Should buying local be easy?

Why Buy PEI Grown Food?There’s an interesting conversation playing out among Dave Cormier, Rob Paterson and me over on Twitter about buying local food, and how easy it should be. Dave started things off with an insightful blog post about how difficult he found it to find local farm sources of food, something that later led him to create a website designed to help solve this problem.

A slice of the conversation today surrounded whether it should, in fact, be easier to find local food. Dave and Rob are of the “we need a website that makes it easy for farmers to communicate to customers when the food is ready” opinion, and I, in short, am not.

Here’s why.

Every Saturday for almost as long as Oliver has been alive we’ve been going to the Charlottetown Farmer’s Market. One of our mainstays at the market is Kim Dormaar’s smoked salmon. And in the winter and spring the stand beside Kim’s is Taylor’s Taters, selling potatoes, carrots and other root vegetables.

When we first started stopping by Kim’s for salmon Oliver was small enough that he was in a stroller or in my arms. Eventually he grew tall enough to stand on his own and one day Garth at Taylor’s Taters, seeing that Oliver wanted to be closer to the action, came over and cleared away a spot on his stand where Oliver could climb up and get eye-to-eye with Kim and the salmon.

That space has been there for Oliver ever since, and when it’s not you can rely on Garth to hurry around and clear away the potatoes or the carrots for Oliver. And when Garth and Peggy take the summer away from the market (to grow potatoes), the organic greens operation that takes their place has helpfully carried on the tradition.

Over the years, as this tradition cemented itself, and we’ve gotten to know Garth and Peggy a little more, we’ve started to buy potatoes and carrots and the occasional turnip from them (Garth, bless his heart, is prone to sticking a free bag of carrots in Oliver’s hands when I’m not looking). A few years ago Oliver started bringing them a Christmas card, and they returned the favour by always making sure he had a candy cane before leaving.

Earlier this year Garth told me that this would likely be his last year at the market, as he was putting the farm up for sale and not sowing a crop this season; later in the spring he told me, with a smile, that he’d decided to continue on for at least another year. And when I blogged that there was only a week left to get their potatoes before they left for the summer, Garth told me there was a minor rush of customers that week who told him they’re heard the word through that blog post.

Now I couldn’t tell you Garth’s birthday, or even, for that matter, where his farm is. I don’t know anything about his family, or how he got into farming, or how he grows potatoes. Island friendships take a long time to forge, and me and Garth are still in the early stages. But I can tell you that I unreservedly trust Garth and the food he produces. I know that when Garth is harvesting his crop this fall, somewhere in the back of his mind will be the thought that, among the thousands of other people, Oliver will be eating those potatoes for supper this winter.

It’s taken more than 5 years for us to get to that point, and I don’t think there’s anything we could have done to get to the place we are now any quicker: trust takes time.

I could tell you similar stories about Kim and his smoked salmon, about Brett and his coffee, about the smoothie guys, about Karin La Ronde and her iced tea, about Lori and John and their perogies: they are all an important and trusted part of our lives, and our relationships with them have taken time.

Surely this is exactly what’s at the heart of “eating locally,” isn’t it? Yes it’s partly about “food miles” and “carbon footprint” and bioregionalism, but at the heart of the matter is trust and trust isn’t something you can get from a website or a directory or a toll-free “where can I get local potatoes today” hotline. Trust takes a long time to simmer, needs to be fed from both sides, and is, in essence, the “product” that local farmers are selling.

I’m not saying a “who’s got the rutabagas this week?” directory wouldn’t be a useful, practical tool when you’re jonesin’ for a local rutabaga. But if we really want to live out the dream of buying locally, then it’s going to take a lot more than that, and a lot of what it’s going to take comes to simple analog friendships built out over many years. That’s hard, sometimes frustrating (especially when you’re newly arrived in the community and it seems like a private club of insiders), but ultimately it’s the one thing that the food-as-cheap-commodity folks can never compete with.


alexander's picture
alexander on July 11, 2009 - 20:21 Permalink

For farmers making friends is great, and becoming more essential, but making money is still the most important thing, and if I’m a farmer I want to make as much money as possible with the least amount of effort for my customers if possible. If I’m a farmer and I have any unsold product that has to get thrown away I’ve failed some potential customer that I perhaps could have reached, and I’m worse off for not making the sale.

