COMMUNITY DEVELOPMENT: Journal of the Community Development Society, Vol. 37, No. 1, Spring 2006
© 2006, The Community Development Society
A “buy local” approach to food sourcing appears to provide an increasingly salient mobilizing
framework for city, county, and state level governments; non-prots; and funding agencies as a
response to problems in the agri-food system. One rather constant source of tension, however, has
been a failure to develop shared meanings about what constitutes “local food.” This paper critically
examines the multiple ways that “local” is constructed in physical, relational, and symbolic space
within the specic context of Washington State. In hopes of extending the debate beyond scholars
and activists, we sought the perspectives of a broad sample of Washington citizens using farmer and
consumer surveys. Open-ended questions were asked about the meaning of “local food,” as well as
structured questions about the values and practical considerations associated with food production
and marketing. Although a number of obstacles to using “local food” as a mobilizing construct to
address systemic agricultural problems became evident, a surprising amount of agreement about the
meaning of the concept was also uncovered.
Everyday Meanings of “Local Food”:
Views from Home and Field
As encapsulated in the rallying call to “think globally, eat locally,” efforts to privilege
and promote “local” food sourcing are gathering momentum in many parts of the United
States. A recent proliferation of media stories,1 campaigns by non-prots, and Web-based
organizing efforts2 have sought to heighten awareness of local food buying options and the
benets of local purchasing among the public and government policy makers. In many of
these written accounts and promotional campaigns, reconnecting local consumers with local
producers or “localization” is positioned as one of the most promising antidotes to an ailing
American agricultural system that is increasingly being squeezed by low-cost overseas
production, high input costs, intensifying environmental regulation, and a consolidating
food manufacturing and distribution sector. Recent books such as Going Local (Shuman,
1998), Coming Home to Eat (Nabhan, 2002), Eat Here (Halweil, 2004), and the Case
Against the Global Economy: and for a Turn Toward the Local (Mander & Goldsmith, 1996),
along with a growing body of academic work investigating food system “localization”
and place-based marketing strategies (Barham, 2003; Hendrickson & Heffernan, 2002;
Hinrichs, 2000, 2003; Kloppenburg et al., 1996; Lacy, 2000; O’Hara & Stagl 2001; Pretty
& Lang 2005), build a compelling case for the economic, environmental, and socio-cultural
Keywords: local, community development, community food system, direct marketing, alternative
marketing, consumer values, sustainable agriculture, economic development
Marcia Ostrom is Assistant Professor in the Department of Community and Rural Sociology and the Director of the
Small Farms Program at Washington State University, 7612 Pioneer Way East, Puyallup, WA 98371; 253-445-4514;
firstname.lastname@example.org. She wishes to acknowledge the contributions of her survey research partners, Dr. Raymond
Jussaume (Washington State University) and Dr. Lucy Jarosz (University of Washington) and the funding provided
by the W. K. Kellogg Foundation, the Farming and the Environment Project, and the USDA-NRI.
COMMUNITY DEVELOPMENT: Journal of the Community Development Society
benets of establishing shorter, regionally-based, food chains and linkages. Shuman (1998)
explains that in contrast to conventional economic development paradigms that focus on
attracting outside investors with mega projects, strengthening community-based food and
farm businesses offers a locally owned and controlled development process that can retain
prots and conserve the natural resource base.
It could be argued that “local food” has become the unifying theme of a social
movement to challenge and reshape the modern agri-food system, with “local” coming
to signify all that is believed to be the antithesis of a globally organized system where
food travels great distances, is controlled by behemoth, transnational corporations, and
is wrought with environmental, social, and nutritional hazards. A “local food” paradigm,
in contrast, emphasizes food quality and freshness, a personal connection to small and
family-scale farms, environmental protection, community self-reliance, and the economic
multiplier effects of making local purchases. Growing concern with the cost and instability
of fossil fuel supplies is further inspiring interest in locally-based food production and
distribution chains from the standpoint of energy efciency (Kunstler, 2005).
