What should a 'local' farm (and farmer) look like?
December 6th, 2012
12:45 PM ET
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Ryan Goodman is a generational rancher from Arkansas with a degree in Animal Science from Oklahoma State University in Animal Science, and is currently pursuing a Master’s degree at the University of Tennessee, studying beef cattle management. He is one of many farmers using social media to bridge the gap between farmers and urban customers. Follow his story daily at AgricultureProud.com or on Twitter and Facebook.

The term "local" is used frequently in conversations centered on the American food system. Is it 50 miles from your home or 500? Must the food be purchased directly from the farmer? Can the food be sourced by a retailer and sold under a "local" label for stronger buying power?

I have listened to several panel discussions on food topics over the past year and the topic of local food sources normally pops up. Some of these panel discussions have included suburban or urban mothers and restaurant owners. When asked what they considered local food and farmers, a common theme arises, and it bothers me: the urban ideal of what local farmers should look like.

My family has raised beef cattle in Arkansas for several generations. Most of our cattle are shipped to the Texas and Oklahoma Panhandles and Western Kansas. These areas have ample feed available for cattle and farmers who specialize in feeding cattle until they reach their harvest weight. In these parts of the country, the land is flat, more arid, and conducive to higher populations of livestock than people.

We feed a few cattle for local harvest each year to feed our family and occasionally a neighbor will buy a fattened beef for their family. We have focused primarily on cattle production rather than adding in diverse local marketing. Is my family considered a “local farm” to our area? I would not have second-guessed that assumption a few years ago.

I grew up in the heart of Arkansas cattle and farmland. Our county produces far more beef and crops than could ever be consumed by the local population of 78,000. We are thankful for a national market to trade our cattle and be able to reinvest in our land and livestock and feed our families.

Now I find myself in Knoxville, Tennessee with a metro-area population over 700,000 people. We have several local farms and multiple seasonal farmers markets around town. There is a regional dairy brand and we are surrounded by cattle, swine, and poultry livestock farms as well as many vegetable farms. Unfortunately, there are far too many people in the area for immediate farmers to supply our food needs. We are thankful for a national market to bring in food supplies from farmers in more rural parts of the country.

Many folks, like the panelist moms and restaurant owners, look at my family and say we are not local farmers simply because we do not provide for their food preference. As a family farmer trying to make a living with the skills I know best, those statements offend me.

My family contributes to the local economy, buying our supplies in local shops and paying all of our taxes. We are every bit a part of the local community as anyone else. Why should we be looked down upon because we make a good business decision for our livelihood when marketing our livestock? Sometimes I wonder if America is just a country full of food snobs.

If there were a stronger demand for our beef in a local market, we would probably sell more beef to neighbors. If all of our neighboring farmers did the same, what would happen to the excess? Where would folks in places like Knoxville receive their beef? What about larger cities like Los Angeles, Atlanta, or New York?

Local food is a great choice and opportunity for many folks, but there is a stronger need for national markets to provide food on a consistent and broader scale. Farmers like my family should not be looked down upon because we do what is best for our future, our land, livestock, or even business.

Invest money in what you believe is important for your community, health and family, but do not look down on others because they make different food choices. Remember, you can make multiple choices; local on some things, national on others, and other people will make the right choices for themselves and their family. We should all be thankful for what we have. Things are pretty great and certainly could be far worse.

Do you want to discuss food options with more farmers and friends of agriculture? Try folks like the Zwebers who run an organic dairy in Minnesota, central Utah dairy farmer Trent Bown, Brian Scott who grows crops in Indiana, Alabama Slow Food farmer Jan Hoadley, Kentucky-based butcher Amy Sipes, blogger Janice Person, farming advocate Anthony Pannone and many others using the #agchat tag on Twitter.

What defines local for you? Should family farmers be penalized because they market a product to a national community? How can you strengthen the market for local products in your community? Let's have a conversation, starting in the comments below.

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soundoff (117 Responses)
  1. zoltanwelvart

    Resist biosolids(organic sewage.use mined plankton.used by pyramid builders.

    May 12, 2014 at 11:00 am |
  2. farm sheds nz

    A local farmer should have a farm to work in and the specialties of his work should make his work apparent. Atleast one shed to store the equipments and other instruments should be there. I remember when one of my uncle found a shed from http://www.durasteel.co.nz/shop/garages.html
    And it is still there from a long time with the same new look.

    June 18, 2013 at 7:05 am |
  3. seo

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    April 24, 2013 at 11:49 pm |
  4. Lorri Mason

    They should look like me!

    GA- I'm a black female farmer.
    Facebook Us: Stems n Roots

    February 11, 2013 at 7:32 pm |
    • Kat Kinsman

      I just "liked" your Facebook page. I have just started raised bed gardening and love, love, love it. may I contact you? (I'm the editor of this site.)

      February 11, 2013 at 7:36 pm |
  5. Boulder belt Eco-Farm

    I am sorry but you cannot call yourself a local farmer if you sell all your crops or livestock to out of state large corporate entities. yes your farm may be in the local area, you may live there and yes pay taxes there but your farm is not supplying the local region. and therefore you are not a locavore farm. when you start selling dorect to the public at least 51% of the time instead of wholesaling your farm products to out of state corps than you can make that claim.

    And for the same reasons CAFO/Factory farms cannot be considered local if little to none of what they raise stays in the food shed region.

    Sorry that you don't fit the definition of local farm, change your operation so you can or quit complaining. You made your choice so don't go whining when your farm does not fit the general definition of what local agriculture is. just like I made my choice to be a local farm that sells mainly direct to the public or directly to locally owned stores. Unlike you 55% to 60% of my time is spent marketing and I know around 90% of my customers personally and because I sell my product locally over 75% of that money stays in the region unlike the money you make from selling your stock to out of state companies which means less than 40% of the money you make stays in the area.

    February 7, 2013 at 11:43 am |
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