Note: This piece was first published in the Opinion section of the Washington Post in 2007.
My farm is in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains in southwestern Virginia. Like many others who have recently transitioned from tobacco to organic farming, we sell our produce through local and regional channels, including the farmer's market in our nearby town of Abingdon, population 8,000.
Of late, a number of commentators have disparaged local food economies, based on two claims: First, that shipping food long distances in fully loaded tractor trailers is more efficient than local transactions; and secondly, that consumers travel much further to buy local foods, creating more, not less carbon emissions. They're wrong.
A full tractor trailer hauls about 32,000 pounds of produce. On average, according to The Leopold Center at Iowa State University, this food travels about 1,750 miles from farm to market, in trucks that get about 5.5 miles per gallon. That's 320 gallons of fuel to transport 32,000 pounds, or about a gallon of gas for every 100 pound of food.
My farm is an eight mile round trip from the Abingdon farmers market. Our '94 Toyota pickup gets 15 miles to the gallon, fully loaded, so my trip to the market uses just over a half gallon of gas. We take and sell an average of 1,600 lbs. of fresh produce every Saturday morning. This works out to 3,200 lbs. of food for every gallon of fuel expended, compared to 100 pounds for the tractor trailer. That's thirty two times more efficient.
Of course not every farmer lives just four miles from his or her market. But our local experience, along with studies from Austin, Texas to Toronto indicate that most farmers stay within a 50 mile radius. Assuming they carry about 1000 pounds - a third less than we do - the average local food transaction delivers 500 pounds of food per gallon of fuel, five times more efficient than conventional transport.
The argument that shipping food in tractor trailers is more efficient than local food transactions just doesn't hold up. But are consumers traveling so much further to get to farmers markets that their additional fuel use offsets these efficiency gains? Though the data is a bit sketchy, two points stand out. First, in spite of the dramatic growth of Wal-Mart and other "one-stop shopping" outlets, our shopping miles are steadily increasing. As author Stacy Mitchell points out, we Americans increased our travel - just for shopping - by over 90 billion miles from 1990 to 2001. That's billion with a "B". It's safe to say that most of those new miles were not spent seeking out local food.
Secondly, several studies indicate that consumers are generally not willing to travel more than 6-8 miles or 15-20 minutes by car to shop at a local market, comparable, perhaps slightly more than what people travel to reach the big box store. And with farmers markets proliferating across the country, from 1750 in 1995 to nearly 4500 now, they're getting closer to consumers and farmers every year.
One last thing: So far as I know, no food ever arrives at a farmers market by airplane. Yet air freight, which generates ten to thirty times as much carbon per mile as trucks, is becoming a major part of the global food system.
When my wife and I get up at 5:00 a.m. on Saturday morning to start packing our truck, a cup of strong coffee and a glass of OJ makes it a little easier. So we're not dogmatic about local foods. But we also know, first hand, that such foods are increasingly abundant, convenient and rewarding. The critics notwithstanding, buying local food is a sensible way to eat well, save fuel and reduce your carbon footprint.
Anthony Flaccavento is a Food and Society Policy Fellow and director of Appalachian Sustainable Development. His farm is 3.9 miles from Abingdon, Virginia.