Measuring The Impact Of Local Food - Or Trying To

Jun 4, 2013

It’s the table farthest from the door at the Contoocook winter farmer’s market, but it's the one that catches my eye: asparagus stalks so big, you could play the drums with them.

The man who brought them, Jim Ramenack of Warner River Organics, says he's seen nothing but growth lately in local food.

"It used to be that in October we would take a break until May," Ramenack says. "Now we grow year-round and we're planting stuff year round. So there's growing awareness that there is food available all throughout the year, which increases demand. Everybody's happy "

New Hampshire is proud of its local food system, and it should be – according to a ranking system called the Locavore Index, we rank third among states when it comes to local food systems.

But what does that mean, exactly? Well, we're still trying to figure that out.

“For something that is such a major national phenomenon, really – every state is trying to push local food in some way – there really is very little useful data around it,” Martin Langeveld explains. He works with Strolling of the Heifers, the Vermont-based group which manages the Locavore Index.

Langeveld says states have no uniform set of measurements around local food. Right now there’s literally no way to compare apples to apples, or even the markets that sell them.

“A farmer’s market in, say, downtown Boston is not the same as a farmer’s market in rural New Hampshire, size-wise, and yet in the index they both count as one farmer’s market," he says. "So we would like to move beyond that and refine the data with broader and more objective measures.”

The primary source of data for local food comes from the US Department of Agriculture’s farm census. The latest census was done last year, but it won’t be released until later this year. So we’re still working with data from the last census – in 2007, when the word “locavore” itself was still new. 

What we know about New Hampshire's food network so far, though, is that it's mostly moving in the right direction. Edward Aloise saw this firsthand when he and his wife opened their certified-local restaurant Republic in 2010.

“It took a year and a half for us just to identify vendors so we could open up the doors," Aloise says. There was no distribution; we had to do it all ourselves and organize it ourselves." Today, though, he says it's "markedly easier" to find locally sourced products.

That shows there's plenty of interest - but often the state is lacking infrastructure to move local food system from farm to table. Helen Brody of the New Hampshire Farms Network says that’s where the state can improve in the near-term – setting up what are called food hubs, to handle some of the marketing and selling so that farmers can focus on the growing.

“The farmer really can’t leave the farm – and the chef doesn’t want to leave the restaurant. So getting the two together physically is a big problem.” Brody says a group of farmers can bring their food to the hub, which can then work directly with the restaurant.

Brody says there are several promising projects and lots of interest. And Jim Ramenack, the farmer with the giant asparagus, says he's beginning to talk with other farmers about a hub too.

“That's the next step for us, some kind of distribution network," Ramenack says. "That would extend the markets for us."

There's one more issue to complicate the process of trying to measure the strength of local food in a state. As Martin Langeveld of Strolling of the Heifers points out, local food isn’t just about the money.

“The theory around local food is that it's healthier, it's fresher, it doesn't spend as much time traveling from wherever it's grown to your plate. But I think the more important thing is, strengthening a local economy - whatever it is, if you're buying local lumber or local anything - helps to strengthen the local economy and make for more vibrant community.”

Langeveld says we can measure the number of pumpkins we grow in New Hampshire and compare it to the number of pumpkins grown in other states – and on those dollars-and-cents measures, New Hampshire does pretty well.

But factors like community impact? Those can be a little trickier to measure.