2005, Diane Conners for Great Lakes Bulletin News Service
via CropChoice.com: Barry Eastman's moderately
priced restaurant spent $160,000 purchasing local food
When customers enter Rudy's Tacos in Waterloo, Iowa,
there's no doubt they're about to eat locally grown
food in their tacos, burritos, and enchiladas.
At the diner's entrance a large, colorful poster with
photos of farmers reads, "Buy Fresh Buy Local"
and "Meet Rudy's Farmers." And at the tables,
owner Barry Eastman posts information about how much
he spends buying local farm products - $166,000 last
year, including 100 percent of his chicken, pork, beef,
cheese, sour cream, and tomatoes. The 120-seat restaurant
draws customers from blue collar Waterloo, home to a
John Deere tractor plant, and from the nearby college
town Cedar Falls.
Hundreds of miles east of Rudy's, customers of the
independently owned Atkins Farms Country Market in Amherst,
Mass., also know they will find fresh local produce
and other "native" products, as the 30,000-square-foot
store calls them. There, the price cards in the produce
aisle highlight local products with the "Be A Local
Hero - Buy Locally Grown" logo, which consumers
in western Massachusetts now connect with supporting
local farms and finding good, fresh food.
Across the country, restaurants and retail grocers
are meeting consumer demand - and drawing more customers
- by serving or selling everything from juicy tomatoes
to flavorful meats bought from local farms. Small, independent
retail grocers like the Atkins market use local food
to help them stand out from the big box stores that
can threaten their survival. Similarly, Mr. Eastman's
focus on local products distinguishes Rudy's from the
chain eateries that serve mass-produced food.
"There are so many chains coming at us,"
Mr. Eastman said. "They are not going to stop.
This will differentiate us from the chains. I just think
it gives us a competitive edge."
This new twist in the farm economy is fine with growers,
too. They are very happy to sell locally; that market
offers a safe haven from the storm of devastatingly
low bulk commodities prices that are sinking so many
farms. They know that locally sold products bring top
A Budding Love Affair
Increasingly, local food campaigns organized by nonprofit
groups, state agriculture departments, and consumer
and chef groups are nurturing the budding love affair
between local retailers and local farmers. Using a wide
range of publicity techniques, from posters to dedicated
special events, they raise consumer awareness about
the availability and quality of food that's "thousands
of miles fresher" because it comes from nearby
and is not shipped long distances and stored for weeks.
For example, the Practical Farmers of Iowa and the
University of Northern Iowa coordinate the Buy Fresh
Buy Local campaign that Rudy's participates in. The
farm organization and the university are among a number
of groups in 10 states that joined together in 2003
with the national nonprofit FoodRoutes Network to share
resources and lessons learned in their individual Buy
Fresh Buy Local campaigns.
One of the oldest such efforts is Community Involved
in Sustaining Agriculture. Its Be a Local Hero - Buy
Locally Grown campaign began in 1999 in western Massachusetts,
where the Atkins grocery is located. The trend is gaining
ground rapidly; Supermarket News, a leading publication
for food retailers, reported last year that states from
California to Maine and North Carolina to New York are
pumping marketing dollars into promotion of locally
In Michigan, the state agriculture department teamed
up in 2003 with the nonprofit Michigan Integrated Food
and Farming Systems to launch its Select Michigan campaign,
which introduced local foods into chain stores in the
Grand Rapids and Detroit areas. The nonprofit Michigan
Land Use Institute launched a campaign to promote local
farm food in the Traverse City region last year; this
year the Institute is expanding the program to also
promote grocers and restaurants that are buying from
Signs of Success
Michigan is seeing some strong signs of success with
its program. Retail grocery chains that participated
in the Select Michigan campaign reported increases of
10 to 12 percent in the volume of Michigan apples sold
instate in 2004. They even saw increases in potato sales
- 3.1 percent at one chain and 27.4 percent at another
- in a year when the low-carbohydrate diet craze made
potatoes taboo. Moreover, when organizers held special
in-store tastings of Michigan products, consumers often
replaced what was already in their shopping carts with
the local products. The tastings kept produce department
employees busy, according to Christine Lietzau, the
"They have to restock the display two or three
times during a two-hour promotion," she said.
