Late Saturday morning, early fall. Perfect football weather. Throngs of orange-wearing men and women gently jostle each other on Market Square.
There's a line, as always, for biscuits and ice cream from Cruze Farm Dairy. Around the corner, Old City Java's kiosk has its own line for slow-drip coffee. Families are buying mums for fall planting. Couples are buying arugula, oyster mushrooms, and loaves of ciabatta for tonight's dinner. Instead of refusing to eat their vegetables, young children look excited as their parents buy them, perhaps excited at the appeal of the bizarro-world colors—white eggplants, purple peppers, yellow tomatoes.
This Saturday is nothing special, though. It's like this every Saturday, from spring until late fall, here at the Market Square Farmers' Market. There are other farmers' markets in town—more each year—but it's this one that gives Knoxville some of the epicurean cache of larger cities. It's this market that has become the face of this city's local food movement, having grown from 10 vendors in 2004 to an average of 90 at the peak of the season now. Here on the square, Wednesdays and Saturdays, is ground zero for Knoxville locavores.
Later the same week. I'm sitting in the Public House on Magnolia Avenue, with its menu of local cheeses and regional artisan liquors, taking notes for this story. As I walked in, I saw a Subaru with a bumper sticker on it; it read: "Local Food: Thousands of Miles Fresher."
It's hard to argue with that. Of course produce grown the next county over is more likely to be fresher than produce shipped from Florida, or California, or Mexico, or Chile, or New Zealand. And when it comes to fruits and vegetables, which start to lose nutrients as soon as they are picked, why wouldn't you want fresher produce? Why would anyone not eat local?
It seems like an easy thing that everyone can do without too much extra effort. You're supporting local businesses—local farms. You might even know those farmers. You're getting fresher produce—with those extra nutrients—and that produce is likely to taste a hell of a lot better than something picked weeks ago and kept in cold storage, or gassed in a warehouse so it can turn an appealing red.
Of course, not everyone wants to cook. And while many Knoxvillians have long been ardent supporters of their home-grown restaurants, eating local didn't mean you were eating local food until quite recently. Long established in California, New York, and even Atlanta and Asheville, the "farm-to-table" restaurant has finally become a part of the Knoxville dining scene. This year alone has seen the opening of the Plaid Apron in Sequoyah Hills and Just Ripe and Harry's Deli downtown; the almost totally local menu at the Night Owl Café; the newly revamped 31 Bistro in what was La Costa; and the expansion of local items on the menus of Chez Liberty, RouXbarb, and Bistro at the Bijou, among others. Rumored future openings imply that more farm-to-table restaurants are on their way.
So that's it, right? Buy local vegetables and eggs and meat and bread at the farmers' market, or at one of a growing number of stores selling local and regional food, like Just Ripe, The Market, Three Rivers Market, or Aisle Nine. And if you hate to cook, go out to eat somewhere that has a farm-to-table menu. Boom. You're done. You can sleep soundly knowing you've helped the local economy and the environment, and that you are generally making the world a better place.
As it turns out, eating local isn't that simple. It's not just that it's hard to find everything locally, especially as the fall harvest spills into the frosty winter. It's not just that you can't find local olive oil or local black pepper or local lemons or local sugar. It's not even that in July, in-season blackberries at the Market Square Farmer's Market might cost $8, as opposed to $4 at Kroger.
It turns out, if you break down the numbers, local farmers don't even grow enough produce to feed everyone. In fact, local farmers don't grow that much produce at all. There's also a debate as to whether buying locally farmed food is all that much better for the economy—or the environment.
So is the local food movement really about making the world a better place, or is it about making us feel better about ourselves? And do locavores even stand a chance at changing the face of modern industrialized agriculture?
More importantly, do we really want them to?
Locavore: The Origin Story
The idea of eating local is nothing new, especially here in the heart of Southern farm culture. As Southern chef Virginia Willis recently posted on her blog: "I maintain that Southerners have been eating seasonally and locally for generations. It wasn't ‘locavorism' or some other such bizarre seemingly made-up word. It just was. It all seems new again, but really, the concept is as old as when the 1st [sic] plowshares were thrust into the earth. We just lost our way for a bit."
