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Sustainable agriculture is key to local food systems
Ohio Correspondent

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Understanding the role played by those in the sustainable agriculture and community food security movement is crucial to local food systems, said Jeff Sharp, an Ohio State University associate professor of human and community resource development.

Sharp addressed a group of about 160 producers, industry, extension and university representatives attending The Case For Local Food Systems, a conference sponsored by The Social Responsibility Initiative of the College of Food, Agriculture and Environmental Sciences at Ohio State University, the Department of Human and Community Resource Devel-opment, the OSU Local/Regional Food System Network and OSU Extension’s Sustainable Agriculture Team.

He said the roots of the local food movement go back several years and have been touted by those in sustainable agriculture and the community food system.

“We owe these individuals a debt of gratitude for maintaining the local food system,” he said. “These are diverse coalitions with different interests finding ways to work together.”

He explained these are local programs with a community focus that consider a variety of issues - ranging from diversity and harmony with nature on the sustainable agriculture side to meeting the needs of low-income people and promoting self-reliance and establishing anti-hunger programs in the community food security programs.

The key to the success of these programs, according to Sharp, is the fact that they empower people to provide ways to access the food supply.

“There are a lot of exciting things happening in this area,” he said. “Urban Food Systems such as the Franklin Park Community Gardens in Columbus bring new people into the food system. These programs produce a lot of food.”

Sharp added that institutional buying is another area that is seeing growth, as institutions such as schools and hospitals commit to buying local foods. “Buy local” initiatives also encourage consumers to buy locally produced products whenever possible.

And many times, organic products fall into this category. Over time, the strong connection between organic and local products blurs as national brands acquire local and regional brands to gain entry into the organic market, Sharp said.

To gain a handle on who values local and organic products, Sharp, along with Andrew Rauch and Molly Bean Smith, conducted a survey of Ohioans’ interest in local and organic foods. The survey looked at the frequency the respondents purchased local and organic foods as well regional preferences.

The results of the study indicated that nearly half of the 1,800 people asked were concerned about food safety and how their food is produced. And while taste ranked as the No. 1 priority, the survey showed that 89 percent of the respondents indicated that they occasionally or frequently purchase locally grown foods, and 41 percent purchase organically grown foods.

Regionally, residents in southeastern Ohio are more likely to buy local and organic foods, followed by the northwest, northeast and central regions of the state.

The study also looked at consumer types and their willingness to purchase locally grown food or food that was produced and labeled organic. The result was five consumer types; those moderately inclined to buy organic and local, locally inclined, dually inclined to rate local and organic as equally important, disinclined to rate local and organic as important factors and organically inclined rate organic as important but not local.

While the organically inclined respondents were the smallest in number (only 6 percent of the respondents falling into this category), they were the youngest, had the highest income and were the most educated. They also had a strong belief that organic food was healthier, few social ties to farmers and a relatively low trust and affinity for farming. At the same time, those who were disinclined to purchase local or organically produced foods had low levels of concerns about food safety, a low rating of locally grown attributes and were largely suburbanites.

On the other end of the study, (36 percent of the respondents) those who were moderately inclined to rate both organic and local as somewhat important factors when making food purchases, they had a modest trust of farmers and affinity for agriculture, but a modest to low social link to farmers and a fairly low rating of locally grown attributes.

Sharp said that those who were inclined to purchase locally grown foods had little belief that organic foods were healthier, but they had a high trust and affinity for agriculture and strong social links to farmers. They were also strongly supportive of food purchased to keep a farmer in business and the locally grown attribute.

Respondents falling into the dual category are highly concerned about food safety and believe that organic foods are healthier. They also have a strong trust of farmers and agriculture and support the locally grown attribute and keeping farmers in business. They are also more likely to be older, females, less educated, lower income, city or small town residents.

Sharp added that people make different food choices as they age and develop health problems. “We have to think about who is buying and cooking this food,” he said. “We are concerned that we are losing a whole generation of buying and cooking their food from scratch. The convenience food area is growing.”

Sharp also looked at consumers who were highly motivated to buy organic foods versus those who place equal emphasis on locally and organically produced food.

He described motivated customers as being highly concerned about health and food safety, believing that organic foods are healthier than conventional foods with a high level of environmental interest and very low level of trust of farmers to protect the environment, younger, highly educated, female and very liberal.

Dually motivated consumers are a more complex group, according to Sharp. “It is important to identify the sub-groups of the dually motivated consumers, and find different ways to reach out to them,” he said. “This group is more likely to be urban or small town and older women. Price is more likely to be a motivating factor in this group so, it is important to focus on marketing and promotion to reach them.”

Sharp said these challenging times might be creating a sense of urgency among many consumers. They may be acting out of fear due to peak oil problems or climate changes.

They may also be acting out of responsibility, as they are concerned about how their food is produced and how it is making it to the table with the current energy prices. There is also a quality of life angle, Sharp said, as people attempt to rebuild their community around the table and on the street, as well as nurturing the opportunity for people to make a living. Buying locally can also be fun and meaningful.

“At the organizational level, we need to find ways to make the case about why you should care about local foods,” he concluded. “We need to build a strong regional and statewide coalition. There is an opportunity to suggest that there is common ground between the individual and sustainable agriculture.”

Published in the January 18, 2006 issue of Farm World.