The Unsustainability of Local

Reader Contribution by Tendergrass Farms
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A few months back I heard a comment on an NPR radio program that really caught my attention. The program was about the local food movement and at one point the guest on the show said, “Now remember – just because it’s local doesn’t necessarily mean it has a smaller carbon footprint. That Argentinian apple that was shipped on a barge with thousands of tons of other apples may actually have required less fuel per apple than the apple than came from a few hundred miles away in the back on a farmer’s pickup.”

Pretty interesting, huh? It caught my attention because, for me, it was refreshing to hear someone who was really thinking critically about their food system. Don’t get me wrong, I love buying local food. But assuming that locally produced food automatically has a lower environmental impact is, well, a bad assumption.

I grew up on a little organic vegetable farm outside of bustling Asheville, NC and loved farming from about age 12. My parents proudly marketed their organic vegetables to local restaurants within just an hour’s drive from the farm. After graduating from college I moved to the tiny rural town of Floyd, VA where I took on the management of my father-in-law’s grass fed meats farm and eventually bought my own little farm there as well. After marrying my wife, Ann, I made an agreement with my father in law to take a couple of years to do everything I could to make his farm and little roadside farm store economically viable, something that had not yet been achieved over the 10 or so years that they’d been farming.

Photo: My Father-in-Law, John Paul Houston.

I did everything I could to attempt to get locals to drive out to our little farm to buy our exceptional grass fed meats. I called up local universities to try to get wholesale accounts that I thought could perhaps save the farm. I called every health food store in the area trying to convince them that the prices we were offering were honest and fair given the quality of our products. But it was of no avail.

That’s when I decided that for us, ‘local’ might just not be as sustainable as we had hoped, at least from an economic perspective. Little did I know that even from an environmental perspective the local food model I had been attempting to implement was far from efficient.  At the same time we realized that we weren’t the only rural farmers who were facing this same hurdle of having the ability to produce wonderful grass fed meats but not having much luck finding a way to reach the customers who wanted to support us. I knew that somewhere there were customers who would love to purchase our meats but that they were facing the exact opposite problem: they couldn’t find us anymore than we could find them! That’s when the idea for a nationwide cooperative-style online grass fed meats shop was born.

We created an organization called Tendergrass Farms and started shipping our meats and the meats from our friends’ farms in Virginia right to our now not-so-local customers’ doorsteps via FedEx in insulated boxes with dry ice. We developed the model strictly for practical reasons, after all we just needed a way to sell our meats and our friends meats, but we quickly realized that the efficiencies that we were able to achieve through this model were actually quite a bit more environmentally friendly than the typical drive-to-the-farm model that committed locavores promote. Here’s a run-down on our model and the ways that we found we could maximize efficiencies and minimize our carbon footprint while at the same time providing a way for small family farmers to be economically sustained from afar.

Once the meats have been processed and packaged at a USDA inspected facility in either NC or VA (the only states where our partner farmers currently reside), the meats go through the following steps before they get to their final destination on the plate of the happy grass fed meats lover who ordered them:

  1. The meats are frozen, packaged, boxed by the case, placed on pallets, and picked up by a freezer-equipped tractor trailer.
  2. The tractor trailer then makes a few more stops at other unrelated companies here on the east coast in order to make sure that the tractor trailer is full before heading westward. This maximizes efficiency.
  3. The pallets of meat arrive a few days later at the Tendergrass Farms shipping facility in Hastings, NE where they are stored in a deep freezer until they are ordered.
  4. When the orders come in, the meats are carefully packed in insulated containers with dry ice before they are then picked up by a FedEx tractor-trailer. The orders are then sorted at a regional FedEx hub and placed on other tractor trailers with thousands of packages all going to the same destination city.
  5. The last step is for the package to be loaded onto a smaller local FedEx delivery truck with hundreds of other packages all going to residences on the same FedEx route where the customer resides.

 Why ship from Hastings, NE? The map below helps explain that. Long story short, frozen meats can only stay frozen for about three days while in transit to their final home. By shipping all of our orders from the middle of our country we can have an order in Baltimore in three days and Seattle in three days as well. This means that only a tiny percentage of our orders are shipped via airplane which is much less fuel efficient and therefore much more costly.

The pink area represents the region that we can ship to in one day, the blue is two days, and the orange is three days.Only the small amount of the map that is shaded in green requires air transportation in order for the packages to arrive within three days.

From a fuel used per pound of meat standpoint, the efficiency of this model is almost unbelievably good.To illustrate this let’s compare the amount of fossil fuels used in our model compared to the traditional drive-to-the-farm model. The numbers below compare the efficiency of an example customer who drives 40 miles from Harrisonburg, VA to Swoope, VA where one of our partner farmers, Joel Salatin, lives. For the example let’s say that this customer drives a car that gets 25 miles to the gallon and she wants to pick up 25 pounds of meat.

The numbers are pretty staggering. According to our estimate in this example, that grass fed meat raised just 40 miles from the customer’s home on Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm, would require about 14 times more fuel in order to make its way to the customer’s home if they were to pick it up themselves. When you multiply that fuel savings by a few thousand orders the impact becomes very significant.

There are lots of reasons to take a drive out on a Saturday afternoon to a farm in your area to pick up some good quality meats. By doing so you help hold your farmer accountable by actually coming to personally see that he or she is raising their meats (or eggs, or dairy) in a responsible and ecologically sound manner. I just encourage you to really take a careful look at the numbers when you are tempted to assume that you are saving fuel by doing so.

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