A “buy local” approach appears to be providing an increasingly salient mobilizing
framework for city, county, and state governments; non-prots; and private funding
agencies. For example, Woodbury County, Iowa, recently passed a resolution titled, “the
Local Food Purchase Policy,” that mandates the purchase of locally grown food by county
institutions. At least ten state governments are now reported to have passed legislation
urging or requiring state institutions to increase local food purchasing (Flint, 2004). The
federal government is also subsidizing numerous grassroots efforts to develop “buy local”
campaigns, regional labeling programs, “farm locater” databases, and farm directories
through its agricultural granting agencies. Prospective food buyers can now search for
farmer vendors in any state or zip code in the country.3
As the stakes in the marketplace grow, what is becoming increasingly contested is
the meaning and scope of “local.” A search of the literature and Websites focused on
this topic reveals that very few writers have attempted to construct a denition for “local
food,” and these denitions are inconsistent. In his popular book, Nabhan (2002) sets out
a spatial denition of a 200-mile radius. Other authors propose units of analysis ranging
from 12 miles (Pretty & Lang, 2005), to 30 miles (Flint, 2004), to a day’s round-trip drive
(Devine, 2004). One Website campaign provides criteria for ranking “degrees” of local
with categories ranging from 1 to 3,000 miles.4 The local purchasing resolution passed by
Woodbury County denes local as “that food which is grown and processed within 100
miles of Sioux City, Iowa.”5 Beyond its physical scale, other aspects of “local food” as
a mobilizing construct are also contentious. Hinrichs (2003) fears that a focus on “local”
can be used to obscure socially or environmentally unsustainable production practices or
reinforce a parochial bias against outsiders or “others,” a tendency she alternately refers
to as “defensive localism” or “food patriotism.” Allen et al. (2003: 74) observe that a
preoccupation with creating particularized solutions to food and farming problems at
the local level may divert attention away from the need to confront social justice issues
effectively in the agri-food system at a broader scale, positing that “oppositional stances
cannot be successful when they are only local: they require the power of a broader social
movement to prevail.” Thus, Hinrichs (2003: 295) points out that, “as both matter and
symbol…`local food’ can hold multi-faceted and sometimes contradictory meanings.”
While food system localization has proven to be a powerful mobilizing concept, she warns
that it can also be a “perilous trap” (302).
Snippets from a recent urry of electronic messages on a list serve used by farmers and
community food activists in the Northwest provide a glimpse of the passion and ambiguities
associated with this concept. A week-long exchange was set off when one writer expressed
disappointment that food from over 100 miles away was labeled as “local” in his farmers’
market. Another contributor sympathized, declaring that even under “100 miles is not local.”
“Local,” offered another, “means a place I can walk or bike to.” A farmer who earned her
living in the Seattle farmers’ markets countered that she considered herself “very local
to that city” and felt personally connected to her many devoted customers there, despite
living over 100 miles away. Another farmer’s viewpoint was that “if a farmer can load the
truck in the morning, make the delivery, and get back home the same day,” the food should
be considered local. Contributors variously contended that “local” should be constructed
in accordance with climate zones, natural features, bioregions, or the energy required for
transportation. As the conversation wore on, the questions grew more complex. “What if
food was raised two miles away, but stored or processed hundreds of miles away?” “Should
the distance associated with ’local‘ vary depending on the crop, the season, the fossil fuels
consumed, or one’s location?” “What about the origin of the inputs used to produce the
food—how many producers have equipment or vehicles that were locally made or use seed
that was locally grown?”
Ultimately, it was proposed that the term was so multi-layered and contradictory as to
be meaningless. “I think the idea of ‘dening’ local makes no sense whatsoever.” “When
you really consider the full chain of production,” wrote another, “it is nearly impossible to
make absolute claims of ‘local.’” Yet, as the e-mail volley wound down, the conversation
returned to the farmers’ market question and the very real need for better communication
between producers and consumers in the marketplace as they seek to build new kinds of
relationships based on commonly held values and interests. It was nally agreed that since
the term was being so widely used it should be dened.
