In a Competitive Market, Local Farmers and Food Businesses Seek Strong Communal Ties
What if Georgians ate Georgia produce?
That was the question posed by a 2010 study conducted by the University of Georgia’s College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences Center for Agribusiness and Economic Development.
One major conclusion from the study was that Georgians eat less than the national average of locally grown food. If Georgians did consume that much local food, direct farm-to-consumer produce sales for vegetable, fruit, nut and melon farms would have jumped from $14.4 million to $25.8 million.
“We’re a big agricultural state and small farms are the ones that could take advantage of the direct to consumer market,” said Alice Rolls, executive director of nonprofit Georgia Organics, in an article published by the group following the study. “But we don’t have that model anymore. The get big or get out mentality has driven us towards large mono-cropping, which is mostly commodity crops…Food products are so cheap now that Americans are addicted to a diet based on non-food.”
Rolls said that when all crops in Georgia are considered, the state is losing out on approximately $780 million per year. If each of the state’s 3.7 million households (a figure that has grown since the study) devoted $10 per week to locally grown food, they’d be giving the state economy a $1.9 billion boost.
“The most surprising thing this study revealed to me was that we consumed so little locally grown foods in the state,” said Kent Wolfe, a marketing specialist for the Center for Business and Economic Development. “It just made me excited to see what the potential is out there. There are a lot of small farmers who’d love to take advantage of all that potential. We just need to find a better way to connect everybody.”
There are two sides to that potential. While small farms around Augusta have become increasingly connected over the last decade thanks to Augusta Locally Grown—an organization that provides fresh, local food and other natural products through an online market—farmers in Georgia are largely a dying breed. The story of ALG’s ten-year existence has two parts, and the more recent part doesn’t exactly match Wolfe’s initial optimism.
“Our sales were really on an upswing for the first 6-7 years,” said Kim Hines, director of Augusta Locally Grown. “The last few years, we haven’t been able to get farms as fast as we’ve lost them.”
Overall, progress has come a long way. Hines said that participating farmers earned about $30,000 collectively in ALG’s first two years. In 2017, they earned $300,000. The question is how much locals will choose local food going forward, and how much an aging generation of farmers can keep up.
“The question becomes, how many farmers are growing for the local community?” Hines said. “And that number is actually shrinking. If you looked at that list of 57 farmers (on ALG’s website), I could tell you a lot of sad stories of people aging out of this work, burning out. When I connect a farmer to a local chef, I’m doing it because…they won’t be able to survive.”
Hines said Georgia could greatly benefit from the kinds of young farmer recruitment efforts that are happening around the country right now. Aside from the market itself, Augusta Locally Grown provides a wealth of education based on empowering citizens to grow and eat real, healthy food for the sake of a future that can appear dismal and hopeful, depending on how one looks at it.
“When you buy local produce or local meat or local whatever agricultural product, those dollars really do stay in the community,” said Alesha Gonzalez, a farmer who runs Urban Grange, a farm in Hephzibah that raises chickens, goats, pigs, and grows a variety of vegetables. “When you shop with us, that allows us to hire help. That in turn impacts that health life.”
Hines is straight forward about what happens when consumers do the opposite.
“Every single time we buy a single dollar of food that isn’t from here, we’re literally undermining our local economy,” Hines said.
Locally Grown…and Growing
Coming from a family where high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes are rampant, Denise Tucker is direct about why she became a vegan intent on eating healthy local food. She did it to save her life. As a result, she lost much of it, including close friendships and even a marriage. After years of juicing for cancer patients and fellow church members struggling with health issues, she opened Augusta’s first juice bar that remains a staple of downtown’s food scene and a group of local eateries dedicated to serving food made with local ingredients.
Tucker estimates that around 80 percent of food served at Humanitree House comes from local farms. In the end, veganism is just a personal choice for Tucker, who has no ties to what she refers to as the “religion of veganism.” Far more important to her—and integral to her business—is a certain truth about life: the closer food is to you, the better it is.
