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Supporting Local Farmers: The Environmental and Economic Benefits

Supporting local businesses has historic roots in our communities – prior to globalization, the majority of the goods and services we consumed could be nothing other than local. Now, there is a rejuvenated social movement encouraging people to buy locally. Whether that is businesses or art or food, “supporting local” always centres the people who produce them. 

Food is home to a unique conversation about what it means to buy local food and support local producers. Here, we take a brief look at the environmental and economic benefits of supporting the people producing food locally – our farmers.

What is Local Food?

The saying “buy local” has been increasing in our social vocabulary – but what does local food really mean? 

There is no single definition of local food. Definitions vary as there are limitations to accessing local foods based on where you live, what you can afford, your identity, and so much more.

  • It is a geographical, cultural, or community-based phenomenon defined by individuals. 
  • Some define it as food that is grown and consumed within 100 miles of each other.
  • Others expand this to include any food coming from one’s province or region. 
  • Some might identify local food as food grown by farmers they can name or talk to directly. 
  • Others may identify local food as any food coming from small scale food production systems. 
  • Some may even limit it to what is grown in their backyard! 

The COVID-19 pandemic and climate crisis have demonstrated how important it is economically and environmentally to buy local foods. While local businesses have needed more support in the past year, it is becoming increasingly evident that the way we interact with our environment needs to change significantly. In a time where signs like the one above are becoming ever more present, it is an excellent time to reimagine what buying local food might look like for you.  

Asparagus and Strawberries in reusable containers at the Georgetown Farmers Market. (2021)

Benefits for the Environment

Our food systems and practices have a huge impact on our environment. The reverse is also true, as climate change can disrupt food systems and food access worldwide. Local food from small farms often are the most sustainable options, especially in regards to the carbon emissions of travel, the preservation of farmland, and chemical usage. It is important to remember that not all local food is the most sustainable option, so it is good practice to research farmers and the food you purchase!

  • Reducing Emissions From Travel: Even though Canada produces over 70% of the food we consume domestically, we still import a significant amount of food. On top of that, food sometimes travels from one side of our large country to the other, adding on significant travel. In Canada, food travels, on average, 2500km before it is consumed. This transport, whether by truck, plane, ship, or train, adds to the carbon footprint our food has. When consuming more local food, a good portion of these travel costs are reduced, in turn reducing the amount of fossil fuel needed for the production of food. Unless grown in your own space, most food will have to travel a distance, but it is important to investigate which options are most sustainable around you!
  • Limiting Packaging: When foods have to travel far distances, there is often more packaging involved for the protection and preservation of food. But when locally sourced, not as much plastic or paper products are necessary. For example, if you buy produce at a local farmers market, farmers can reuse the cardboard boxes and plastic containers used for transport, and you can use a reusable bag to take your food home!
  • Preserving Farmland: When local farms are supported by the community, they have a higher chance of continuing to operate on the land they are on. As land becomes more valuable, especially around Halton, more developers and businesses want to purchase land that currently is farmland to construct buildings and homes. If farmers are not profiting or are unsupported by the community, they may be more likely to sell their land, reducing the arable land in the area. 
  • Natural Forms of Pest and Disease Control: Pesticides and other harmful chemicals are often used on large and industrial farms to protect crops and animals from pests and disease. While this may enable larger yields, some chemicals can leak into local water sources or negatively impact species of insects. Industrial farms need to grow large quantities of food and lean towards monocropping, which often requires the use of chemicals to prevent pests and disease. In contrast, small farmers tend to grow a variety of crops on their farms to serve the needs of people in their immediate community. This form of production is more similar to how plants grow without human involvement, and through processes such as crop rotation, intercropping with trees, and companion planting, can naturally prevent diseases and pests. This leads to healthier produce overall, as well as a healthier surrounding environment. 
Local food producers at the Georgetown Farmers Market. (2021)

Benefits for the Economy

Simply put, buying local food means you are supporting the businesses and livelihoods of local farmers. When you buy from a local farmer, the money you spend stays in your community, invested into ensuring the farm can continue to operate and grow to support the community further. In contrast, when you spend money at a grocery store, a lot of the money from that purchase goes to large corporations and industrial farmers, leaving your community, province, or country. Farmers markets and CSA are two ways you can easily purchase local foods straight from farmers!

  • CSA: Community Supported Agriculture, often called a CSA, is a phenomenon that started in Japan in the 1960s, and found its way to Canada in the 1980s. In a CSA, a local farm, or collection of small local farms, will offer shares to the public to buy into. Members who buy shares will pay, often up front, for the costs that go into farming for the year, enabling small farms to purchase seeds, supplies, and labour they’ll need. In exchange, members receive shares of the harvest on a consistent basis throughout the harvesting months, often with a wide range of seasonal goods available for delivery or pickup weekly. Not only does this make shopping so much easier for members, but ensures the farm will have the resources they need to produce and profit for the year. This is a really sustainable way to support local farmers!

Eating local food can have benefits to your own wallet as well. If you purchase local seasonal foods, these are often easier to produce for farmers, and thus cheaper when you’re buying them! 

Buying and consuming local food can help you develop a deeper connection with food and your community. By having conversations with local farmers, networking with local businesses, attending local markets, becoming a part of a CSA, or spreading knowledge of local food systems, one can connect further with their community. After all, what brings people together more than food!

Local residents follow COVID-19 protocols at the Georgetown Farmers Market. (2021)

A Process, Not An Endpoint

Shopping locally can sometimes be more expensive – grocery stores can offer lower prices due to buying in bulk from large-scale farmers. Not everyone has the privilege of spending more to buy their groceries locally. Depending on personal circumstances, it is not always possible to choose locally-grown foods.

Living sustainably is not an end goal – it is a continuous process. It is better to do a little than none at all! If you can’t purchase all of your food, or even all of your fruits and vegetables locally, try to purchase a few staple local goods, like eggs or in season produce. Try growing some foods you consume often in your space. You can also practice purchasing food that is in season in your area, especially in the summer and fall months in Canada. 

Sometimes, it may not seem like any significant difference to purchase some apples from a local orchard over a grocery store. But every small action makes a difference! If everyone were to start making these smaller systems, giant shifts can occur in our food system. Check out our Local Food Map for some ideas on how to engage with local food! When you put your money towards supporting local farmers, at the very least, you can know who’s face you’re putting a smile on!

Local apples for sale at the Georgetown Farmers Market. (2021)

Have any questions? Feel free to email us at grow@haltonfood.ca!

Contributed by Gemma Patey, Community Garden Assistant

References

Green Business Bureau. (2020). Buying Local: Understand the Pros and Cons of Striving to Purchase Your Goods Locally. Retrieved from https://greenbusinessbureau.com/blog/buying-local-understand-the-pros-and-cons-of-striving-to-purchase-your-goods-locally/ 

³ Honeycutt, E. (2017). Why Buy Local Food? It’s Healthier for You and Better for the Environment. Food Revolution Network. Retrieved from https://foodrevolution.org/blog/why-buy-local-food/ 

¹ ² Hotton, E. (2016). Eating Local: Why You Should Bother! University of Toronto Food Services. Retrieved from https://ueat.utoronto.ca/eating-local-bother/

Square Mile Farms. (2020). Food for Thought: What are the benefits of eating local grown food? Retrieved from https://www.squaremilefarms.com/post/food-for-thought-what-are-the-benefits-of-eating-locally-grown-food 

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