Despite creative evolutions in thinking about food in relation to such concepts as
“foodsheds” (Kloppenburg et al., 1996), “agroecosystems” (Conway, 1985; Flora, 2001)
“home” (Nabhan, 2002), or “place” (Kemmis, 1991; Jackson, 1993), as illustrated by the
example above, little conceptual progress has been made in developing a shared concept
of “local.” A rich literature, however, has evolved around the concept of “community.”
Community development theorists have built a strong case for conceiving of “community”
as both a physical and a social or interactive space (Wilkinson, 1991; Liepins, 2000).
Increasingly, attention has been accorded to the notion of communities as dynamic social
networks formed on the basis of shared interests, values, and identities that are continuously
being recreated and reinforced through interactive discourse and practice (Flora, 2001;
Liepins, 2000). When viewed from a community development framework, rather than
“defensive localism,” identication and a sense of attachment to a “locality,” be it material
or symbolic, can be viewed as a way of building social networks and generating the social
capital necessary to catalyze community action around improving markets and government
policies (Flora, 2001).
The intent of this paper is to further the conceptual development of the term “local” as it
is applied to food systems. Theories of community will be drawn on to explore the ways that
“local” is socially constructed in physical, relational, and discursive space within the specic
context of Washington State. In order to extend the debate beyond scholars and activists, surveys
were utilized to analyze and compare the perspectives of a broad cross-section of Washington
consumers and farmers. We expected that the meanings assigned to this term might vary for
different types of stakeholders. For example, producers, who pragmatically need to earn a living
from markets wherever they might happen to be, may have different perceptions than consumers
do with less at stake. We also thought that views might vary according to proximity to the major
urban markets in the state, socio-economic status, the regional availability of different foods,
agronomic zones, and various cultural and regional identities.
As part of two large-scale, agricultural marketing and policy surveys, one of consumers
and one of farmers in Washington, we asked an open-ended question about the meaning of
“local.” We have not seen any reports of similar random sample, large-scale surveys with
COMMUNITY DEVELOPMENT: Journal of the Community Development Society
farmers or consumers asking them to describe “local” in their own words. While it cannot
be argued that such surveys are the denitive way to answer a question of such a complex
and contested nature, it is nonetheless the most cost-effective way of hearing from the
broadest possible number of people.
Two separate data sets were analyzed for this study (for methods see also Ostrom
& Jussaume, 2006). The producer data was collected from a large-scale, mail survey of
Washington State farmers.6 By special permission, we drew a sample from the state list of
all Washington farm operators maintained by the National Agricultural Statistics Service
(NASS). Ten percent of farm households in each county was sampled. In the spring of 2002,
questionnaires were sent to 3,718 farm addresses. A series of follow-ups, including a post-
card reminder and two additional survey mailings, were conducted with non-respondents
using Dillman’s (2000) Tailored Design Method. We received 1,201 completed surveys.
Removing ineligibles and non-completed returns from the original sample left a completion
rate of just over 49%.7 This rate appears to be reasonable for a general farmer survey of
this type when compared with similar surveys from other states.
Follow-up calls with non-respondents to discover response bias were impossible
since we did not have access to the NASS phone numbers. A comparison of the farm
characteristics of respondents with the Agricultural Census, however, indicated that our
sample was fairly representative of the state in terms of the types of commodities produced,
with 10% producing vegetables, 28% fresh fruits, 28% hay, and 35% cattle. We had slightly
higher percentages of fruit and vegetable farmers than the state averages in the Census. We
also probably had a slight overrepresentation of large farms.
A telephone survey was utilized to collect consumer data. Because of the huge expense
entailed in surveying the whole state, we elected to focus intensively on four counties
that we felt represented the state’s diversity. These were the four target counties: 1) King
County, a large urban county where Seattle is located; 2) Skagit County, a semi-rural
county in western Washington with relatively small, diversied crop and livestock farms;
3) Chelan County, a rural, eastern county characterized by mid-sized tree-fruit orchards;
and 4) Grant County, a very rural, eastern county characterized by highly industrialized,
large-scale, irrigated, row cropping systems. The population for the survey included all
telephone households located within the four counties. A random digit dialing approach
was used to obtain the sample.
