‘Eating Local’… What Does It Mean to You?

//‘Eating Local’… What Does It Mean to You?

‘Eating Local’… What Does It Mean to You?


A busy day at our Arlington farmers market, packed with people even during 95 degree July days. Customers are drawn to this market for its freshness, selection, and diversity of local farmers, which operate within 125 miles of the city.

Customers at farmers market are often surprised to learn that our farm is only sixty miles from Washington, D.C.  We’re part of the ‘green belt’ that surrounds the city, a circle of agriculture that begins when the suburbs finally run out of momentum.  It’s no coincidence that housing subdivisions stretch about 45 miles in all directions outside of D.C., and that our farm is just beyond this fringe.  To operate a livestock farm embedded within miles and miles of townhouses would not only require superior fences, it would also take incredible diplomacy skills.

On our farm, which raises grass-fed, free-range livestock, we basically have two destinations, each roughly sixty miles from the farm: a USDA inspected butcher shop, and our farmers markets in the nation’s capital.  For us, this is the most expeditious way we know to properly (and legally) process our food, and then sell it.  Still, even for our farm, which is as close to a major city as I could ever hope to be, ‘local food’ from our farm has done its fair share of traveling before it makes it onto a customer’s plate.

The vegetable stand adjacent to ours brings produce from their farm near Richmond, Va., about 100 miles away.

For example: every other Monday, I personally deliver hogs to our butcher just outside of Hagerstown, Maryland.  Although there are two butcher shops that are closer to our farm (45 minutes instead of an hour), I choose to use this shop because of their impeccable standards, attention to detail, and humane treatment of my animals.  (If, understandably, you feel that ‘humane slaughter’ is a contradiction of terms, then please understand that this butcher shop treats our animals with as much dignity and respect as I could ask for.  Not all shops do).  Two days later, on Wednesday, I turn around and haul cattle to the same place.  One hundred and twenty miles, round trip, multiplied by two separate days.

The butcher shop we use is a small, family run business, and as ‘local’ as I am.  As such, they need plenty of time to do their work, hence butchering pigs on one day, and cattle on another.  Thursdays are dedicated to cutting and packaging the meat, which means that by the time Friday morning rolls around, I’m back in a truck (this time my refrigerated truck) and headed up the road once again for pick up.  Sixty more miles, times two.

Suddenly, we’re already up to three hundred and sixty miles, and we haven’t even loaded the market truck yet.  By the time I drive into Washington early on Saturday morning, this food has travelled almost four hundred miles to get to market (okay, the pigs and cattle were technically two separate 120 mile trips, but you get my point).  Of course, I also must drive back home at the end of market, or I won’t be able to load my truck for the Sunday markets.  Tack on sixty more miles.

Back and forth, to and fro. I've run this route so many times, the truck practically drives itself. Rest assured, I know every good coffee shop and clean restroom along this route.

For the sake of tidiness, let’s just bump this number up to a nice, round five hundred miles.  Surprised?  The same customers who were startled to learn that my farm is ‘only’ sixty miles away might be equally surprised to learn of this number.  Am I still ‘local,’ or should a number such as this change your way of thinking about local food?

Now, before you march down the street with pitchforks and torches to your local farmers market yelling foul play, let’s take a moment to put these numbers in perspective.  First of all, relative to ‘conventional’ food (mass produced, anonymous grocery store food) my numbers are a drop in the bucket.  By the time all the ingredients of a t.v. dinner make their way to your freezer, the food has literally travelled thousands upon thousands of miles.  Perhaps just as importantly, these ingredients weren’t produced with a fraction of the integrity or environmental sustainability that a trip to your farmers market will yield.

What about fruits and vegetables?  Glad you asked.  Fruits and veggies, which need little to no additional processing (relative to my livestock), must also travel a fair distance to get to the ‘local’ market.  In my neck of the woods, many farmers markets maintain a 125 mile radius from which food can be grown.  For several popular fruit and vegetable growers in rural West Virginia, the lower Shenandoah Valley, or central Pennsylvania, this means driving 250 miles round trip in a day.  This is an improvement, perhaps, but still a long way for that food to travel.

Our simple truck and trailer rig. As soon as I get it back to the farm, Robert hoses it down. We may be a dirt farm, but we try to stay clean!

