by Michael Sutphin
With the help of Virginia Cooperative Extension, the local foods movement throughout the commonwealth has gained momentum in support of Virginia agriculture.
“Extension agents and specialists in every program area are combining their talents and expertise to encourage producers to sell their foods in local markets, and consumers to buy local foods,” says Jim Riddell, assistant director of agriculture and natural resources and interim assistant director of community viability for Extension. “The local foods movement not only promotes green, sustainable agriculture, but also contributes to Virginia’s economy.”
Community viability area specialists Eric Bendfeldt of the Northwest District Office and Matt Benson of the Northern District Office developed economic forecasts about the potential impact of buying and selling local foods. Their results were striking. “We determined that if every Virginia household spent at least $10 per week on locally grown food, they would invest more than $137 million back into local farms, independent businesses, and the community every month,” Bendfeldt says.
That adds up to more than $1.65 billion invested in Virginia’s communities each year. Throughout the commonwealth, Extension agents and specialists are encouraging communities to follow this call to action. The most visible outcome of this effort has been a boom in the number of farmers markets across the state – now more than 130 in number.
The Fluvanna Farmers Market, for example, has only had an official presence in the 20,000-resident county since 2006. Today, it attracts at least 15 vendors weekly, with about 60 operations on an approved vendor list. According to John Thompson, agriculture and natural resources agent in Fluvanna County, Extension ensures that both producers and consumers know about this opportunity.
“Extension also serves as an advisor to the farmers-market leadership and informs the county about infrastructure or other needs. We serve as a conduit to answer questions that farmers or the county might have,” says Thompson.
In the Shenandoah Valley, Extension agents have met with everyone from farmers to residents to restaurant and grocery-store owners in support of local foods. Using the “Buy Fresh, Buy Local” branding campaign, they developed a local foods guide and other materials that help consumers identify food products grown in the valley.
Amber Vallotton, agriculture and natural resources Extension agent in Rockingham County, explains that they are taking a holistic approach.
“This work integrates every aspect of Extension: from family and consumer sciences agents teaching Virginians how to incorporate local foods into their diets; to agriculture and natural resources agents helping farmers expand and find local vendors for their products, as well as creating and promoting community gardens for underserved clientele; to 4-H agents teaching youth about locally grown foods,” she says. “Of course, Extension’s community viability work ties all of this together.”
The Roanoke Extension Office has even made local foods its common theme. Family and consumer sciences agent Deb Chappell teaches citizens about the advantages of eating seasonal fruits and vegetables with “Eat Fresh, Eat Local” cooking demonstrations and tastings, a local food challenge, and food preservation demonstrations. Roanoke 4-H agent Leslie Prillaman is facilitating a Master Gardener-led home garden project to teach fourth-graders about gardening, growing food, and the interrelatedness of plants, people, and the environment. And agriculture and natural resources agent Sheri Dorn is compiling a directory of local farmers and hosting a series of vegetable gardening workshops and events.
“We are also hosting a ‘Vegetables for Victory Garden Challenge’ inspired by the small garden plots that accounted for an estimated 40 percent of fruits and vegetables grown in the 1940s,” Dorn says. “These gardens will provide fresh produce for Roanoke families, encourage quality time with the family and community, be a source of exercise, and boost morale with the satisfaction of growing one’s own vegetables.”
On the commercial side of the movement, the Roanoke Extension Office is also partnering with agents in Alleghany, Botetourt, and Craig counties to showcase local producers with the Taste of the Roanoke Valley Food Expo. The collaborative event hopes to reacquaint local citizens with foods grown in the area and the markets for buying them.