A random sample of 5,200 telephone numbers was selected, with 1,300 in each target
county.8 Calling took place between October and December 2002. Interviewers asked for
the person in the household, 18 years of age or older, who was most involved with food
buying. A maximum of 12 call attempts was made to each number and 950 total respondents
(at least 230 per county) agreed to participate in the survey. The overall response rate of
23% is currently considered standard for a telephone survey.
Open-ended questions about “local” were phrased slightly differently on the farmer
and consumer surveys. Consumers were asked: “What does locally grown or produced
food mean to you?” Farmers were asked: “What would you consider to be your local
market?” A follow-up question to farmers inquired: “What changes would have to occur
in order for you to sell more of what you grow in local markets?” The responses obtained
from these open ended questions were transcribed, coded, and analyzed according to the
open and axial coding system delineated by Strauss and Corbin (1990). Data were coded in
relationship to the place where the respondent lived.
Consumers were also presented with a series of structured questions asking them to
rate the importance of various purchasing values, including “locally grown,” “grown in
Washington,” “organic,” and “helping local farmers.” Finally, they were asked to rate their
interest in purchasing particular products directly from local growers. Farmers were asked
whether they agreed or disagreed with various statements about the desirability of having
more local foods available in their county, the value of direct marketing in their county,
the importance of a “Grown in Washington” label or a “buy local” campaign, and their
opinions on various agricultural and marketing policies. They were asked what percentage
of their products were sold to consumers in their county, in adjoining counties, in the state,
in the country, and out of the country.
Pinning down the local
Similar to the multi-faceted debate surfacing around the meaning of “local” among
activists and academics, respondents provided highly varied and often unique answers to
our open-ended survey questions. Perhaps indicating fairly widespread interest in the topic
among consumers, most did elect to describe what “locally grown” meant to them, with less
than 5% declining to answer the question. Farmers, on the other hand, were more likely to
skip this open-ended question, with over one-fourth leaving a blank when asked to describe
their “local market.” This may partially reect a higher tendency to skip open-ended questions
on mail surveys in comparison with phone surveys, but it probably also reects the fact that
a large proportion of Washington farmers do not feel they have any local markets for their
products. Upon analyzing the characteristics of the farmers who skipped this question, a large
number turned out to be producers who relied exclusively on wholesale markets.
When reviewing their responses, it initially appeared that farmers and consumers had
interpreted the questions in such a multiplicity of ways that no meaningful patterns would
emerge. Among farmer and consumer samples, there were contingents that identied the
scope of “local” at scales ranging from the backyard garden to the neighborhood, town,
county, state, country, or the globe. There were others who constructed the concept of local
according to natural features such as valleys or river basins, inland waterways, the Pacic
Coast, a Northwest bioregion, or by climate zones, such as maritime or arid. Other responses
about distance were indeterminate, using phrases such as “nearby,” “close,” or “right
here.” Interestingly, while most consumers chose to dene “local” in terms of a distance or
a geographical scale, a signicant subset associated it with the characteristics of the food
such as “fresh” or “pesticide free” or simply “better.” Another group associated it with the
characteristics of the farmer or a relationship with a farmer, using adjectives such as small,
independent, trustworthy, or known. Finally, some responses emphasized the socio-economic
benets of local purchasing for communities.
Many consumers did not see the various scales of “local” as static or discrete, indicating
a uid denition of “local” that varied depending upon the products and the climate zones
where they were grown. Comments reected the very diverse nature of Washington’s
agricultural zones. For example, one person stated that “local lettuce comes from the
Skagit Valley, but local peaches would be from Washington State” or another described
“local” as “the Wenatchee Valley for apples, the Yakima Valley or a 100-mile radius for
other products.” Thus, “local” appeared to radiate outward depending on the product and
its regional availability.
