To offer customers the lowest prices, U.S. food retailers need to buy in volume, and that often means turning to producers who are thousands of kilometers from where shoppers fill their grocery carts. But as consumers grow more concerned about fossil fuel consumption and sustainable agriculture, they're demanding more locally grown food on their store shelves. And some retailers are responding.
Stars are still twinkling over Haystack Mountain Goat Dairy, in Niwot, Colorado, as the morning crew feeds noisy kids and their mothers. Haystack's owner, Jim Schott, produces award-winning goat cheese. And despite the high cost of land and labor on this farm near Denver, he's been successful enough to be able to expand to a farm that's ten times bigger: 32 hectares.
"In the 15 years since we started," he says proudly, "chevre -- the basic fresh white goat cheese -- has gone from being a specialty product to almost being a commodity product."
At noon, with the sun now overhead, Schott's on the main stage of a conference center in Lakewood, Colorado. He's speaking at a workshop for local food producers, sponsored by the nation's largest natural grocery chain, Whole Foods.
In the early 1980s, Whole Foods became the first U.S. supermarket chain to specialize in natural and organic foods, produced without undesirable pesticides or additives. Whole Foods is Haystack's largest customer.
"Our chevre is always the highest priced chevre on the shelf, and it still sells," Schott says. "We not only have the pastiche of being in white table restaurants, but being in Whole Foods also makes us a quality product, so we appreciate that very much. And we appreciate the support we've received from them."
More than 100 local farmers and other food suppliers at this workshop are hoping to follow Schott onto Whole Foods shelves. Some have survived until now by selling peaches and salad greens at farmer's markets. A handful herd sheep or cattle, and many make so-called value-added products: crackers, energy bars and refreshing drinks.
Scott Price and Jerard Whitehead are also at the workshop. They are Whole Food's Grocery Coordinators for Colorado and several nearby states.
They've been working on, and sampling local products day and night. They've also been analyzing the vendors' business plans. And they've announced Whole Foods' nationwide goal to provide $10 million annually to local vendors who'd like to upgrade, in order to sell a better product to Whole Foods.
The low-cost loans will range from $1,000 to $50,000. Scott Price says, with help like that, sometimes, big things happen. "Every food company in the world started somewhere, somehow, and it was small and it was one or two items, and it was local."
Steve Landry, co-owner of a local bakery, says he got good advice from the staff at Whole Foods. "They also helped us redesign a box to make our product more display-friendly." He says that's helped their sales.
Dairy farmer Matt Lucas says that his Morning Fresh Dairy got bigger orders. "It was the coolest thing to see this beautifully-painted Whole Foods semi [truck] backing into our dock. It was so amazing, this little bitty farm, and here's this nationwide company backing into our dock!"
There's good reason for Whole Foods to seek out those 'little bitty farms.' Whole Foods' Grocery Coordinator Scott Price says, "We are refocusing on local product like never before."
He explains that buying local reduces the use of fossil fuels for transportation. Consumers can monitor the stewardship of local growers. And with global warming a growing concern, these values matter more than ever.
This refocus also follows last spring's publication of The Omnivore's Dilemma, by Michael Pollan. In his bestseller, the environmental journalist accuses Whole Foods of using stories about local agriculture as a public relations ploy, while actually buying less expensive and high volume food from large producers.
Pollan cites enormous dairies and feedlot beef. "We ended up with the urbanization of the farm animal, and they are all now living in these fetid, horrible cities," he says. "We have a fertility problem on the farm, which we have to answer with petroleum fertilizers, and we have a pollution problem on the feedlots."
Whole Foods responded with an open letter to Michael Pollan, explaining that nearly half of their produce comes from within 300 kilometers of each grocery store. But they also thanked Pollan for educating consumers about the importance of local agriculture, and for a wake-up call. The company's loan program for local vendors began soon afterward.
Dairy farmer Jim Schott says wake-up calls are overdue. While Haystack Goat Dairy is expanding, the sun is setting on many local farms.
"When I was going to the University of Colorado as a student," he recalls, "there were 20 to 25 dairies in Boulder County. Right now, the only dairy in Boulder County is goats, and it's my dairy." Through support from retailers and consumers, he hopes that more local vendors can thrive.