The moment Cyndi Watkins first bit into a locally grown grape, she knew why people say local is better than far-flung alternatives. "It was amazing," she says. "I never had a grape that had so much flavor."
As a buyer for Ellwood Thompson's Local Market, Watkins deals with area produce every day. The word "local," she says, doesn't really have a definition as far as legal labeling. "We consider local to be 100 miles from us," she says. "Other markets may consider it local if it comes from 700 miles away. It's up to interpretation."
To the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, local means anything grown or produced in Virginia. The same definition holds true for Ukrop's. "If we procure items from states that are near us, we will list that state, such as North Carolina or Maryland, on the sign," explains Wade Carmichael, Ukrop's senior category manager of produce.
"In the last three to four years, interest in buying locally has really mushroomed," observes Elaine Lidholm, director of communications for VDACS. She notes that the number of farmers' markets in Virginia has risen from 88 to 152 since 2005. Carmichael believes that increase may be due in part to the challenging economy. "Customers are eager to keep their money close to home," he says. "Additionally, consumers are increasingly interested in how the food they feed their families is grown."
Consumers who buy locally support their surrounding economy when they do so. Agriculture is our state's largest industry, contributing $55 billion annually, according to VDACS. In addition to economic benefits, buying locally also has positive effects on one's health and the environment. For instance, food grown close to home doesn't have to be transported long distances, resulting in less gas being used and less carbon being released into the atmosphere.
Another factor: The food itself. "People have noticed that when you buy locally, you buy fresher," Lidholm says. "Food can lose vitamins and nutritional value when it's transported."
Regional produce can be found in a variety of places, including grocery stores, farmers' markets and farms. "Retailers should have a sign stating that the product is local," Carmichael says. "At Ukrop's, our local products are signed with our ‘Local Route' signs."
Community-supported agriculture is another option. In a CSA, a group of individuals provides financial backing and perhaps some labor to support a farm operation for a year. In return, each member of the group receives a share of the farm's output during the growing season. "We've seen an increase in farms offering subscription services, as well as the number of people [subscribing]," Lidholm says.
One of the advantages of a CSA is that members know the farmer, as well as where all the food comes from, how it was grown, who harvested it and when. Lidholm, Carmichael and Watkins agree that it's always good to meet and know local farmers. "You want to be able to look eye to eye with the grower and ask questions such as ‘What do you use as fertilizer?' Asking questions creates a degree of trust," Lidholm says.
One of the best ways to buy fresh produce is to purchase it during its peak season. Virginia's first fresh vegetables and fruits of the year — lettuce, spinach and peas, for example — start appearing in April or May. The growing season continues through late fall when pumpkins, squash and root vegetables are harvested.
There are also many Virginia products that can be found year-round, such as apples, milk, eggs, honey, meats and processed products. "Virginia is a big producer of beef, turkey and seafood," Lidholm says. "We also have other lean meat like buffalo and ostrich." In addition to buying local produce, consumers can pick their own at numerous farms in the state, where they can experience a day on the farm.
"The generation of people now didn't grow up on a farm," Lidholm says. "Many people seem to be longing to have a connection to that."
For more information on buying local, plus a list of regional CSAs, visit virginiagrown.com .