating the parking lot of a big supermarket (if I had a car which I do not). And for produce, when I can’t make it to the farmer’s market or when I need something midweek, there is a great local produce market also on the same few blocks across from the same muni stop.

Many a night I have picked up some vegetables, a loaf of bread baked that day, and some great meat of fish on my way home. All for less than the cost of a single dinner out at a low cost restaurant and usually (day before xmas excepted) taking far less time than just waiting to pay at a big chain supermarket.

the photo above is a shot I took of a drink from Blue Bottle, a local coffee roaster and cafe who import their own beans directly and roast them here in the Bay Area in the East Bay

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