Willis has a point, and not just about Southern eating. "Locavore" actually is a made-up word, dating all the way back to 2005, when four women in the San Francisco Bay area coined the term, using the word "local" and the suffix "vore" (from the Latin vorare, "to devour," the same root that is found in "omnivore," "carnivore," and "herbivore"). The word's creators had decided to eat only food grown from within 100 miles for a month. The group's actions garnered local press, and then national press in Time and The New York Times, and offshoots sprang up around the country, encouraging people to eat local for one month.
Within two years, "locavore" had become the New Oxford American Dictionary's Word of the Year for 2007. The Oxford University Press blog wrote at the time, "The past year saw the popularization of a trend in using locally grown ingredients, taking advantage of seasonally available foodstuffs .... The ‘locavore' movement encourages consumers to buy from farmers' markets or even to grow or pick their own food, arguing that fresh, local products are more nutritious and taste better. Locavores also shun supermarket offerings as an environmentally friendly measure, since shipping food over long distances often requires more fuel for transportation.
"‘The word ‘locavore' shows how food-lovers can enjoy what they eat while still appreciating the impact they have on the environment,' said Ben Zimmer, editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press. ‘It's significant in that it brings together eating and ecology in a new way.'"
But the heart of the local food movement really started 40 years ago, when Alice Waters opened Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Ca. Waters, more than anyone, has popularized the movement, even if the word "locavore" didn't exist in 1971. In the introduction to 1996's Chez Panisse Vegetables, a cookbook released to highlight the restaurant's 25th anniversary, Waters writes: "What can you the reader do to search out good vegetables to eat? If at all possible, plant a garden yourself, and above all, patronize farmers' markets. Get to know your purveyors and producers and give them feedback. … Buy products that are fresh, local, and organic. Select produce that looks freshly harvested and at its peak. Look for vegetables that look right at you!"
Of course, in Berkeley, it's easy to find vegetables that look right at you. Lemons and oranges grow in the region, as do olives and avocados. Temperatures rarely drop below freezing, so a year-long garden is an option. You can get wonderful wine from nearby Napa and Sonoma counties. And being on the coast, you have access to plenty of local, fresh seafood.
Here in the South, we certainly have it easier than places like Minnesota. Even better, Knoxville is hardly a concrete jungle—there's farmland all around the city, and most homeowners have yards big enough for vegetable gardens of some size. Plus, it's legal to keep bees and chickens inside city limits, making it that much easier for urban agriculture to take off.
But even the most dedicated Knoxville locavores aren't going to be able to eat and drink everything from within 100 miles. For one, there's no salt. You'd need to take a trip to the beach for that, so you could make your own sea salt, like chef Sean Brock of Charleston's restaurants Husk and McCrady's does. (Husk touts that no ingredient comes from north of the Mason-Dixon line.)
You can forget black pepper and most other spices too. Say goodbye to olive oil and hello to corn or sunflower oil (that you'll probably have to make yourself). Forget sugar; you're stuck with sorghum or molasses. It's also hard to find local white flour. You can buy locally roasted coffee, but the beans aren't grown here. You can buy local beer, but the grains for the mash weren't grown in the area. Even the most staunch locavores I spoke to estimated that 15 to 20 percent of their food (including seasonings, grains, and kitchen staples like oils and flour) comes from outside the local or regional foodshed.
"I try to get things as local as possible," says Charlotte Tolley, who's been in charge of the Market Square Farmers' Market for its eight seasons. "I don't eat a lot of avocados or bananas … but not everybody wants to do that, and that's understandable."
Even Waters, who likes to talk about sourcing from a 60-mile foodshed, admits in Chez Panisse Vegetables that she has green beans air-freighted to her from a small family farm outside San Diego—in-state, true, but around 500 miles away.
Food Miles and Food Stamps
That foodshed—another coined term—is something locavores like to talk about a lot. For something to be considered local, it must be grown within 100 miles. Regional, 400 miles. Stores like Just Ripe and the new Three Rivers Market now have price tags on the shelves that note the "food miles" of an item, which tell you just how far an item has traveled to land on your plate. The closer the food mileage, the thinking goes, the less fuel was required to transport it, and thus the smaller its carbon footprint and the better it is for the environment.
