A plump, juicy peach; an ear of crisp sweet corn; a ruby red tomato just picked from the vine — summer produce abounds on Maryland dining room tables this time of year. Fresh fruits and vegetables are important parts of our diets and an important part of our Maryland heritage. But do you know where your produce comes from?
It's a great time to find out. July 23-31 is Buy Local Week. Conceived in 2007 by the Southern Maryland Agricultural Development Commission, Buy Local Week encourages consumers to take the Buy Local Challenge, by committing to eat at least one thing from a local farm each day of the week.
Buying local supports hardworking farmers — essentially small businesses — in our communities instead of sending your dollars off to large industrial farm operations with no community attachment. Buying local also reduces travel time and pollution associated with shipping food long distances, and local food tastes fresher because it is not bred for a long shelf-life.
When you support local farmers, you have the opportunity to develop a relationship with them, and you can understand the methods they use to produce your food. Local food is not necessarily organic or sustainable, but many farmers who sell locally use practices that prioritize the environment and public health as much as their profits.
For all these reasons, the Fair Farms campaign supports the Buy Local Challenge. Fair Farms (fairfarms.org) is a movement of environmental and public health groups, green businesses, consumers and farmers committed to a sustainable food system. Buying local is a good start to buying sustainably.
Sustainable agriculture grows produce, meat and dairy products in a way that preserves the environment on and beyond the farm. This approach considers the lives of the farmers and farm workers, the health of the local community and the welfare of farm animals. Sustainable farming practices also protect water quality by better managing land use and reducing farm field runoff. They can even help fight climate change.
When you go to the grocery store and pick up a nice, ripe melon, do you wonder where it came from or how it got there? Were pesticides that are considered likely carcinogens or harmful to pollinators used on it? How do you know if your food is sustainable? Ask! Buy Local Week is the perfect time to ask questions about the food you are purchasing. Ask grocers where the fruits and vegetables come from, or the butcher about who provides their meat.
Farmers markets and CSA (community supported agriculture) memberships are a great way to engage farmers. You can often talk directly to the farmers who harvested the food. For instance, ask the farmer what type of pest control methods and fertilizers they use on their farms, how much time a day their chickens are outside, how long dairy cows stay in their herd, whether cows are grass-fed and raised on pasture, and whatever else is on your mind. Most farmers are proud of their work and glad to talk to their customers. And many farmers markets now accept federal and state food assistance programs such as SNAP and WIC.
Of course, for many of us, our busy lives means going to the grocery store and purchasing the items on our list with as little forethought as possible. But at what cost to our communities? As consumers, we share the responsibility of promoting a system that is true to our own values, treats farmers fairly, invests in homegrown, healthy food and restores our waterways instead of polluting them.
This may seem daunting — but every large goal starts with a small step.
Betsy Nicholas is the founder of Fair Farms and executive director of Waterkeepers Chesapeake. More information about the Buy Local Challenge is available www.buy-local-challenge.com.