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How local is your food?

By Doug Rich

VIEWPOINT—Mary Ross and her husband, Pat, have a unique viewpoint of the local food system in Douglas County and surrounding region. They not only produce corn, soybeans, and beef on a commercial basis but also grow 35 acres of sweetcorn for local markets. Mary Ross did not agree with all of the assumptions made in the Food Policy Council's analysis of the local food system. (Journal photo by Doug Rich.)

Local food is the latest trend for foodies across the country. Restaurants promote locally grown items on their menus, and popular chefs extol the virtues of eating local on their syndicated television shows.

Erin Barnett with LocalHarvest, a California-based website dedicated to local food sources, said the buy local food movement is the result of a number of different factors that include the emergence of Community Supported Agriculture, farmers markets, a renewed emphasis on supporting local economies, and food safety scares.

"There are a lot of different definitions that people use to describe local food," Barnett said. "They talk about what is grown in their county or what is grown in a 100-mile radius of their home. We like to say buy as local as reasonable."

Recently an in-depth analysis of the local food system in Douglas, Jefferson, and Leavenworth counties in Kansas was released. The study, "Building a Deep-Rooted Local Food System," was done by the Douglas County Food Policy Council with help from researchers at Kansas State University.

"We wanted to show all of the different faces of agriculture in these counties," Eileen Horn, Douglas County sustainability coordinator, said. "We did not want it to be a niche voice just for the foodie movement but instead try to understand the whole system. It is a complicated beast."

Horn said they wanted to find the leverage points in the system where they could capture more of the food dollars locally.

The analysis found that agriculture is still a major contributor to the local economy in this three-county region. According to the 2007 Census of Agriculture the total market value of agricultural products in the tri-county region was $135.8 million, but only $1.2 million of this amount was direct sales to local consumers.

The report also found some gaps in the system. The tri-county region lacks the capacity for light processing needed to prepare local food for restaurants and institutions as well as the storage and transportation infrastructure. Even in an agricultural region like the tri-county area, food insecurity was found to exist. According to the analysis over 10,000 residents in the tri-county region have limited access to grocery stores and healthy food choices. Two "food deserts" were identified in the report.

"The whole point of this food system report was to serve as an educational foundation for the Food Policy Council and to help us formulate recommendations for policy," Horn said.

The Food Policy Council made the following recommendations:

--To ensure that high-quality agricultural land is available for farming, policy tools and incentives should be developed that are economically feasible for the landowner.

--Increase and incentivize local production and consumption of fruit, vegetable, poultry, and dairy products to close gaps in the local food system.

--Work to attract food-processing businesses to the region.

--Establish economic development incentives for grocers who locate in low-access neighborhoods or grocers who improve existing stores to address food deserts in the region.

Horn said these recommendations are locally grounded and take into consideration the local soils and climate.

Mary Ross, lifelong Douglas County resident and farmer, was not sure these recommendations would work. Ross and her husband, Pat, have years of experience with the local food system. They operate a commercial grain and livestock enterprise as well as grow sweet corn for the local market.

"I didn't like the report," Ross said. "I just thought some of the things in the report were unattainable. It did not deal with the real world of farming, of production agriculture."

Ross said her first reaction was to wonder why the county was spending money on a study like this one. She did not think this was where the county should be spending its limited resources.

Ross felt so strongly about the report that she wrote a letter to the editor of the Lawrence Journal World to explain her position. One of the facts Ross disagreed with was that the region only needed 909 acres of corn to meet its needs. Ross and her husband grow 3,000 acres of field corn and 35 acres of sweet corn on their farm. Part of their corn acreage is used to grow waxy corn that is used for industrial as well as food products.

"We grow most of our corn for livestock feed and fuel, but some does go to food production," Ross said.

Eileen Horn said that particular fact was not explained very well in the report. The 909 acres of corn referred to corn consumed as a vegetable for humans and not as animal feed.

"The author of the study in several places just wanted grass-fed beef, which I have a real problem with because it is not as tasty as grain-fed beef," Ross said.

Ross said they have a lot of owned and rented pasture that is invaluable for raising beef, but they feed grain so their animals reach market weight sooner. The Rosses buy feeder calves locally and finish them out on their farm using their own homegrown grain and distillers grains from Boulevard Brewing Co. in Kansas City. The cattle are sold to Bichelmeyer Meats in Kansas City, which then markets the beef locally.

"The U.S. exports a lot beef," Ross said. "The world wants our grain-fed beef."

Mary Ross and her family are well known in the area for the sweet corn they grow every summer. They started selling sweet corn at the Lawrence farmers market 29 years ago but now sell most of it right from their farm. Some of their sweet corn is sold to vendors who sell at farmers markets in Overland Park and Kansas City.

"Everybody likes sweet corn, but we never dreamed it would be so successful and that we would be at it for so long," Ross said.

They have considered expanding their sweet corn acreage over the years but Ross said they did not think it was economically feasible. Sweet corn production requires a lot of manual labor, which is true for most small-scale fruit and vegetable production. According to the USDA Economic Research Service, farms with local food sales require more operator time than do farms without local food sales. The USDA-ERS study said the average farm with local food sales devoted 1.3 full-time equivalent jobs to the farm compared to 0.9 FTE for farms without local food sales. This was true for farms with up to $250,000 in annual sales.

Ross is all for supporting local production but said if she was struggling to feed a family she could not afford to shop at the farmers market. Ross said if we want to expand agriculture in this area we should spend more money on research for traditional row crops.

There are over 100 food policy councils across the U.S. and many of them have issued similar reports about their food systems but their conclusions vary. Each one created a slightly different definition of a local food system based on local resources and conditions.

"We tried really hard to just take a snapshot of what we have today and what we eat today just to get everyone on the same page," Horn said.

Doug Rich can be reached by phone at 785-749-5304 or by e-mail at

Editor's note: The full text of the Douglas County Food Policy Council report is available at


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