Growing Our Local Food Economy
- Paper: Chapel Hill Herald (NC)
- Author: BERNADETTE PELISSIER Columnist
- January 12, 2008
- Section: Editorial Page: 2
We continually hear about the need for growing the commercial tax base in Orange County. We all want to decrease the burden of property taxes for individual homeowners. There are residents who want Orange County to attract a big-box store such as Costco or attract a big business with many employees in order to generate sales tax and commercial property taxes. This isn't the only option for improving the economy of our county. We can grow our food economy.
Our local food economy shows signs of recent growth. There has been a large decrease in the number of planted acres since the 1970s. However, we have actually seen a slight increase in planted acres since 2004. Every year new farms are featured on the Piedmont Farm Tour. Some sectors of the agricultural economy have shown increased revenues. For example, between 1996 and 2005, income increased 122 percent for greenhouse and nursery products.
To encourage the creation of additional small farms, there are various training efforts. This past summer, farmers from Fickle Creek Farm provided training on raising meat and poultry on small farms. The new farm-incubator program, a cooperative venture between Orange County and N.C. State University, just began its eight-week training program. There was a full classroom of participants. The program is providing how-to training to apprentice farmers. Participants learn about small-scale, sustainable vegetable and fruit production.
The market for locally grown products is increasing. Numerous meat sellers are now at the Carrboro Farmers' Market. There were few several years ago. There has been a growth in the spread of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) vegetable shares. Weaver Street Market continues to increase its target for percentage of local products sold. Many restaurants buy their produce and meat from local farmers. The public is more interested in locally grown food. June 2007 was "Eat Local Triangle" month.
Placing priority on growing our food economy will help the county accomplish a number of its goals.
First, increasing food production in Orange County will help preserve farmland, a goal many citizens adhere to. North Carolina is leading the nation in farm loss. Since 2002, North Carolina has lost 300,000 acres of farmland. In Orange County the proportion of land area devoted to agriculture has declined from 70 to 32 percent. Finding ways to support the creation of new small family farms will help stop this trend in our county and serve to preserve the cherished rural character.
The second goal accomplished by an expanded farm economy is to give a boost to our local economy. It won't increase the commercial tax base, but it will help through the "multiplier effect."
What does this mean? Put simply, when you buy local products from locally owned businesses, the money circulates closer to where it is spent. This results in a ripple effect: these businesses in turn spend your money locally. This contrasts with large corporate chains where much of the money goes out of town. Some report that a dollar spent at a local business generates 45 cents reinvested locally compared with 15 cents when the dollar is spent at a large corporate chain.
There is strong community support and interest in a food-processing facility. This is an example of how our "buy local" movement combined with the local food production, could lead to additional local business development. A food-processing facility adds value to the farm products. Another value-added possibility for our local food economy is to promote agritourism.
Farms help our local economy by virtue of their lower tax burden. It is estimated that for each dollar of revenue raised by a farm, Orange County only spends 72 cents on services.
The third goal accomplished by a thriving local food economy is community building. Every few months we see an article about a local farm which highlights its success in selling their products to a local clientele. But a notable feature of these articles is their highlighting the connection between the farmer and the customer. Last month the Hillsborough Cheese Company was featured in The Chapel Hill Herald. The most notable quote about the community aspect to small farms was the following from one of the owners: "Our customers are our friends."
The topic of small farms has now entered the discussion about smart growth. The Triangle Area Smart Growth Committee will look at "Rural Smart Growth" at its next meeting. The committee wants to look at how farming can be kept viable in rural as well as urbanizing environments.
According to Orange County Agricultural Extension staff, recent estimates are that locally produced foods represent only 1 percent of food purchases. We have room to grow our local food economy. We need to act before our precious farmland is built upon.
Bernadette Pelissier is a retired social scientist who lives in Orange County and serves on several community boards. Readers can contact her at email@example.com
or c/o The Chapel Hill Herald, 106 Mallette St., Chapel Hill, NC 27516.