Similarly, local strawberries outsold the California
berries displayed right next to them at a Massachusetts
grocery, even though the local ones cost $1 more, said
Mark Lattanzi, a Be a Local Hero project director.
"What I hear from produce managers is that their
customers are asking for local produce," Mr. Lattanzi
said. "If it's summertime and the corn isn't there,
they are asking, 'When is the corn going to be here?'
They have to stock it because their customers want it.
They'd be foolish not to."
The enthusiasm for local foods can get downright personal,
according to Pauline Lannon, president of the Atkins
grocery that is a part of Mr. Lattanzi's project. Her
store hosts a special tasting event every August; about
25 local vendors share their wares with about 600 customers.
"The interest our customers have in this event
is really heart-warming," she said. "They
love coming in and meeting the people who produce their
Some Tasty Statistics
There are plenty of statistics and studies confirming
that consumers want to buy and eat locally grown foods.
Seventy-three percent of Americans find
it important to know whether food is grown or produced
locally or regionally, according to a national poll
conducted by Roper Public Affairs last spring for
a farmer cooperative, Organic Valley Family of Farms.
The survey received notice in Supermarket News.
More than 75 percent of consumers surveyed
in 2003 in seven Midwestern states (Iowa,
Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Missouri,
Nebraska, and Kansas), and the metropolitan Boston
and Seattle areas chose "grown locally by family
farmers" as their first choice for produce or
products, according to Iowa State University, which
conducted the research.
Seventy percent of households surveyed
in Nebraska, Iowa, Missouri, and Wisconsin in 2001
said it was very or extremely important that their
purchase supported a local family farm and was locally
grown or produced, according to a study by the University
Shoppers who seek out "natural"
foods, such as organic or hormone-free products,
overwhelmingly choose freshness as their number-one
value, according to a study last summer by The Natural
Foods Merchandiser, a trade journal for natural products
retailers. The same shoppers said the last thing they
would want removed from stores is local produce and
Both university studies showed that consumers prefer
local products because of their freshness, quality,
taste, and the support they give to local farmers and
the local economy.
A Good Deal for Everyone
Mr. Eastman, at Rudy's Tacos, has also found those
qualities to be important. In fact, the quality of the
products is so high that he said it's economically sensible
to buy from local farmers even if the initial cost is
sometimes higher, and even though he doesn't charge
four-star restaurant prices. Lunch at Rudy's is $5 or
$6 dollars; just about any meal there is less than $10.
For example, the price of the local organic chicken
Mr. Eastman buys is 60 cents a pound more than the commercial
chickens he could buy - $1.63 a pound compared to $1.03
a pound. Yet, the organic birds, his first attempt at
buying local, yield so much more meat per bird that
they significantly reduce his labor costs.
"When you figure in the labor it takes to peel
the meat off the bone and break it down, it worked out
to be about the same cost," he said. "And
the quality of the chicken - I was like, 'Wow - I could
make my restaurant a much better place just by going
He's pleased, too, by customer response.
"One woman just went crazy over the chicken because
she remembered chicken from when she was a kid on the
farm," he said. "She hadn't tasted chicken
like that for 20 years. There are a lot of people who
don't know what chicken is supposed to taste like."
At the time, Mr. Eastman couldn't buy a free-range
chicken through a wholesale distributor. But even though
he might be able to buy them now, Mr. Eastman says he
intends to continue purchasing locally. He likes the
relationships he's developed with his farmers, and the
opportunity to support other local businesses.
"Once I started working with these farmers, I
developed a pretty cool relationship with them, and
I recognized they are a small business just like I am,"
If he can spend more than $100,000 locally, he said,
just think of the difference in the community if 10
businesses did that. "It would be $1 million that
stays right here."
"I've heard it is a bit odd that a blue collar
restaurant like mine is doing local food," he said.
"Usually it is the high-end places. A Mexican place
in Iowa? If I can do it, who can't?"
Diane Conners, a veteran journalist and former
farmers market master, coordinates the Michigan Land
Use Institute's entrepreneurial agriculture program.
Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org