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Beyond sticker shock: The challenges and benefits of eating local

Tony Larson

Why eat local? It tastes better, supports the local economy, and cuts down on transportation costs, for a start. But there's no doubt it can also cost more. As grilling, ice-cream-eating, and farmers' market season begins, Lauren Carlson helps us understand the challenges and benefits of eating local by talking to a few purveyors who aren't making the bottom line their top priority.
We hear it all the time. Local is better. All over the country and here at home, restaurants and food purveyors have jumped on the local bandwagon, some even formalizing their association by joining the Local First movement. Local, now and for the foreseeable future, is certainly popular. But local products, whether we like it or not, are often more expensive. But what accounts for this additional cost? What exactly are we paying for and why? How do local products, often with this extra cost, benefit their consumers, purveyors and local economy? The owners of three Grand Rapids businesses with a passion for local, wholesome ingredients helped us understand the complicated cost of eating local.
 
"I don't care to be the cheapest," says Tony Larson of Montello Meat Market, based at the Grand Rapids Downtown Market with a freeze locker in Holland. With a focus on local, sustainable, quality meats, Larson, unlike most national operations, does not make the bottom line his top priority. Ultimately, his goal is to sell meats that come as close as possible to the natural taste of the animal. By dry-aging locally sourced beef, Larson concentrates and improves the flavor of the meat naturally, allowing his consumers to use less seasoning when cooking.
 
"I'm not a chef, but I'm opinionated," says Larson. This focus on taste and technique, as well as his preference to source cows that are hormone-free and pastured, limits the amount of farms from which Larson can purchase his meats. Thus, he generally buys from smaller farms -- without the numbers and efficiencies for the low, low prices consumers generally see at grocery stores.
 
Chris McKellar, owner of Love's Ice Cream at the Downtown Market, also struggles to compete with the economies of scale. Typical, grocery store ice cream, McKellar argues, utilizes cow's milk from large industrialized farms that utilize modified genetics to create and sell a product designed specifically for them. "Right there, out of the gate, you have efficiency," he says. This efficiency often results in a product with modified ingredients and mystery fillers that some larger operations utilize. "It's a totally different product," says McKellar.
 
Sourcing from farms that meet local businesses' high standards is a challenge and a reason for higher costs. "To be a fully local product is really tough," says McKellar. Seeking non-homogenized, minimally pasteurized dairy from grass-fed cows for his wholesome treat, McKellar was forced out of state to purchase milk from a Colona, Iowa farm (an operation that is only six hours away, he points out).
 
Though the dairy and sugar that form the base of his ice creams and sorbets are sourced a bit out of state, "Michigan produce reigns in our shop for sure," says McKellar. By purchasing fresh produce such as mint, pumpkins and blueberries from local farms and cream cheese from local Dancing Goat Creamery, McKellar strives to incorporate as many Michigan products as possible. "I want to support that local farmer," he says.
 
Eric Gallegos, left, and Sam Larson, right.Aidan and Evan Brady, brothers and co-owners of new Eastown butcher E.A. Brady's, agree that seeking higher quality often results in higher costs. For example, farmers of grass-fed cows must purchase extra baleage throughout the winter, instead of supplementing their feed with corn and grains. In addition, providing animals with room to breathe can, if viewed purely from a economic lens, reduce efficiency. "We like farms that have an average of one cow per acre," says Evan. "That's lost space if you ask a commercial farmer."
 
Supporting the small, local farm instead of the commercial operation also creates additional barriers to cheap prices. In particular, notes Larson, the logistics of transportation and distribution is an item that challenges both local farmers and local business owners. In order to comply with the federal regulation of maintaining meat at 40 degrees Fahrenheit or lower, slaughterhouses and meat purveyors require transportation of their products in refrigerated trucks. However, Larson doesn't have an expensive refrigerated truck or a driver on the clock, so he must seek out providers with this infrastructure built in or work with outside contractors such as Eat Local Eat Natural out of Ann Arbor.
 
Having opted to purchase the refrigerated truck, the Brady brothers decided to assume the cost, but have the benefits of mobile advertisement and making local deliveries. This allows them to easily comply with refrigeration regulations, but other federal and state laws still provide a barrier for their small operation. For example, they aren't allowed to sell meat products to restaurants that have been cured or cooked in any way, which prevents them from providing bacon to local eateries. Thus, for now, the majority of their business is retail. "More rules mean more cost," agrees Larson, who faces similar barriers at Montello's.
 
With challenges such as small farm inefficiencies, high standards, distribution difficulties and regulations, why do these hyper-local business owners do what they do? And why should the consumer sign on for their mission?
 
"It tastes better," says Evan Brady. Sourcing minimally processed animals from within 250 miles, in the experience of the Brady brothers, yields a better tasting cut of meat. The brothers, with their "whole-animal mindset," treat the meat naturally, and don't add artificial fillers for the consumers, adding value overall. "We don't put any garbage ingredients in our sausage," says Aidan. "The quality speaks for itself once you get into it," he adds.
 
Larson, through his dry-aging process at Montello's, follows a similar vein, offering the consumer literally more meat per pound than a large, national operation. He explains that large slaughterhouses typically, after cutting the meat, allow the pieces to sit in the own juices for days. This adds unnecessary liquid weight, not value, to each pound the consumer purchases.

For McKellar, the benefit of sourcing local, raw products is clear: the shorter the distance, the fresher the product, and the fewer processes the product has undergone to arrive at its final destination. Processing all of his produce, such as cooking strawberries, in-house, McKellar determines what does (and does not) happen to the products. "I want to be the one controlling that," he says.

Above all, sourcing local products "continues to promote our GR food economy," says McKellar. Though all hyper-local businesses face unique challenges based on their products and clientele, most can agree that buying and eating local maintains the city and state's economies, and promotes the growth of other local businesses that also often focus on taste, value, health and wholesome products.
 
"We want to support Michigan," says Larson. "It's important that we give back." The Brady brothers also agree, noting that the economic impact of sourcing local items is often overlooked and should not be underestimated. Thus, by paying prices that are similar to those that a consumer might find at a farmers' market or in the organic area at the grocery store, Grand Rapidians can support their city's economy as a whole.

Whether consumers are simply checking the price tag and feeling sticker shock or are thinking about the impact on the local economy, most can agree that the concept of "buying local" is complex. With uncontrollable forces such as government regulation and self-imposed challenges such as high standards, owners of local businesses have their reasons for slightly higher prices. In the midst of questioning whether or not to opt for the higher-priced, local food item, consumers should also consider the many benefits of sticking within their city or state. Superior health, better taste, support of the local economy, and higher quality are benefits touted by local business owners. After all, "if it's cheaper, there's less in it," says Larson. 

Lauren F. Carlson is a freelance writer and editor, Aquinas alumna, and Grand Rapids native. Her work can be found at www.emptyframecreative.com, and she can be reached at lauren@emptyframecreative.com for story tips and feedback.

Photography by Adam Bird
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