Wary consumers turn to local growers | TahoeDailyTribune.com

Wary consumers turn to local growers

Juliana Barbassa

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) – Baskets overflowing with fresh greens, tomatoes blushing a deep red – the competition for customers’ attention is fierce at the Heirloom Organics farm stand during the lunch-hour rush.

Headlines are blaring news of people sickened or killed by food, but at this farmers’ market, shoppers are reaching with confidence for spinach, reassured that this food is grown nearby, by farmers they can talk to, on land they can visit.

Experts predict that as awareness of farming methods grows, fueled in part by the recent E. coli outbreak linked to spinach, interest in farmers’ markets, restaurants that buy locally and direct farm-to-consumer sales is bound to grow as well.

“People were scared,” said Jaime Smawley of the spinach scare linked to one San Juan Bautista packaging plant, which has sickened nearly 200 people, and killed three. “They came to us with their questions, but knowing their sources, knowing who we are – that made the difference.”

Customers picking through the produce agreed, saying the locally grown goods seemed fresher, tastier and safer than supermarket fare.

“When you eat locally, you know the hand that grows the food,” said regular customer A.K. Smith.

Glenn Underwood, sifting through the greens, credited his good health to the food he buys at the market.

“I don’t care if it’s pouring down rain, I come every Tuesday,” he said. “I know they’ll be here.”

The growing importance of this personal connection is evident. The $9 billion organic food market is growing fast – about 20 percent a year – and growers are increasingly relying on customers close at hand.

About 79 percent of organic farmers surveyed by the Organic Farming Research Foundation in 2004 were selling their harvests within 100 miles of their farms, with word-of-mouth as their main marketing strategy.

“Farmers markets are growing dramatically, along with community supported agriculture,” said Bob Scowcroft, the foundation’s executive director, alluding to the direct farm-to-consumer marketing that’s become an increasingly common way to get local produce.

“And they’re reporting more sophisticated questions from their consumers,” he said. “Now it’s not just, ‘do you use pesticides.’ They’re also asking, ‘explain your soil fertility program, where do you get your water from.”‘

In spite of the growing interest in local produce, many still see clear advantages to relying on a wider web of food producers spanning the world.

Fruits and vegetables once available only during the short window allowed by the seasons can now be had year-round, and at affordable prices, thanks to industrial-scale production, processing and distribution. Government agencies can set up regulatory barriers at several points in the chain, enforcing standards that apply uniformly around the nation.

This has proved to be practical, and over the years, our reliance on long-distance food has increased. A study by the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture in Iowa found that produce traveled on average more than 1,500 miles to reach Chicago in 1998 – a distance nearly one-fourth longer than in 1981.

But as the recent outbreak revealed, a system that can deliver groceries quickly can also spread fatal bacteria faster than regulators can catch up with it, increasing its impact and making it more difficult to trace the problem to its origin.

“We’ve gone from an era when a food-borne outbreak was a potato salad at a church picnic to a multistate, national or even international outbreak affecting thousands,” said Edward Belongia, a medical epidemiologist with the Infectious Diseases Society of America.

Even farmers who are part of the system said regulating this large and evolving food distribution network was a learning process for them and the government agencies overseeing their work.

“Generally by the time there’s an outbreak, those fields are already plowed under, and when they go back, there’s no way to trace the problem,” said Tom Nunes, president of Nunes Co., which on Sunday recalled more than 8,500 cartons of green leaf lettuce after finding out some of the water used to irrigate the crop had E. coli. On Tuesday, the company announced the bacteria found was not the dangerous variety linked to the Salinas Valley spinach.

The recent spinach outbreak has lead growers and processors to work on a food safety plan they hope to present to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration within days. But even while large-scale producers turn inward and re-examine their methods, consumers are taking steps of their own, choosing to simplify their relationship to food by placing their trust – and their health – in the hands of a grower they know.

For about 600 families in the California’s San Joaquin Valley, that farmer is Tom Willey, who along with his wife Denesse runs an organic farm in Madera County. Every week, they pack 600 boxes with a mix of seasonal produce and send them to directly to neighborhoods where customers pick them up.

Twice a year, the Willey’s customers visit their 75-acre farm, where they can see up close how their salad grows.

“They’re taking a chance on me, not on dozens of anonymous farmers they’ll never meet,” said Tom Willey.

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