SHERIDAN — When it comes to food choice, overwhelming numbers of drive-thru restaurants, microwavable meals and one-stop warehouse shopping can easily shift tracing a food’s roots to the back of the mind. But as nutrition information continues its steady flow to consumers, some return to an earlier mindset where producing for, and purchasing from, a local market prevailed.
While Landon’s Greenhouse and Nursery grower Donald Legerski said the benefits of returning to this local mindset are endless, he narrowed it down to four main payoffs that include longer shelf life, vibrant flavor, insular economic growth and production accountability.
Legerski said that certain foods like fresh eggs have a longer shelf life when they’re collected locally. He said that fresh eggs can stay that way for months if they’re not washed because they have a natural seal on them.
He said that not only are the “industrial” eggs that are found in grocery stores washed, eliminating this seal, they’re also raised and picked to be the same size and color.
This production goal of being uniform also hurts quality in regards to taste.
Legerski said produce is grown with visual appeal and travel durability in mind, leaving much desired for flavor.
“It’s wonderful, it’s flavorful,” Legerski said of biting into a tomato picked straight from the vine. “It has a different texture to it, compared to what the University of Arizona refers to as ‘red water balloons.’”
Sheridan College horticulture and life sciences teacher Ami Erickson, Ph.D. also points out how important flavor is when trying to incorporate these foods into diet. She said that not only will local food taste better, but it tends to have more nutrients than the “uniform and reliable” mass produced fruit or vegetable.
Additionally, buying local keeps money local.
Erickson said that it makes a positive feedback loop. Buying from local farmers allows local farmers to grow more varieties of produce, which gives the consumer more options of fruits and vegetables to choose from.
According to the Farmers Market Coalition, the USDA estimates that across the nation from 2008 to 2014 food sales from farmers markets and stands, community supported agriculture, food hubs and farm to school programs have grown from about $5 billion to $11.7 billion.
The Coalition also said “Wyoming’s economy was bolstered by more than $2.8 million in 2013 from sales at the state’s farmers.”
But it’s not all about the producer-consumer relationship.
Rachel Bourgault owns Lower Piney Heirloom Vegetable Gardens with her husband, Luc. A fourth-generation farm near Ucross, agriculture is in her blood. Bourgault said that it wasn’t until about five years ago that she started selling at the local farmers markets.
Bourgault said she always welcomes new booths and sellers at the markets because increasing the number of sellers helps increase the number of consumers who attend the events.
“The thing about farmers who grow vegetables, the only competition, the only challenge they have, is the weather,” Bourgault said. “…Right now there’s just a few of us trying to provide food for a lot of people.”
The University of Wyoming Extension’s Eat Wyoming list includes 29 farms, gardens, greenhouses, ranches and community gardens in Sheridan County. Legerski said that Landon’s has about 10-15 marketers and is hoping to double that this year.
Bourgault said the stigma that fresh, local food will be expensive is one the consumer has to move past when shopping. She said she keeps prices low, and doesn’t understand the high prices in stores as it costs less to grow organically than it does to buy and grow with fertilizers.
“I sell things for what I would pay for it,” Bourgault said, “and I am cheap.”
Bourgault said her biggest demographic is people in their 30s, especially moms. She said she thinks that as diseases, disorders and allergies become more common with unidentified origins, parents want children to eat as well as they can.
If a consumer has a reaction to food bought from a chain store, it’s often impossible to track the food’s origins. It may not be a food allergy; it could be a problem resulting from how the food was grown or raised.
If the food is bought locally and there’s a problem, the consumer can track down the grower to figure out what went wrong.
The idea is the same when it comes to poultry and livestock.
Owner operator of E Z Rocking Ranch in Recluse Frank Wallis quit his corporate job about 12 years ago to go into farming full time. He sells raw milk, eggs and grass-fed beef.
Wallis said that currently there’s no labeling laws that require a product to say where it was grown, raised or processed.
For example, he said a chicken can be raised in the U.S., shipped in containers to China to be processed, butchered and packaged and then sent back to the U.S. to be sold in grocery stores without informing the consumer.
“Kind of my pet peeve, you can’t walk into most grocery stores in Wyoming and find locally raised beef,” Wallis said, “and I think that’s one reason the farmers markets are taking off as well, is people want food that wasn’t shipped thousands of miles to get here. And the quality tends to be quite a bit better and the accountability tends to be better.”
While Wallis said that he sells most beef locally, some is sent to feed lots, which he said many ranches must rely on because of the lack of USDA inspected slaughterhouses.
Until the opening of Purcella’s Meat Processing in Buffalo in the fall of 2016, there wasn’t a state inspected slaughterhouse in northeast Wyoming.
Wallis said the opening of Purcella’s is a huge step forward and will help cut down on farmers time-consuming trips out of state to get meat inspected. Wallis said he travels to Sturgis, South Dakota, to drop off meat for inspection, then repeats the 170-mile trip two weeks later to retrieve the meat when it’s ready.
“So that’s something that we’d really like to see change here, Wallis said, “where local producers can process locally and sell locally without all of that travel time.”
Not only does the opening of the slaughterhouse help with wasted time, it also helps keep money and food local.
While farmers still face hurdles, the state has recognized that this is a societal demand and has taken steps to aid the process.
In 2015, the Wyoming Legislature passed the Food Freedom Act, which made it legal to sell any food as long as it’s a single transaction between producer and an informed consumer. This includes raw milk and milk products and poultry, but all other meat must still follow its respective regulations.
During this year’s legislative session, two more bills were passed that expanded the act. Starting July 1, rabbit and fish products can be legally sold directly from producer to consumer and a 1,000 bird exemption was added. The exemption caps the number of a butcher’s own chickens that can be sold to consumers.
Additionally, uninspected products will be able to be sold commercially with a separate cash register and barrier between inspected and uninspected food.
It’s one step closer for making visions like Wallis’ a reality.
“I’d love to see Wyoming beef being available in our grocery stores,” Wallis said. “That would be awesome.”