As a customer I want food first, and if I make friends with someone who makes that food then that’s a bonus, but I’m like Dave in that I think it’s in all of our best interests to have the transaction be as easy as it can be for the largest number of potential customers.

Ton Zijlstra's picture
Ton Zijlstra on July 11, 2009 - 20:26 Permalink

I agree with your sentiment Peter regarding trust. At the same time, if I look at where we live, I know there’s local food being grown and sold locally, I know there’s cattle raised and butchered locally, but I don’t know where and how to get it. I have the demand, but have no way of getting enough information about supply. For those where access to a farmer’s market (because it isn’t there, or going on Saturday morning isn’t an option) a site would be very useful. Not to build the trust you talk about, but to bring supply and demand in direct touch with each other in a channel that has more bandwith than just the Saturday morning farmers market.

When I was a kid we would drive late fall out to the polders (land reclaimed from the sea, about 30 min drive from my parents) and buy cabbages, winter carrots and potatoes (sold in 35kg sacks) directly from farmers. We would also buy apples and pears in that area. We had no info on supply or prices then, we would need to simply drive around to find a farmer that had put up a sign at the road side.

Creating more bandwith between suppliers and buyers will actually increase the number of connections and increase the likelihood of building trust over time.

Morgan Roderick's picture
Morgan Roderick on July 11, 2009 - 20:46 Permalink

Talking to your neighbours also works wonders :-)

Perhaps Dave and Rob really just wanted an excuse to build a website?

Anthony Nicalo's picture
Anthony Nicalo on July 11, 2009 - 21:11 Permalink

Hi Peter,

Thanks for sharing this discussion with us. I agree that much of the impetus for CSAs and farmer’s markets is a desire to know and trust the people responsible for producing your food. This is a desire outside of friendship, which seems to be a very basic concern for our own health and well-being. I would like a website that introduces me to the people growing my family’s food. Do you find that it is impossible to begin building trust online?

Robert Paterson's picture
Robert Paterson on July 11, 2009 - 21:12 Permalink

I agree with you Peter that its all about relationships — when we go to a supermarket — no one has a valid relationship at any point along the chain. This results in the land and the animals being treated badly — so badly that it could destroy us.

What we all love about the market are all the points you make in your post.

But it is a tiny club.

Cuba has shown that by going local in a big way — that these better relationships expand across society — to our neighbours in particular.

They had to go local at scale because they had their access to oil cut off — this will happen to us — maybe not i the same way but the effect will be the same — the big corporate food system will fail us.

I think what Dave and I are talking about is not to build a website — but to set in motion in a small way a beginning of a larger system — each part of it will still be small and intimate I bet. But as Alex says — most of us don’t even know what is on offer yet

Dan James's picture
Dan James on July 11, 2009 - 23:09 Permalink

Are the Farmer’s Market and a website to connect local farmers with locals not the exact same thing just a difference in technology?

Peter, your whole argument is based on the fact that there is an organization/building/group/time that was built to allow a closer connection between the grower and the eater. If the farmer’s market didn’t exist you and Oliver would never have made those initial contacts that are developing into relationships.

If I understand Dave and Rob’s idea it isn’t to create an online store where I can order potatoes that arrive via FedEd. It’s to let me know who is selling what where so I can actually go to that person and talk to them, give them 5$ and eat their potatoes. If I do that enough I will develop relationships with those people.

alexander's picture
alexander on July 11, 2009 - 23:43 Permalink

They had to go local at scale because they had their access to oil cut off — this will happen to us -“

Local at scale” sounds like a great mission statement for a reinvigorated Co-op movement to me.

