Consumers have a cornucopia of locally grown food choices, but the growing movement faces challenges

A product's presence on Walmart's shelves represents one barometer of its desirability in our culture. In the March 2010 issue of The Atlantic, author Charles Fishman said whatever Walmart decides to do has large repercussions.

The article, "The Great Grocery Smackdown," included a taste test between local foods from Walmart and Whole Foods Market. Walmart scored better than you'd expect.

A 'groundbreaking model'
'More out of the box'
'A farm for all seasons'

Market watch

That both Walmart and Whole Foods now have processes to get locally produced food in front of consumers indicates that locally produced agricultural products are gaining ground in a multibillion dollar market. Oklahoma City will become another staging ground for megastore competition next year when Whole Foods comes to town.

Before Walmart created its Heritage Agriculture program, an informal network of farmers, grocers, restaurateurs and citizen activists was putting together a loose framework to increase the availability of locally produced foods. The framework included farmers' markets, community-supported agriculture, the Oklahoma Food Cooperative, state legislators and local grocers working together to improve transportation, selection, timeliness and public awareness.

A 'groundbreaking model'The Oklahoma Food Cooperative is one of the largest distribution mechanisms for locally produced food in the state. Chelsey Simpson, a spokesperson for the co-op, said Oklahoma's model has been so successful that other states are using it as inspiration.

"It's an innovative, groundbreaking model," Simpson said. "It's very much like a monthly, online farmers' market that connects producers directly with consumers."

Participants simply log onto the co-op's website to shop. On the third Thursday of every month, groceries are delivered to nine pickup locations in the metro area. The co-op is a 501(c)3 nonprofit, so it's heavily dependent upon volunteers.

"We're almost entirely volunteer-run," Simpson said. "We rely on them to haul around products, and most of the producers team up to get their products to the sorting site."

Susan Bergen is one of them. She is the owner of Peach Crest Farm near Stratford, a family-owned operation that produces peaches, vegetables, greens, processed food items, honey, melons and anything else she can grow in season. A candidate for a poster child for the local agricultural movement, Bergen's operation utilizes nearly every available means to place products in front of consumers.

'More out of the box'
Peach Crest Farm has about 9,000 peach trees and an additional 160 acres of farmland used for seasonal produce. By the standard of local producers, Bergen's operation is large enough for her to have her own transportation.

"We seek to provide economic stability to our area," she said. "Satellite farmers in the area grow different products, and they bring them to us. We help ship them to markets."

Transportation is one of the most cost-intensive cogs in the system. Many local producers are backyard gardeners or have only a few acres of land. Transportation costs alone would create a net loss for them. Matt Burch founded Urban Agrarian in May 2008 to help local food producers do three things: distribute their products, market their brand and relate to customers.

Burch, who works with about 50 local producers, runs his operation with an old Frito-Lay step van and a Volkswagen Jetta wagon. Many of his products end up in farmers' markets.

"We have booths at Norman, Edmond and (Oklahoma State University - Oklahoma City)," he said. "We're trying to find locations and times that are more out of the box."

Bob Davis helped open the Mid-Del farmers' market in July 2009, but said it's been slow going.

"We're new, so we're smaller," Davis said. "We encounter people who don't know in advance that local foods often cost more, but they're not comparing high-end to high-end. Instead of tomatoes picked a week before they're ripe and shipped from Mexico, we have tomatoes that are picked ripe and offered the same day or week."

Davis' point is borne out by a report from the Kerr Center for Sustainable Agriculture. In the "Closer to Home" report, 42 produce items were purchased at three local grocers and at farmers' markets. In the majority of cases, when adjusted to a price-per-pound metric, food at farmers' markets was actually cheaper.

A farmer can only be one place at a time, however, so local grocers are critical to the network. Sara Kaplan of Norman's Native Roots Market estimates a third of her inventory is from local producers.

"We work with more than 90 local producers," Kaplan said. "We work with every kind of producer, from backyard gardeners to large producers like Susan."

Kaplan also runs a CSA " a community-supported agriculture group. Members pay a fee to receive a basket of produce throughout the growing season. The money provides farmers with cash flow before the harvest, a critical necessity.

"We're trying to educate people on seasonal availability, eating local and supporting local farmers," Kaplan said. "People are starting to catch on, though. We now have 30 families in the CSA."

'A farm for all seasons'Recent legislation is aiding the network's success in helping generate interest. Oklahoma legislators passed a Farm to School program, a Healthy Corner Store initiative, and a program that allows Women, Infants and Children (WIC) funds to be spent at farmers' markets. All these programs made locally produced foods more widely available, and in the case of Bergen, helped grow her business.

"Fall used to be slow for us," she said, "but the Farm to School program enabled us to begin servicing Pauls Valley Schools in the fall. My business has grown as a result, and we are truly a farm for all seasons now."

All the legislation has not run in the network's favor, however. Burch said he is concerned about upcoming federal food-safety standards in food traceability that are capital-intensive. Sen. Andrew Rice, D-Oklahoma City, has tried to get sales taxes waived at farmers' markets.

"Many of the things we want to do impact the overall state budget," Rice said. "Because it impacted the budget, it was nixed, and that's frustrating because these are good tax incentives, as opposed to the many frivolous ones we've had."

Part of the challenge has been legislation that impacts the farming industry is directed at large, corporate operations and small producers equally.

"It's a new industry, and a difficult one to define," Burch said. "And it's hard to get separate legislation for an as-yet-undefined industry."

Burch hopes that will come to an end, but in the meantime, he'll continue to preach the benefits of flavor, freshness, increased nutrition and benefits to the local economy. "Greg Horton

Market watch
Edmond Farmers' Market
Second and Broadway, Edmond
Wednesday, 8 a.m.-1 p.m.
Saturday, 8 a.m.-1 p.m.

Mid-Del Farmers' Market
7209 S.E. 29th, Midwest City
Tuesday, 4:30-8 p.m.
Saturday, 8-11:30 a.m.

Old Town Farmers' Market
Downtown Moore
Thursday, 4-8 p.m.
Saturday, 8 a.m.-1 p.m.

Norman Farmers' Market
615 E. Robinson, Norman
Wednesday, 8 a.m.-noon
Saturday, 8 a.m.-noon

MidTown Market at Saints
N.W. Ninth and Walker
Friday, 2:30-7 p.m.

Urban Agrarian Local
Foods Market
N.W. 23rd and Hudson
Sunday, 11 a.m.-3 p.m.

OSU-OKC Farmers' Market
400 N. Portland
Saturday, 8 a.m.-1 p.m.

OSU-OKC Wednesday Market
Just west of Western on N.W. 63rd
Wednesday, 2:30-7 p.m.

Made in Oklahoma
Farmers' Market
1000 N.E. 10th
Friday, 11 a.m.-1 p.m.

Walker Square Farmers' Market
S.W. 59th and Walker
Thursday, 5 p.m.
Saturday, 9 a.m.

Women in Agriculture
1701 N. Martin Luther King
Friday, 9 a.m.-1 p.m.
2628 N.E. 23rd
Saturday, 8 a.m.-noon

Yukon Farmers' Market
802 S. Mustang, Yukon
Saturday, 8 a.m.-noon

top photo
produce for sale
second photo Pauline Hogan Asbury is a weaver/instructor with "Habasketry."
third photo Carrots from Crestview Inc. Farms
fourth photo Cherries from Sunberry Orchard
fifth photo Brad Schanz, Yard & Garden Things photos/Shannon Cornman

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