Around 60 miles south of Humanitree House, in Bartow, Ga., lies a 76-acre family farm called the Hancock Farm. Cari and Coy Hancock have only owned the farm for two years (they moved from their farm in southern Missouri), but they grow a variety of fruits and vegetables that Augustans then eat at local restaurants like Abel Brown, Bee’s Knees, Humanitree House and Cocina 503. They also sell wholesale in local farmers markets, Atlanta and Macon, which is more lucrative.
Business hasn’t come easy. A massive amount of rain early in the summer ruined an entire crop of heirloom tomatoes grown in one of their greenhouses. Now they’re playing catch-up to keep the paychecks rolling in. In a few years, they hope to grow the farm into a one-stop-shop for people to come for fresh vegetables, fruit and bread.
“For us it’s a lifestyle,” Coy said. “We’ve always tried to be pretty self-sufficient as far as raising our own animals to eat, raising our own food to eat, teaching our kids how to work, knowing where food comes from…We don’t want to ever get big. Farm-to-table, local restaurants… they’re becoming a lot more common. New York City, they’re putting a lot in. People are seeing the benefit.”
Local food sales grew from $5 billion to $12 billion between 2008 and 2014, according to USDA data analysis by food industry research firm Packaged Facts. Sales are predicted to jump to around $20 billion by 2019. People are seeking out local food far more often, and it shows in the number of restaurants that serve it.
Restaurants in Augusta are slowly making progress in selling more locally sourced food, albeit more slowly than most major cities. Eric Kinlaw, co-owner of The Bee’s Knees, said that when he opened the tapas restaurant in 2002, it was one of the only restaurants in the area sourcing some of its products locally and using sustainable business practices. Over the years, more restaurants with the same values have opened.
In 2010, for example, Sean Wight opened Frog Hollow on the premise of using local and regional ingredients, which Wight said make up around 90-95 of the establishment’s menu.
“I think diners today are more educated than ever about what they’re eating,” White said.
“People are way more knowledgeable about seasons. You can really tell the places that are truly farm-to-table. It definitely has become a catchphrase, unfortunately. It gets misused, but it’s always a great thing when it gets done honestly and properly.”
Eleven years prior, Wight had opened his first restaurant in Edgefield, Sc., called The Old Edgefield Grille, which he had launched with a similar local focus. It didn’t take long for him to start reaping the benefits.
“When you develop a reputation for that, a lot of the regional farmers will seek me out,” Wight said. “I have a lot of long-term relationships, and we’re always developing new ones, too.”
Caleb Taylor, head chef of The Bee’s Knees, said while sourcing locally is usually more difficult, the restaurant is “bringing the eye of the community towards what people are doing locally and getting away from big box vendors as much as we can.”
The Southern Salad, a new restaurant concept owned by Brad and Havird Usry that will open soon, has built a menu based on locally sourced, hydroponically grown greens (grown in a controlled environment of mineral nutrient solutions instead of soil) that will also come from the Hancock Farm.
“The greens that you’re eating on your plate are literally grown 45 minutes outside of town,” said Jeremy Miller, whom the Usry’s hired as head chef of the new restaurant. “I know the time and detail and care they’ve put into it…to me, it’s the beginning of something huge.”
This year, Miller and his wife, Cara, also started a local cold-pressed juice business called Earth Candy. Tucker said she believes there’s plenty of room in Augusta for more businesses like Earth Candy and The Southern Salad that are based on natural foods.
“I believe that Augusta is large enough for all of us to be successful, and I’m not trying to put anybody out of business in order to grow mine.”
If you talk to people who are passionate about local food, a common truth is always revealed: it just tastes better. It’s why Frog Hollow has been ranked on nationwide lists for fine dining. It’s why hydroponically grown lettuce is a key factor in the Usrys new restaurant. It’s how Tucker can tell organic products from those that aren’t when she’s looking for the best ingredients for the 17 juices available at Humanitree House, where she estimates around 80 percent of the food and juice served is local.
“It’s great to make money, and I think everybody loves to make money, that’s the purpose of business,” Tucker said. “But when you can actually touch the people that you are feeding…that’s the most rewarding part of what we do. If they come in regularly enough, I usually get to know them and know their stories.”