On the farmers’ side, a signicant number interpreted their “local” market as the local
sale barn (livestock), processor or packer (fruits and vegetables), or grain elevator, despite
the fact that these “buyers” were actually wholesalers or brokers who would redistribute
or resell their products to wide-ranging destinations. Other farmers who sold to these same
outlets interpreted the question differently, either explaining that they did not actually have
“local” markets or describing the redistribution of their products to in-state, domestic, or
international buyers. Finally, rather than using spatial descriptors, some farmers described
COMMUNITY DEVELOPMENT: Journal of the Community Development Society
their local markets in terms of customer characteristics or typologies, such as urban or
middle-class consumers, tourists, specic types of other farmers, or “acquaintances.” Table 1
conceptualizes these primary types of responses to the open-ended questions and shows their
frequencies. Most commonly, respondents constructed “local” using geopolitical boundaries,
supplying the names of towns, counties, or states. Over a third of both consumer and farmer
respondents conceived of a scale for “local” in such geopolitical terms.
Table 1. Contrasting Ways of Conceptualizing Local
Farmers (n = 1,166) Consumers (n = 950)
Distance or Time 6.4% (75) 26.6% (253)
Geopolitical Boundary (city,
county, state, country)
38.6% (449) 35.1% (333)
Natural Feature or Climate
7.4% (86) 9.2% (87)
Type or Name of Market Outlet 13.4% (156) 1.9% (18)
Characteristics of the Product NA 13.1% (124)
Characteristics of the Farmer NA 5.3% (50)
Characteristics of the Customer 5% (58) NA
Economic benets of local
NA 1.8% (17)
Other 1.5% (17) 2.6% (25)
Skipped Question 27.8% (325) 4.5% (43)
Spatial constructions of scale
Of all the denitions that were provided for “local,” three-fourths were either explicitly
spatial or could be approximated in distance-related scales (for example, many people listed
a driving time or a geographical place name). One way to discover clearer patterns was to
examine the responses that could be related to a spatial category separately. Removing the non-
spatial types of references (i.e., those that focused on food quality or type, economic impacts,
the categories of farmers or buyers, and the non-responses) left 696 consumer responses and
634 farmer responses. This subgroup was then sorted into discrete, standardized categories of
scale, such as neighborhood, town, county, state, etc. References to environmental features,
driving times, and place names were coded based on the resident’s address, and answers were
placed in the single category with the best t. For consistency, comments citing multiple
distances were coded according to the most expansive scale indicated.
Table 2 shows the frequency with which different loose categories of distance were cited
among farmer and consumers. For consumers, the most commonly cited geographical scale
for “local” was “the county and bordering counties,” with nearly a third stating that food
grown within their county or a neighboring county was “local.” The second most frequent
denition of local was “county,” with just under 24% stating that food grown in their county
was “local.” The third most frequently named category was “Washington State,” with almost
21% of consumers saying that “locally grown” food was food grown in their state. Farmers
had somewhat similar spatial concepts of “local” as consumers, with the top three categories
named in the same order of frequency. Within the group of farmers that responded in spatial
terms, the vicinity of “county and bordering counties” was also the most commonly cited
reference point, with 32% dening such an area as their “local” market. Again, the second
most commonly cited denition was the respondent’s county, with just over 23% describing
this geographical unit as their “local market.” The third most commonly cited region was the
state, with 18% seeing this as their “local market.”
Table 2. Interpretations of Local: Cumulative Frequencies by Increasing Scale
Home or Neighborhood 1% 1% 3% 3%
City or Town 10% 11% 18% 21%
County 23% 34% 24% 45%
County or Nearby County 32% 66% 30% 75%
State 18% 84% 22% 97%
Northwest 8% 92% 2% 99%
United States 6% 98% 1% 100%
The World 2% 100% 0% 100%
Noticeable differences emerged in the way that consumers and farmers perceived
the scale of “local.” Consumers were far more like to identify “local” as their backyard,
neighborhood, community, or town, than were farmers. Perhaps this is because farmers tend
to live in more sparsely populated areas outside of towns and neighborhoods. However, it
might also be that farmers were inclined to take a more expansive view of their “local”
market than consumers. For example, farmers were more likely to cite the entire Northwest
as their geographical reference point and a signicant number (41 or 6%) named the United
States as their “local” market. Moreover, eleven farmers stated that they considered the
“world” to be their local market. In contrast, only six consumers (1%) said that their idea
of “locally grown” encompassed the entire country, and none felt that it extended outside
of the U.S. borders.