Also, when considering the challenges and nuance of ‘eating local’, please keep in mind that, as small producers, farms like ours take every measure to be as efficient as possible.  I don’t just take up one cow or one pig to the butcher: I take four and ten at a time, respectively.  Moreover, when I can, I pick up products while I’m there (though this is often challenging with having a ‘hauling’ truck, and having a ‘delivery truck’).  Sometimes I’m able to save a trip, but I’m always trying to move as much food per trip as possible.

The bottom line is, ‘eating local’ is a complex issue.  Even our free-range eggs, which travel straight from the farm to market, are compromised by the fact that our chicken feed has been brought from… you guessed it… about sixty miles away.  On the flip side, our grass fed cows and sheep remain as local as possible right up to the moment they head off to the butcher.

In the end, is it possible to truly ‘eat local’?  Staying informed and involved about food choices will better help answer this question.  For the hardcore locavore, I suggest growing a garden oneself (or participating in a community garden), and if available, buying meat in bulk (thus keeping your carbon footprint relatively low).  At the end of the day, growing one’s own food is the most reliable way to ensure local flavor.  For the rest of us, the phrase ‘local food’ must remain an ever shifting, subjective and thought-provoking way of looking at how we eat.

Like Smith Meadows on Facebook If you’d like to receive our blog each week, please like our farm!  Smith Meadows Facebook

One of our closest producers, Potomac Vegetable Farms in Purcellville, Va, is about 40 minutes away.

By | 2012-08-02T17:16:04+00:00 July 18th, 2012|Farm|13 Comments

About the Author:

Forrest Pritchard is a full-time sustainable farmer and New York Times bestselling author, holding a BA in English and a BS in Geology from William & Mary. Smith Meadows, his farm, was one of the first “grass finished” operations in the country, and has sold at leading farmers’ markets in Washington DC for nearly two decades. Pritchard's first two books received starred reviews from The Washington Post, Publishers Weekly, Library Journal and NPR, and his latest book is set to debut in 2018.


  1. Leslie July 19, 2012 at 5:40 am - Reply

    A couple more things I think about when deciding if my food is local: can I (or is it possible even if unlikely) meet and greet the farmer? and how much packaging must this product have to get it freshly to my table.
    Thanks for your clarification on the nuances.

    • Forrest Pritchard July 19, 2012 at 8:18 am

      Leslie: exactly right. I’ve always felt a direct connection to the producer is the best way to really get a feel for all these subtleties. Farmers at market are a resource… use us or lose us!!!


  2. Lynsi July 19, 2012 at 8:06 am - Reply

    Thank you, Forrest: very well put! Sometimes I hesitate walking up to a stand at the Des Moines Farmers’ Market when it says they are from such and such, Missouri, Nebraska, or Minnesota, but I have to remind myself that those farms are still local compared to the conventional items at the grocery store.

    I learned a lot while I lived and worked out at Smith Meadows, and ‘my time in Virginia’ seem to come up in conversations frequently. I enjoy reading your blog posts and still feeling connected in that way: thanks! I look forward to reading your book when it comes out in the spring.

    P.S. Texas is 900+ miles from us and California is 1800+ miles from us, I think I’ll grow my own peppers and tomatoes, thank you! 😉

    • Forrest Pritchard July 19, 2012 at 8:16 am

      Hey Lynsi,

      That’s a really helpful perspective, and I understand how you feel. My peer group comes not only from Virginia, but Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. All within 125 miles of Washington, and certainly more local than Florida or California, but still not just a stroll down the street, either!

      Please come back and visit us sooner than later, Linus is growing up quickly…

  3. Zack Rodman July 19, 2012 at 10:51 am - Reply

    Hey FP! Love what you’re doing here. And there aren’t many farmers with your knack for writing a good yarn. Keep it up!

    I was just talking about the issue of “local” with my wife and family the other day. I am wondering how you balance the need for meat and produce that is farmed “organically” vs the desire to buy local. It seems logical that to grow the same things in one climate might require more pesticide than in another more perfectly suited climate.

    Especially as a father of a 2 year old, avoiding harmful pesticides, hormones, etc. is my main concern. Thoughts?