Local economic growth is another of Tucker’s biggest passions tied to her dedication to healthy food. Typically, she strives to use organic food in as many products as possible. But if a farm is in or near Augusta, she’ll settle for Certified Naturally Grown, a comparable certification ideal for small-scale farmers.
“It comes from a space of love for me,” Tucker said. “And that’s why I use local, because I can’t dream of giving my money outside of this community if the resource is available inside. Its just important.”
While Wight admits that the farm-to-table trend has its downsides, he also sees that diners are more aware and knowledgeable consumers than they ever have been, which is a good thing. The question is how much that can actually impact a local economy.
According to a report from Penn State, there is a positive correlation between the two, albeit a small one. Stephan Goetz, a professor of Agricultural and Regional Economics at the university, said that the study’s findings showed that community-focused agriculture in certain regions of the country has a measurable impact on economic growth.
Goetz said the study, which was carried out on a county level from 2002 to 2007, found that for every dollar increase in local agricultural sales, personal income rose 22 cents over the course of the next five years.
“When we set out to measure the economic impact of local food sales, we frankly didn’t expect to find one,” Goetz stated in the report. “Injection of new money—money from outside of the community—is what many economic development practitioners think of as the fuel for economic growth. But to me, these findings provide quite robust evidence that even direct sales do have an effect on growth, in the Northeast U.S.”
The study stated that the same positive correlations were not discovered in the South. But the age of the study, which was published in 2014, would seem to suggest that those numbers have changed significantly in the last decade, during which the farm-to-table movement has taken off throughout the entire country, including the South.
By launching an online-based market where shoppers can buy a variety of meats, produce, dairy, eggs, flowers, soaps, artisan products and more from 57 different local farms and businesses, Augusta Locally Grown is trying to create a more robust and well-connected community of farmers, restaurants that want to serve local food, and individuals who want to learn how to eat well and teach family and friends to do the same. The result is a more viable local food ecosystem that draws in more people, including those who would have never sought it out.
“If I can get it in their mouth, 85 percent of the time, they’re gonna buy it,” said Kelly Hammond, owner of Trail Ridge Farm in Aiken, Sc., of the goat cheese and dairy products he sells in markets around Aiken, Columbia and Augusta.
Trail Ridge, a goat dairy farm, shares a struggle with almost all other small farms: being slowly but surely pushed to the margins as large-scale farms take over. It takes a personal connection with a potential customer interested enough to sample a piece of cheese at a market in order to convince some people of the massive difference in quality between cheese from Trail Ridge and most of what you’ll find at the grocery store. The reality is, most people today have no understanding of what food is supposed to taste like or where to find local food.
“Some of that knowledge is lost on folks,” Gonzalez said. “They don’t know how to put a seed in the ground.”
Hammond’s own observations over the last 16 years of farming line up with Hines’ experience at Augusta Locally Grown—that the last few years have seen at least a slight drop-off of local farmers in the area that partner with the organization. He doesn’t see that being a longterm decline. Everything works in highs and lows, he said.
As a small farm owner, he does see a lot to be desired in agricultural industry regulations in Canada that are meant to keep small farmers from being marginalized by instituting quotas for massive farming operations. But there is no such legislation on the horizon in the U.S.
“We can’t predict the future,” Gonzalez said. “So much of our food is trucked in. They come in on big trucks. My biggest concern is, when does the price of the transportation of food become too much? That’s my big concern, that we will lose so many local farmers, and that if that situation occurs, the community will have nothing to fall back on.”
A big part of August Locally Grown’s local presence is its mission to make locally grown food available to people who wouldn’t normally have access to it. According to a report from Business Insider, access to healthy food in rural and urban communities has dwindled. Three years ago, Augusta Locally Grown started its Fruit and Veggie RX program that provides locally-grown produce to mothers and children at risk of diet-related diseases while also teaching families to cook good, local food for themselves.
When it comes to connecting with local businesses, Johnson thinks there’s plenty of room for improvement.
“We’d like to do more,” said Susannah Johnson, who volunteers and also sells her own wool and soap through Augusta Locally Grown. “We need to really connect with chefs. If you serve this…it will bring in customers for life.”