Don't Eat Local, Eat Better
Eating local is a trend. And that’s a good thing. But eating local for the sake of eating local may not be all it’s cracked up to be.
Andrew Crush, owner of Spring House Farm in Loudoun County, is all about growing, buying and eating local. The foundation of his business lies in serving local and regional customers through a popular meat CSA (community supported agriculture) program. He is also a big supporter of–and partner to–local vegetable growers. But for Andrew, it’s more important to eatwell. He argues that local food producers have to deliver quality for the model to be sustainable.
Crush was named one of Progressive Farmer magazine’s Best Young Farmers and Ranchers for 2016 in recognition of his creative farming practices, commitment to sustainable agriculture and serving his community and region with a meat CSA program. But Andrew doesn’t believe in resting on his laurels or riding the farm-to-fork wave.
He warns that the charm of buying local can quickly wear off if the meats or produce consumers buy don’t meet expectations. That tough, overpriced farmers market chicken just isn’t going to fly for very long. Local suppliers–whether they use the farmers market or community supported agriculture model–have to offer quality products to get consumers to stick around.
Andrew, his wife Liz and their team have been focused on quality from day one. When they started out a dozen years ago, the couple initially just wanted to produce more flavorful meats for their family.
“When we started out, we didn’t have lofty goals about organic, free range meats. We just wanted meat that tasted better. Pure and simple. We were tired of the bland, boring meats that were available commercially,” Andrew says.
There are plenty of good reasons to buy local from a trusted supplier. With truth in labeling requirements being relaxed at the federal level, shoppers are more insecure than ever about where their meats are coming from, and that’s a legitimate concern. It’s true that when you buy local, you have a better handle on management practices. And the risk of contamination during shipping or handling goes way down.
Your best avenue to knowing you are getting a good product is to taste it in its natural state–with no spices of condiments. Second, know your farmer: don’t just shake his hand and give him your hard earned money. Go see the operation.
“As a farmer I’ve seen a lot of smoke and mirrors and people claiming to be farmers who don’t raise any animals. They buy unknown animals from the stock sales each and every Monday and take them straight to the slaughterhouse to be killed Tuesday. That, my friends, is not farming. That is acting like any large scale grocery store, or food service buying team. The same goes with restaurants that claim to be locally sourced. Don’t be afraid to ask for the name of the farm and look into it,” Andrew says.
Lots of folks are also concerned about hormones and antibiotics in commercial meats. And this is certainly one of the big reasons consumers prefer to go local and sustainable. But there are more organic/hormone free meats than ever available at large retailers. “So the quality and great taste have to be there at the local level”, Andrew says.
Yes, Spring House Farm meats are free of artificial growth hormones. Yes, they use antibiotics selectively when medically necessary (just like they do for their kids) instead of using them as a growth enhancer. Yes their pigs happily roam the woods foraging for acorns. And yes, for their loyal CSA customers, buying local is part of the draw. But the taste is really where it’s at.
“Folks are consistently surprised at the huge difference in quality when they taste our pork chops alongside a mass produced chop from the grocery store,” Andrew says. “That’s where our real advantage lies–not in the fact that we’re located around the corner.”
Andrew and Liz raise heritage breed Large Black and Mulefoot pigs. The higher fat content these breeds are prized for, along with their forest finishing creates Spring House Farm uniquely flavored pok. And that’s why customers come back again and again.
Due to production and land costs, local foods often have a higher price tag so the quality has to be there. These factors are the reasons why it is so important for small scale farmers to pay attention to land and animal management practices.
“People need to know that they’re really getting bang for their buck,” Andrew says. “If my product is at the same level of quality–or lower–than what I can find in the grocery store, I need to change my management practices or get out of farming.”
“Don’t just buy local,” he adds. “Buy our food because it has the best in quality, flavor, and sustainability.”