Charles's picture
Charles on July 12, 2009 - 00:02 Permalink

For people who want locally grown food in Charlottetown but can’t get to the Farmer’s Market, there is a store on Riverside drive a bit down from the DMV that sells locally grown produce and meat. Also, I believe most of the produce and meat sold in Co-Op grocery stores is locally grown (when it’s in season, at least…) Another option would be the Queen Street Meat Market (now on University Ave across from the Dairy Queen or thereabouts), but they are literally a “meat & potatoes” type of store.

While a website or the Farmer’s Market is good for niche shoppers, it’s not really going to make a huge difference in the farmer’s livelihood. They need to figure some way to get the food into stores where people do their regular shopping. I don’t mind spending an extra dollar for a PEI produced steak at the Superstore, but spending an extra 20 minutes driving to a separate store just to buy local is a deal breaker for me. Especially if that store is only open at limited times. The inconvenience is wins out over my minuscule amount of good nature.

Scott gallant's picture
Scott gallant on July 12, 2009 - 23:23 Permalink

Some friends of my run a site designed to connect food producers with consumers. They just launched the market place last week so it’s just getting going.

Johnny's picture
Johnny on July 13, 2009 - 15:04 Permalink

Peter: Great points as long as you don’t have to do all of the grocery shopping or food preparation in your household. Its swell that you and Oliver have a fun time at the market on Saturday mornings and you’ve gotten to know the farmers. Some of us have to actually buy and prepare *all* of the food our household consumes, which leaves little time for taking 5 years to get to know our potato farmer on lazy Saturday mornings. We try to eat locally as much as we can, but it involves time-consuming visits to the Farmer’s Market, the Co-op, Riverview Country Market and the Farmers Market with the hope that they actually have what we’re after. I’m all for building up the trust, but in the interim anything that makes this process easier right now would be welcome.

a girl from the countryside's picture
a girl from the... on July 16, 2009 - 18:32 Permalink

Peter, while I can appreciate your carefully cultivated relationships that you have forged at the Charlottetown Farmer’s Market, don’t you think that similar relationships can be created at farms throughout the island? The Farmer’s Market is a wonderful meeting place for city residents and local food producers on PEI, however it poses as yet another trip to Charlottetown for me and my neighbours who live in the countryside. We would prefer to buy our food locally… really local… from the source! I think that Dave’s website has the potential to allow Islanders to get to know their food producers in the same intimate ways that you have met vendors at the Charlottetown Farmer’s Market. Please note: there isn’t room for every farmer on PEI to meet & greet at the Charlottetown Farmer’s Market. You say that buying local shouldn’t be too easy… wouldn’t a trip to the farm be more intimate than your weekly shopping trip to the Charlottetown Farmer’s Market?

Ben Wilson's picture
Ben Wilson on July 17, 2009 - 20:30 Permalink

Thanks Peter for your story. I must say though that I agree with the comments above from “a girl from the countryside”. I think that a website or any other means of connecting consumers with the local food producers in their area can result in beginning many beautiful and deeply personal relationships built on the same kind of trust that you have built with your friends at the farmers market. I have been to the Charlottetown farmers market several times and enjoyed the coffee, the perogies, and the fresh produce, but even though I got to see the people face to face, it’s a very busy place and doesn’t allow for much time to ask the growers questions about their farming practices. Even better than building personal relationships at a market, in my opinion, is building personal relationships at the farm. Driving to visit farmers at their farm every week might not be feasible (or environmentally friendly) for everyone, but the important thing is building trust. So whether that trust is built through brief conversations at the market, online chatting through a social networking site, or the occasional visit to the farm to see the gardens and livestock that your friends are producing, they’re all great ways of connecting with local producers. Using a website to initiate the discussion and find out who’s growing what and where they live and sell doesn’t have to be an impersonal process. Quite the contrary, in today’s environment of social media it can be very personal, very efficient, very environmentally friendly and a lot of fun.

The best web site out there for finding local food producers is Check out the active community of consumers and producers and the online marketplace where you can talk directly to sellers through the web site, ask them questions, become friends, and start to develop connections and trust with the people who can grow your food in your local area.