But not everyone is convinced food miles matter. In a 2008 policy paper, Canadian geographer Pierre Desrochers and economist Hiroko Shimizu argue that "food miles are at best, a marketing fad … More importantly, it constitutes a dangerous distraction from the very real and serious issues that affect the affordability, energy consumption, and environmental impact of modern food production."
Even critics of the locavore movement are somewhat critical of modern agriculture, which can be environmentally devastating and is often cited for labor abuses. Yet modern agriculture is impossible to escape. In a recent article in Entrepreneur magazine, Bruce Schoenfeld writes, "These days, the average metropolitan area in America still grows or raises less than 2 percent of the food it consumes." He also states, "90 percent of the produce consumed in the U.S. is grown in the Third World."
If those statistics shock you, you aren't alone. There's a reason the United States Department of Agriculture has launched the locavore-ish (and Michelle Obama-approved) "Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food" initiative.
Still, there's a long, long way to go before we all know our farmers, or even most of them. The problem? They don't grow nearly enough food to feed us.
According to the USDA's 2007 agricultural census, the most recent year for which data is available, there are 1,224 farms totaling 82,938 acres in Knox County alone. (The USDA defines a farm as "any place from which $1,000 or more of agricultural products were produced or sold" in the year of the census.) But only 88 of those acres were used to grow vegetables harvested for sale.
It's true that Knox County isn't a rural county, but the numbers for the entire state of Tennessee are remarkably similar. In 2007 there were 79,280 farms in the state—about 11 million acres of farmland. Just 32,546 of those acres were used for farming vegetables, growing berries, or contained fruit orchards. Compare that to 3.57 million acres used to grow hay and forage. And on a national level in 2007, vegetables, potatoes, and melons accounted for just 4.9 percent of all agricultural products sold in the U.S.
But Annette Wszelaki, the head of the University of Tennessee's Organic and Sustainable Crop Production program, says she thinks those census numbers are wrong.
"I don't think the census numbers capture a lot of ‘hobby farmers' or people who don't farm full-time, and that's a number that is growing," Wszelaki says.
Charlotte Tolley says she's seen a real growth in small farmers over the past couple of years. "It's coming on, it's definitely building," she says.
Tolley adds that there isn't a reason for a lot of local farmers to switch from farming forage or feed grains to produce. "It's a catch-22," Tolley says. "If no one's buying it, no one's growing it."
And a lot of people who are growing produce or raising chickens aren't selling anything. Take Kat Raese. She's the outreach coordinator at Beardsley Community Farm, but she and her husband Matt also are some of the most hardcore locavores in Knoxville—and some of the least pretentious about it.
While food miles concern Raese, she's more concerned about money. It's money, Kat says, that led to her discovery of canning and preserving foods. Once she got hooked on that, the young couple—Kat is just 27, and Matt is 32—turned almost the entirety of their tiny front and back yards into a giant raised-bed garden, using mostly found wood and abandoned drawers to make the beds.
"I never really thought of myself as someone who buys locally before," Raese says.
Here's what the Raeses have grown this spring, summer, and fall: turnips, black beans, purple hull peas, cranberry beans, Flossy Powell beans, Delicata squash, zucchini, horseradish, onions, potatoes, kale, rhubarb, sweet potatoes, beets, broccoli, blueberries, umpteen kinds of tomatoes, and almost every herb you can name. (Note: This is an incomplete list.)
The Raeses also belong to a CSA (community supported agriculture) share from a local farm. What they can't eat fresh, they freeze or can—Kat has an entire pantry filled with brightly colored mason jars. She pickles turnips and cans lentil soup and makes jam and even her own ketchup.
Raese said she got into canning because she couldn't land a full-time job after finishing her Master's in English at UT. Matt was (and is) still working on his Ph.D. in English, which meant their income was next to nothing—and Kat had nothing to do with her time. Once she discovered canning and then gardening, she says she found a way to channel her frustration at being underemployed into something productive.
Supporters of the local food movement have championed its ability to help low-income people through community gardens and farmers' markets that take food stamps. Tolley says EBT use at the Market Square Farmers' Market has doubled every year since its introduction in 2009, and she projects $8,000 in food stamps will be spent at the market this year by the end of the season. (EBT purchases cannot be used for non-food items, nor food that can be consumed on site, like coffee, but can be used for food-bearing plants.) Still, that $8,000 isn't a large piece of the pie.
