You’ve seen the bumper stickers, you’ve heard the pleas, you probably have a t-shirt or a tote bag that attempts to persuade you to shop locally, but what is it all for? Does your purchase really make that much of a difference? If a purchase is impactful, how and where can that impact be measured? If one does wish to buy locally, where can they find locally owned businesses?

Let’s unpack these questions.

Supporting local businesses – and when it comes to the mission of Appalachian RC&D, specifically local agriculture – means making an effort to buy your food, products, and services from a local source. “Local” itself can have different meanings for different people. For the purpose of this discussion we will define “local” as within the region in which we operate. For ARC&D & ASD’s Farmers Market Promotion Program, that means the broad region of Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia. For you, “local” can mean your state, your county, your community, your backyard — whatever feels “local” to you. In short, spend your money where you want your money to have an impact.

There are three main areas that are impacted by your local purchases:

  • Economy

  • Health

  • Environment

Dollars spent at business owned in your home community make twice the economic impact as dollars spent elsewhere. How? Think of it as using dish soap concentrate versus the cheaper but less concentrated stuff. You can literally wash a sink full of dishes with a couple of drops of concentrated soap, but if you use the cheaper stuff, you have to add more suds to almost every dish to get them all clean. Local dollars work in the same way. Your local dollars have less space to travel before they make their impact. They aren’t spread as thinly.

The dollars you spend locally are often reinvested right into the local economy. Let’s look at the connection points of local versus mass-production in regards to a specific item, eggs. I might spend $2.30/dozen at a grocery store for mass-produced eggs. Where does that $2.30 go? First, a portion goes to the grocery store, then a portion goes to the wholesaler, then what’s left to the producer. Let’s assume each gets an equal amount of the $2.30. $2.30 / 3 = $0.77. (For the record, profit is famously not equally split in agriculture. Small scale farmers operate below a 10% profit margin more often than not.) For the sake of simplicity, thought, let’s assume that the grocer, wholesaler, and producer each get $0.77 that is then diluted across wages for their thousands of employees across their entire service area, operating costs, and to profit. What portion of that stays local? Not even the entire $0.77 – from that the local franchise owned grocery store because a percentage of that is due to the national chain. Now, local eggs may cost a bit more up front. You will generally spend anywhere from $3 to $5 a dozen in this area. Let’s assume $4. Where does your $4 go? Directly to the producer of those eggs. Now, the local producer’s marginal expenses are also likely higher than that of a grocery store, but what are those expenses? They have to pay their workers (who are local employees), the operating cost (equipment, taxes, market fees, chicken feed, utilities, etc), and then they have a profit from which they take their living expenses. Your money stays concentrated in your community. Even if both the producer for the grocery store and the local producer end up with the same profit, the rest of your money is staying here instead of being spread across the nation.

Regarding health; what makes a local item healthier than a mass-produced item? There are a few ways to look at this. First, when you purchase local food, it is inherently fresher than a mass-produced item. Scientifically, the less time there is between harvest and consumption, the more nutrient rich an item is at consumption. The eggs you purchased from a grocery store might have traveled 500 miles before they reached your plate. They were likely produced from chickens living in a factory eating sub-par feed, deficient in vitamin D from the sun, and then the eggs sat or traveled for 5-6 months before they showed up on your grocery store’s shelves. Contrastly, the eggs you buy from a local farmer were very likely laid this week. They were laid by a chicken who likely spends a lot of time outside, eats a higher quality diet, and is not stressed out 24/7 which results in an egg that is more nutrient rich. Now, it’s important to vet even your local sources when it comes to your particular ethical concerns. If cage-free eggs are important to you, discuss this when considering a purchase. Try to learn about the production methods of your local producers. Most farmers are more than willing to tell you about their farm so that you are equipped to make an informed purchasing decision.

Another side to consider when thinking of the health impact of local food is the lifestyle it promotes. Farmers markets are active, healthy environments. It is hard not to be tempted by fresh vegetables when you walk around a market. Your mind starts thinking of all the gorgeous meals you could create with those garlic scapes, and before you know it you have fleshed out a recipe and are buying greens and Tommy Toes for a salad, scapes for a sauce, and a local goat cheese to dollop on top. Shopping at a farmers market can beget more good habits. (It can also beget a dozen donuts, but we won’t judge if you won’t.)

When we consider the environmental impact of local versus mass-produced food, we must consider the production of the food, the food’s mileage, the food’s packaging, and the external activities of the business producing the food. Let’s look at a different example this time, tomatoes.

When you buy tomatoes at the grocery store, you’re likely purchasing tomatoes from California or even Mexico unless you specifically shop for regional varieties like Grainger County tomatoes. If your tomatoes come from California, they had to travel approximately 2,500 miles to get to Northeast Tennessee — and that’s if they were driven straight here. More likely they were picked, sorted, then trucked to a distribution center, then repackaged and trucked to individual grocery stores. There’s no accurate way to estimate the number of miles-per-tomato, but we can surmise that it is vastly more miles than the number of miles it takes for a local farmer to get your tomatoes from her farm to the farmers market (in the same week).

Now, consider the packaging. Tomatoes at the grocery store can be purchased unpackaged, but most people will put them in a plastic bag. If you buy cherry tomatoes; though, they’re likely in a plastic container. Prior to that, they were probably shipped in large cardboard boxes lined with a plastic coating. When you shop at the market, your farmer probably harvested them into baskets, stored them in a cooler, then loaded them onto her pickup truck to bring to the market. When you make your purchase, you can put your plastic-free tomato into your reusable bag or basket, and take them home. Something else you may have not considered — those tiny plastic stickers? They’re actually very environmentally unfriendly. We could go even deeper — have you considered the impact of mass-production farms versus small farms? Large scale farms are more likely to use harmful pesticides, techniques that cause soil erosion, and wasteful irrigation. More of their products go to waste, too, because grocery stores won’t sell “ugly” produce.

There are countless reasons to choose local products when you can. Not only is local better for your health, your community’s economy, and the environment, but buying local is not as expensive as you might think, and many communities are able to offer incentives that make it even less expensive. In Johnson City and Jonesborough, with our Farmacy Fit program, we are able to offer $3 in tokens to anyone who walks a predetermined mile at the market. That $3 can then be used to buy any fresh fruits or vegetables you like! You can even save it for a future visit if nothing catches your eye that day. We hope to be able to expand this Farmacy Fit program to the rest of the region’s markets. Stay tuned!

Shopping local is one of the easiest and most impactful ways you can support your local farmers.

If you want to find out which market is closest to you, you may check out our Farmers Market Map where all farmers markets are pinned and described. For other sources of local food, check out the Local Food Guide, produced by Appalachian Sustainable Development. If you’re wondering what is in season when in our area, check out this great database at Seasonal Food Guide.