Much of the discrepancy between consumer and farmer scales for “local” probably
reects the way the questions were asked. When farmers were asked to describe what they
would consider their “local market,” rather than indicating that they did not have “local
markets” or skipping the question, many farmers did their best to follow instructions and
simply answered the question by describing their existing markets. In Washington, most
farmers rely primarily on wholesale markets. For the top four crops in the state (wheat,
apples, dairy, and beef) local marketing options are virtually non-existent or very limited.
A close review of the responses shows that nearly all of the farmers listing the United
States as their “local market” were apple growers who market through packing houses
for national and international distribution; producers of vegetables and fruits grown under
contracts for large-scale processors, such as Simplot; and cattle producers. Those who
listed international markets as “local” primarily raised wheat for export to the Pacic
Rim. Another way to interpret the responses that identied U.S. markets as “local” is to
realize that for these growers, “local” is relative. Among wheat and lentil producers for
whom nearly all crops are exported, by comparison, anything used domestically could be
considered “local.” For example, when asked to describe “your local market,” one wheat
and legume farmer wrote:
Anything that is for domestic consumption, i.e., Krusteaz uses soft white wheat,
Centennial mills at Cheney will use Zak wheat. The Spokane Seed Company sells our
split green peas to packagers, including Campbell’s soup.
Thus, while at rst it may appear contradictory that so many farmers listed national and
international markets as “local,” describing their markets in such expansive terms makes
sense in the context of the crops they raise and the way the question was worded.
Overall, there appeared to be some areas of relative agreement when comparing
and contrasting different perspectives on the scale of “local.” Examining the cumulative
COMMUNITY DEVELOPMENT: Journal of the Community Development Society
frequencies of spatial references in progressively broader, nested levels of scale, as shown
in Table 2, reveals some discernable patterns. The majority of both farmers and consumers
see the limits of “local” as a neighboring county or nearer. While even more consumers than
farmers drew this boundary, these perceptions did not vary signicantly by the respondent’s
area of the state, proximity to the major urban markets, or by agricultural zone. By the state
level, virtually all the consumers (97%) and the vast majority of the farmers (84%) have
reached the outer limits to their concept of “local.”
These results from our Washington Survey were similar to a random sample telephone
survey of 500 citizens in the Northeast in which 16% dened local as an area smaller than
a county, 22% as the county, 16% as an adjacent county, and 31% as the state. The majority
(54%) felt that local implied an adjoining county or closer, and more than 85% felt that
local implied their state or closer (Wilkins et al., 1996). While this survey is not directly
comparable to ours since it was done in 1996, used different methods (i.e., the answer
categories were provided rather than being open-ended and the percentages include the
“other” category), and spanned multiple states, it does suggest some common conclusions.
Just as in Washington, most of the people surveyed saw the limits of local as their county or
a nearby county and very few people had a concept of local that extended beyond their state.
In our Washington survey, the only signicant group that dened “local” more broadly than
the state borders were the farmers who raised crops such as apples and wheat for national
and international export markets.
Qualitative and relational attributes of “local”
Analyzing the second subset of survey responses (those that did not contain explicit
spatial or geographical markers) revealed that “local” was frequently framed in qualitative
or relational terms. On the consumer surveys, over half of the comments without a spatial
reference, instead, made an association with freshness or the superior quality of the food,
using comparatives like: fresher, tastier, purer, healthier, and better. For example, one
person wrote, “It would taste better because it is fresher, and it was picked when it was
supposed to be” or “products are fresher because they are picked the day of purchase.”
