Labels when Buying Local, do we really need them?

“If you don’t like something about business, change the way you run your business.”

-John Maxwell

All farmers, big, small, conventional, organic, diversified or not, in the USA work hard to provide safe and wholesome food to American consumers.

It is a struggle sometimes to celebrate and encourage people to support local agriculture or to start growing their own food (if they have that option) while also sharing the pride and spreading the word about how amazing, safe, and efficient American agriculture is. All farmers, big, small, conventional, organic, diversified or not, in the USA work hard to provide safe and wholesome food to American consumers. My biggest roadblock as I try to convey this and I also sell my product is with marketing; how can I tell people why they should buy my product as opposed to a commercial brand. I have seen many small/ local/ niche, producers market their product by claiming that it is “safer”, “more environmentally friendly”, “cleaner”, “tastier” etc than commercially produced food. If you have ever worked on a farm you know and understand the care and devotion that goes into raising an animal and that farm size does not change the conscience and concern for an animal’s health and welfare. I have worked on various farms of various sizes and on each one I can tell you there have been times I have beamed with pride at the health and well-being of the animals in my care and times I have cried with frustration over an animal that I was unable to help feel better. I put the same amount of care and consideration for the animals I cared for at a farm that housed over 18,000 animals as I did at my own farm. There are different practices at each farm of course; at my small farm I can house all my sows together in a pasture and I will be able to notice if one is getting bullied and I can pull her out and put her by herself. We have the space and labor capacity to do that because we have less animals. However, at a large farm sows may be housed in 10×10 pens in a barn and the pen holds about 6 similarly sized sows. They cannot be outside in a large pasture because with so many they would be difficult to make sure everyone is healthy and eating, so by making multiple small pens in a barn you can house around 500 animals in one barn but still be able to check each one individually every day. Different farms have different ways of doing things, but that doesn’t make one farm better or worse than another, they each have their pros and cons and we are lucky to live in a nation with such diverse agriculture that allows us to choose what product is best for our families. I only ask that every farmer does not use marketing schemes, lies, fear mongering, misconceptions or other unethical tactics to sell their product, and that consumers do not fall victim to those claims. I want to celebrate every farmer that is working the land, caring for livestock, and trying to gain a living doing something they love while providing people with wholesome food.

96% of American farms are family owned and operated.

What is upsetting is when any farmer uses marketing tactics that make another farmer look inferior. I have my own beliefs and opinions on how I want to run my farm. For example, I use antibiotics when it is necessary because I believe that if I am not using all the tools available to me to save a suffering animal, then I am not farming responsibly. I observe and carefully monitor my animals to make sure that withdrawal periods have sufficiently passed before they are sold or sent to slaughter ensuring that no antibiotic residue is in any meat that is consumed (as does every other responsible farmer). Personally, I believe that never using antibiotics is poor farm management, however I see the “Antibiotic Free” label used a lot. This appeals to mass consumers that do not understand what the label means and thus infers that meat without that label either has antibiotic residue in it (which is false) or that any antibiotic use, no matter how judicious, is bad. I am all for a consumer being able to have options and “antibiotic free” is an option that they are allowed to have. However, I am not for marketers and farmers spreading fear to further sell their label and mislead consumers. I do not go around and tell consumers that a farmer with a “No Antibiotics” label is irresponsible and is only using the label to scare consumers into buying from them. So why do some of these farmers with this label tell their consumers that antibiotics use in livestock is scary and “who knows what is being pumped into these chickens or pigs or cattle that one may buy from the grocery store?”? The truth is that American farmers work hard every day growing their crops, raising their livestock, milking their cows, to provide you with the safest food in the world. That is right, the USA has the safest food system in the world. Whether a farmer grows products conventionally, organically or any other method, they are abiding by strict federal and state regulations that work to ensure the safety of your food. 96% of American farms are family owned and operated. When an American farmer grows a product, they and their family also consume that product. They would not want to grow anything that they would not feel proud to feed their own families.

It is unfortunate that many have taken to selling fear instead of talking about how amazing their product is. Instead of talking about the “bad” in your competition or perpetuating lies to sell a product, maybe just sell the product for the good things that it is. Labels and marketing should have things that say, “supporting local makes everyone appreciate their food more and makes for a more beautiful landscape to live among.” Or, “Buying from a small, accessible, local farm gives children a way to learn how food is grown and raised and that it does not just appear on a grocery store shelf.” Tell consumers they are privileged to live in an area with access to local farms and that they should invest in that. And of course, talk about how tasty and fresh the food is. If you are a local farmer, talk about what sets you apart from other producers, what you are doing differently and why its important to you, but please do so without dissing other farmers. Tell people about the hard work, blood, sweat and tears and everything else that is in the product you have instead of what isn’t.

So, don’t buy locally for the labels, leave those at the grocery store. Instead, take full advantage of your local farmers and ask them about their story.

On my farm, it is more important to me to sell you a good, truthful product than to sell you some perfect ideological label that makes you feel good. 60% of Americans say that food labels influence their food purchases. If you live in and around farms, why wouldn’t you use that to your advantage? Let the farmer inform you about their food instead of letting labels tell their story for them. On our farm I have no labels, I want to tell you a story. I want to talk about how we raise all our animals from birth to harvest with locally grown hay and corn. I take pride in telling you that if you buy a live animal from us it is butchered and processed right on the farm so they do not have to go through the stress of transport and unloading at an unfamiliar place. I enjoy the fact that I can show you how the animal was raised and you can see and know the animal before it is packaged for your freezer. I also like to talk about the endless care I put into raising the animal and how I make sure their welfare and natural behavior is catered to.  So, don’t buy locally for the labels, leave those at the grocery store. Instead, take full advantage of your local farmers and ask them about their story. Instead of asking, “Is your corn GMO?” say something like, “Tell me about how you raise your corn.” Or instead of asking, “Is this organic?”, say, “What do you value and what are the practices you use that you are most proud of?” Sure, you can stick to labels and go to the grocery store to buy your food, but think about all you are leaving fallow. That farmer has a lot of knowledge and resources and can help you understand your food much more than any label can. So, buy your vegetables from the vegetable farmer, your milk from the dairy farmer, and your meat from the livestock farmer. Nothing will make them happier than if you purchase the product they spend the most time caring for and producing so that it can end up on your dinner plate and so that you can learn a little bit more about agriculture.

~ Sarah


When I say “local” I mean when you buy directly from the farmer. There are many farmers who sell to grocery stores in their local area and I love to see these stores endorsing their local farmers. For the purpose of this article I mean to say when a consumer is buying from a farmer’s store or at a farmer’s market 🙂

Other interesting ideas about food labels:

Talking Biotech Podcast – Food Labeling

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