In a state with more cattle than people and that produces one-third of all U.S. potatoes and 185 different commodities, it’s fair to say agriculture is critical to Idaho’s economy. In fact, agriculture generates more than 20 percent of Idaho’s total economic output in sales. And new federal legislation announced recently delivers a big win for Idaho agriculture by providing funds for cutting-edge agricultural research.
While Idaho exports $2 billion worth of produce, grains, seeds, meats and dairy worldwide, the demand for farmers to sell food locally continues to rise. People are increasingly turning to locally grown food because they believe it to be more flavorful, more nutritious and more environmentally sustainable than the food we import. Research from the U.S. Farmers & Ranchers Alliance shows that consumers even have more trust in local farming than they do organic, natural or conventional farming.
But despite its popularity, “local” has different meanings to different people. It’s no surprise people have their own ideas, because there is no official definition of “local” food. U.S. Congress, in the Food, Conservation, and Energy Act, refers to local as less than 400 miles from its origin, or within the state in which it is produced. This places the burden with consumers, who must determine which definition of “local” their retailer is using.
Buying from farmers markets is one way for consumers to feel they are supporting local farmers, which is why they’ve grown increasingly popular. In Idaho alone, we have 66 farmers markets that sell locally grown produce. We even sell locally grown produce from our farm. In the western Treasure Valley, we keep people supplied with a variety of foods. We also grow asparagus to sell at our farm stand and provide it fresh to Boise restaurants. Many of our other crops are used either for cattle feed or sent to a processor — for example, our peppermint is processed into mint oil and used in products such as toothpaste and gum.
While we enjoy supporting our community, there are benefits to supporting the farming community as a whole. Farmers around the country, and the world, provide us with a variety of foods that we cannot possibly grow locally. Many of us enjoy access to fresh fruits and vegetables, even during an Idaho winter, as well as food that cannot grow in our climate, such as bananas and papayas.
In addition, local food is not the only sustainable food. Due to technology and ingenuity, farmers across all commodities continue to use fewer resources to produce foods, like with the bioengineered sugar beets we grow on our farm. By growing bioengineered sugar beets, we make fewer trips across the field, lessening greenhouse gas emissions. We also till the soil less, and we use fewer inputs like fertilizer than we did before.
These advancements help us produce safe and sustainable food to supply other states and export to countries across the world. If Idaho farmers sold their produce only to locals, then the trout raised in Idaho (which is half of all U.S. trout), our 500-plus family-owned dairies and the 576 million pounds of onions we export every year would no longer be supported.
Galen Lee is a farmer from New Plymouth. He is the past president of American Sugarbeet Growers Association and current board member with the U.S. Farmers & Ranchers Alliance.