Others observed that locally grown means “fresher, higher nutritional value, quality
is better” and “it has fuller avor and texture.” A content analysis of all the consumer
responses to the open-ended question taken together conrmed the strength of this free
association of “freshness” with “local.” The word “fresh” or one of its derivations showed
up 228 times or on one-fourth of the total responses to the open-ended question. Concepts
of freshness and quality were closely intertwined with other positive product attributes
such as “pesticide or antibiotic free” and “natural.”
A second, related theme running through many of the comments was an association of
“local” with supporting or having a relationship with a specic, idealized type of farmer.
This farmer was described alternately as: small, pesticide-free, kind towards animals,
hard-working, trustworthy, honest, or independent. The following quotes illustrate this
association of “locally grown” with particular types of farmers:
Locally grown food means foods that are produced close to home with little to no
chemicals, primarily by small producers, which perhaps means more humane
conditions toward meat and poultry than some of the larger places.
It is extremely important that the community supports eating food that is grown in the
area. It’s healthier and supports smaller farmers instead of agribusinesses.
It was very important that a “local” farmer would be a real person whom you would know
and trust and have a personal connection with, someone whom you could see and talk to
face-to-face. It was repeatedly stated that “locally grown” meant “food grown here from
somebody” or food “grown in the area by farmers.” Many people emphasized that they
liked the idea of buying the food directly from the person who had grown it because “you
would know what you’re getting.”
The farmer knows exactly what has been planted, what has been put on the plants, what’s
been put on the land, selling fresh and organic products, and the farmers are involved.
I would know the farmers and they would know me and I would trust them. They
would be honest and wouldn’t try to sell me inferior products.
Thus, knowing how the food was grown and who grew it were very important to many
people, and they associated having access to this knowledge as a benet of “locally grown”
food. They also liked the idea that they, personally, were helping a farmer to succeed with
their purchasing choices, making statements like, “It means we are supporting the farmer,
and he can stay on his farm,” or “It makes me feel good to buy from a local vendor.”
Sentiments about supporting the farmers were tied up with a strong interest in
supporting their community’s economy in general. Statements such as, “If I buy it, I’m
contributing to the local economy,” were common. Another explained that buying locally
grown food “keeps people in our area working—there’s not a whole lot around here.”
Some respondents said that they bought as much locally as they could based on principle,
whether food or other items, “to help the local person instead of going to the big company”
or to “keep the money in our area.” Some responses combined these various associations,
but in virtually every case, the qualitative associations with “locally grown” were either
positive attributes of the food, the farmers, or the economic impacts. While such statements
were not spatial in a measurable way, they were spatial in that they described a particular
scale for buying and selling food that would allow for personal, face-to-face relationships
among farmers and consumers and a short time between harvest and sale.
On the farmer surveys, because of the phrasing of the question, as discussed previously,
there were obvious reasons for not supplying a spatial denition of a “local market.” Many
producers did not feel they had a local market outlet for the kinds of crops they raised. Two of
Washington’s most commonly produced crops, apples and wheat, are primarily produced for
export markets and almost exclusively sold through wholesalers. Beef, another top commodity
in the state, faces substantial regulatory and infrastructural barriers to local and direct sales.
Another large contingent of growers raises potatoes on contract for buyers like Simplot who
in turn supply McDonalds and Wendy’s chains. Thus, when asked what they would consider
their “local market,” many of these producers were understandably at a loss for an answer
because they did not know who the end users of their products would be. They either explained
that they had no local market, i.e., “We do not sell to local markets; we sell to packers that
sell all over the United States and outside countries,” or they detailed the characteristics of
their sales venues. Of the respondents who did not provide a distance-related descriptor for
their “local market,” over three-fourths, instead, named a local wholesaler, packinghouse, or
auction barn. Many of these respondents supplied the only information they knew about their
product sales, i.e., “The packing shed handles the sales” or “In our co-op, I don’t have a say
in the sales--our marketing ofce sells for the best price no matter where that might be.” A
number of farmers who used wholesale markets did attempt to describe the location of the
end-users of their products, making statements like “we have two market areas: foreign and
domestic.” It seems likely that farmers did not actually consider these to be “local markets,”
but they were just trying to gure out an acceptable way to answer the question.