"We don't have sales data for our vendors, so I do not know what percentage of food sales that would be, although it would be less [than] 5% I'm sure," Tolley explains via e-mail. "I do know that, while the FNS offices cannot share redemption numbers for other markets, we had the second highest redemption rate in the region for the 2009-2010 growing season, behind Asheville City Market. New Harvest also began accepting EBT with a script system this season."
But if you're on food stamps, how can you afford to pay $8 for blackberries or $5 for a loaf of bread?
"There are vendors with a variety of prices," Tolley says. "Early adopters pay more, like if you're buying a first generation iPhone. … One reason it costs more—they're trying to pay themselves a living wage. … [Farming] is incredibly hard and doesn't make you a lot of money."
The Lap of Locavore Luxury
Farming may not make you rich, but there are profits to be found in the locavore movement.
Take Chez Panisse. It is not cheap. Their four-course prix fixé meals range from $80 to $95 per person, wine not included. Sure, there are more expensive restaurants in the Bay area, and the restaurant has a cheaper à la carte café upstairs, but the fact remains: High quality locally sourced food is pricey.
Of course, Chez Panisse is a bargain compared the gourmet locally sourced meals at Blackberry Farm, just outside of Maryville. Dinner is included with your hotel room, but those rooms start at $745 per night, and a two-night stay is required.
Sam Beall runs Blackberry and has transformed it from a sleepy luxury mountain escape into one of the top-rated resorts in the world, and he's passionate about living as locally as possible.
"I almost don't eat produce unless it comes from this place or our weekly visit to the farmers' market," Beall says. "If it's local, you're forced to eat seasonally. It's ok to not have strawberries all year round. It's ok to not have tomatoes all year round."
Beall launched what the staff calls "the garden" about five years ago, and Jeff Ross manages the large, organic plots full of seasonal produce, the hazelnut grove that will soon hopefully spawn truffles in the trees' roots, and the rows of Pencil Cob corn, whose kernels will be ground into cornmeal and grits.
"We have some of all of the integrated pieces for a whole food system," Ross explains.
Yet even when you have the clientele willing to pay a premium, it's still hard to do everything local, or even regional.
"We doesn't have enough space to raise lamb for all our guests," Joseph Lenn, the executive chef at Blackberry, says.
Andrew Webber is the head distiller, CEO and cofounder of Corsair Artisian Distillery in Nashville, which sells Tennessee and Kentucky gin, absinthe, vodka, and American single malt whiskey that retail for $40 to $50. (He's also working with Blackberry Farm on an on-site brewery.) Webber says Corsair tries to keep things as local as possible, using locally smoked woods and local corn for their Wry Moon unaged corn whiskey, but it's simply impossible to get everything.
"There's not organic juniper grown in Tennesee," Webber says. He adds that even if they found locally sourced quinoa and millet, the farmer would be unlikely to have the quantities they need. And then there's the quality issue.
"The local angle is great for getting us an introduction to the bar," Webber says, but that won't keep people buying. "It is a luxury item, so people want quality."
Lenn echoes this, saying that in the winter especially, local luxury can be hard to create. "It's a problem from a hotel standpoint for me. … Sometimes we have to have chocolate-covered strawberries for our guests."
The Lure of the Land
I have grown tomatoes the past two summers (in containers, from seedlings that I bought). This summer I also grew one pot of sweet red peppers.
An admission: I have never once cooked anything with the tomatoes I have grown, unless you count slicing them up and making a tomato sandwich or caprese salad. Half the peppers I grew this year rotted on the plant because I had too many to eat. And that was from just one single sweet pepper plant.
Another admission: I have stopped going to the farmers' market most weekends. Why? Because every time I go I spend $40 on produce that I then inevitably never have the time to cook. And I end up tossing those $4 oyster mushrooms and $3 arugula and $10 peaches in the trash. (Yes, I could freeze the peaches, but I've done that before, and I never eat them either. I don't like frozen peaches, and I don't like smoothies.) And every time I throw that rotten produce in the trash, I hate myself for not being more like Alice Waters. Or for not being more like Kat Raese.