    • Zack Rodman July 19, 2012 at 11:16 am

      I should add that seasonality plays a big role here. Avoiding tomatoes in January and that sort of thing. But there are certain staples that we eat year-round–like chicken for example. The question of local vs organic is mainly applicable to these scenarios.

    • Forrest Pritchard July 19, 2012 at 12:28 pm

      Hi Zack! Boy, it’s been a long time… (imagining a 1990s Wayne’s World flashback sequence in my head). Thanks for the compliments, hope everything is great with you and your family.

      You’ve quickly gotten to the heart of the matter. We live in a world of abundant choices, more than had even a short time ago. Short of growing our own food, it’s almost impossible to navigate the vast amount of information out there trying to persuade the consumer in one direction or another, often with misleading terms such as ‘All Natural’ or ‘Cage Free’ that are more or less meaningless.

      ‘Organic,’ increasingly, is falling into this same boat. For most customers, the word ‘organic’ conjures visions of small batch vegetables and orchards, or a bucolic herd of livestock, tended by a single family farm. The fact is, most organic food comes from enormous, monoculture farms that could easily be thousands of miles away from their ultimate destination: your kitchen. Like many things in life, this word has been more or less co-opted by Western Capitalism, and only maintains its definition in the strictest terms of the wording.

      Like many before me have said, there’s just no substitute for meeting your farmer face to face, visiting the farm, or hopefully even growing your own food if you have the opportunity. Having done all of the above, I can attest to the simple beauty and unexpected benefits the experience brings into one’s life 🙂

      Please stop by market sometime and say hello!

  4. Jenny J July 20, 2012 at 8:34 am - Reply

    Interesting post. I live near Smith Meadows and have been disappointed to find that when I’ve come to the farm store to buy meat I’ve been told that it is being saved to take to market in the city for the weekends. Sure would be nice to be able to supply some of what you have for truly, the local community. Just a suggestion. Thanks for what you do.

    • Forrest Pritchard July 20, 2012 at 12:49 pm

      Hi Jenny,

      This sounds like a misunderstanding/miscommunication. We have a fully stocked freezer and store that’s always open (day and night, we operate on an honesty policy) for our nearby customers. It contains exactly the same products that we take to our farmers markets, and we restock it daily. Sorry for the confusion, please visit us again! -Forrest

  5. Zack Rodman July 20, 2012 at 1:18 pm - Reply

    Hey Forrest. I know what you mean about the flashback. I keep thinking back to the hours spent in Skipper’s history class drawing violent cartoons depicting one another getting slaughtered in one horrid (but humorous) way or another. Makes me think that 1) teenage boys are barely civilized and 2) no wonder I got C’s in high school.

    Anyway, thanks for the response to my question. But with respect, you didn’t really answer it. I agree that the word “organic” is not always meaningful and for sure, there are many corporate (and small businesses too!) that use the word for their own greedy purposes. But this isn’t really what I was getting at.

    For the sake of discussion, let’s assume that certified “organic” can be a reliable way to select meat and produce that has been grown and processed with relatively fewer chemical substances and other such nasties. How does one weigh that against a desire to buy locally? Why should I buy from my local farmer if he/she is using pesticide to grow their lettuce when the stuff I can get at the store (albeit from California) is pesticide free?

    I have a POV, but would be curious to hear yours.

    I haven’t been to the Dupont Market since we moved into the burbs last year, but I would love to stop by sometime. Maybe Falls Church. (We live in Arlington now.)


    • Forrest Pritchard July 20, 2012 at 5:30 pm

      Hey Zack,

      I think the quick and tidy answer is that, if you can find a producer that is both organic AND local, then you’ve probably found your farmer. What I was trying to get at in my first response is that ‘organic’ is no longer the black and white definition it was intended to be, or most people still think it to be. In fact, I just read a N.Y. Times article that points out there are now over 250 approved non-organic ingredients that can be added to foods labelled USDA Organic. Unlikely that you’d be getting these secret additives from your local farmer.

      To summarize: it’s a complex question, but one worth pondering.

      I’m at Arlington Courthouse every Saturday morning! Come visit us there :p

  6. pikels@yahoo.com March 11, 2015 at 1:36 pm - Reply

    didnt really help

    • Forrest Pritchard March 12, 2015 at 8:33 am

      What didn’t help? Could you be more specific?

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