It's that guilt that's really at the heart of the locavore movement, I think. Very few of us have the dedication (and the canning skills) to live like Raese, but we want that. It's why we buy the $8 glossy blackberries and the striped heirloom tomatoes, so we can pretend we are more in touch with the land than we are. It's why people spend $1,600 on a weekend at Blackberry Farm.
"Our guests want to experience something that's not in our life anymore," Beall says. "They're looking to us as a way to reconnect with that way of life."
It's something Andrew Potter writes about in his 2010 book, The Authenticity Hoax: How We Get Lost Finding Ourselves. He says that the heart of the local food movement is really another version of the conspicuous consumption shown when buying designer jeans or handbags. (And do I have both? Check.)
"Conspicuous authenticity raises the stakes by turning the search for the authentic into a matter of utmost gravity: not only does it provide me with a meaningful life, but it is also good for society, the environment, even the entire planet," Potter writes.
Potter goes on to explain how once organic food was seen as the most authentic available, but now that it has gone mainstream, local food has suddenly become more authentic. He writes: "The virtue of localism in all its forms is that it promises to restore the lost status by ratcheting up the stakes: the standard now is one of boutique consumption of goods that are, by definition, more expensive and harder to find than the stuff that any old shopper can find at the supermarket …
"[H]ere's the thing: if it is the virtues of localism you're after, there's absolutely nothing special about 100 miles. Why not, say, 50 miles? … But if 50 miles is more authentic than 100, wouldn't zero be most authentic of all?"
Tolley admits this is an issue. "There is a problem with romanticizing the agrarian lifestyle," she says. But her admission is tempered by other statements she makes, like when she explains how much personal satisfaction she gets out of eating locally, and the personal relationship she has with farmers. "It's gratifying to support people who work really hard to feed me," she says.
Ross says something similar, as does almost everyone I talk to. "If you can look up and see the person who grew that squash, it already tastes better," Ross tells me.
But does it? Is a tomato actually going to taste better because you know that I grew it, as opposed to an unknown person?
Both Ross' and Tolley's enthusiasm is infectious, as is Raese's—after spending an afternoon with her, I wanted to learn how to make my own ketchup too. But it's easy to forget that it's the modern agricultural system that allows people to make enough money to buy those $8 blackberries. It's the modern agricultural system that allows me to make a living as a journalist, instead of spending the entirety of my time farming my own food. If I did that, it's true I might have a zero-mile foodshed, but do I want that?
Do we really want to return to the days when everyone was a farmer? When how much food you have is directly tied to the lack of natural disasters? For all its many flaws and sins, modern agriculture has created the world we live in. And that's not something that's going to change anytime soon.
It Comes Down to Taste
There's another reason there's a growing backlash against the locavore movement, even from people who actually support it, like me. It's because people like Alice Waters write statements like this (again, from Chez Panisse Vegetables): "Handling living food is so inspiring and energizing it makes you want to cook. You will never get tired of washing lettuce if it is beautiful to look at."
Look. I love Alice Waters, and I love her cookbooks. I once had an amazing meal at Chez Panisse. I am a vegetarian and love vegetables. But handling living vegetables does not energize me. Washing lettuce is nothing but boring.
So is there a way to bypass the smugness of the locavore movement, and a way to set aside all the dramatic claims about changing the face of modern agriculture and the economy, and instead focus on the good things about eating locally?
Raese learned to can from Laura Sohn, the proprietress of the Public House and a good friend of both Lenn and Roth. (Full disclosure: Sohn is a friend of this reporter, too.) Sohn has her own raised-bed gardens, and she makes infused liquors for the bar and pickles incredible things.
But even Sohn admits most of her connection to the locavore movement is about the food itself.
"I think the people I know who do it are into food, and they do it because it tastes better," Sohn says. "Nobody's ever just gonna buy only local produce, because we don't live in California, and it's not that easy to do."
Knowing your farmers may not make the food taste better, but the freshness and variety of local produce does affect the taste. Fresh eggs taste different—eggier—than commercial ones. And the more people who garden, the more people there are who will appreciate how hard it actually is to be a farmer.
Not all local food tastes better, but the food that does is the best tasting food you'll have. So let's stop pretending there's any other reason to eat local than that.
CORRECTION: The story mistakenly identified Kat Raese as being "in charge of Beardsley Farm." She is actually the outreach coordinator; Khann Chov is the farm manager.