A second group, mostly direct marketers, elected to detail the characteristics of their
customers rather than the locations of their customers. Thus, customers were described
variously as middle-income, well-heeled, health-conscious, urban, tourists, friends, or
acquaintances. “My local market,” wrote one farmer, consists of “upper-end consumers
of organic or homegrown meat who are accustomed to shopping at specialty food stores.”
Another signicant portion of this subset appeared to sell feed or livestock to other farmers,
COMMUNITY DEVELOPMENT: Journal of the Community Development Society
describing their “local markets” as cattle ranchers, hog producers, dairies, horse farms, etc.
Of the whole farmer sample, only six respondents said outright that they did not know what
it was or could not dene their “local market,” but such uncertainty was likely the cause
of the huge number of skips on this question among farmers and the tendency to refer to
wholesale buyers as a “local market.”
Ranking “local” among other consumer values and interests
In a later section of the telephone survey, consumers were presented with structured
questions about the importance of various food purchasing criteria. In keeping with
several other surveys from around the country (Hartman, 2001; North Central Initiative,
2001; Leopold Center, 2004), we found that consumers were, above all else, concerned
with the freshness, taste, and nutritional quality of their food (see Figure 1). The next most
important value was “convenience.” “Organic” appeared to be a relatively unimportant
value. These top values varied little by household income category, except that “price”
became increasingly important as income levels went down (Ostrom & Jussaume, 2006).
While the open-ended survey comments about “locally grown” were almost uniformly
positive, Figure 1 shows that, as a stand-alone concept, the importance of “locally grown”
was ranked very low in comparison with other purchasing priorities. Interestingly, when
the question was rephrased such that “local” was linked with “helping local farmers,”
its relative importance climbed dramatically from just under 34 percent of consumers
ranking it as “very important” to over 70%. Similarly, having food that was grown in
Washington, in and of itself, was “very important” to only 41% of consumers. However,
again, if the question was phrased in a different way, such that it was linked with helping
farmers the response changed. A separate question in the survey asked consumers whether
they felt that having a “grown in Washington label” would help Washington farmers and
94% strongly agreed.
Again, when consumers were asked specically about their interest in purchasing more
fruits and vegetables directly from local farmers, interest was extremely high, with over
80% responding afrmatively. Looking back at the open-ended survey question asking
people to dene what “locally grown” meant to them, many consumers had equated “local”
with a particular idealized type of farmer or their relationship to a farmer, making such
associations as small, independent, pesticide-free, or trustworthy. Summarizing this data
as a whole, the concept of “locally grown” as a stand-alone value is not nearly so strong
Figure 1. Percent Consumers Rating “Very Important”
Helps Local Farms
Grown in Washington
0% 20% 40% 60% 80% 100%
as the connotations or associations that come along with it. Consumers appear to be most
interested in the concept of “local” when it is associated with desirable attributes of food
quality, such as freshness, taste, nutrition, or safety (i.e., pesticide free) or associated with
a local farmer. In turn, the concept of “local farmer” is constructed in very specic ways.
Recent market research carried out by Iowa State University in the Midwest and key cities
across the country shows similar results (Leopold Center, 2003, 2004). These researchers
also concluded that conceptions of local foods were intrinsically tied up with perceptions
about freshness, quality, and the ideal of the “family farm.” They found that a label of
“locally grown,” when it was linked with “freshness” and “family farm” had more market
appeal than all other product labels tested, including “organic.”
Importance of local markets for Washington farmers
One survey question asked farmers to state the percentage of their crops sold to end
consumers in their county or a neighboring county. Over half of all the respondents reported
that they sold at least some of their crops to end consumers in their counties. Around 16%
of the farmer sample said that they sold all of what they produce to in-county consumers.
These numbers were probably inated by farmers who sold livestock and feed directly
to neighboring farmers. It is also likely that a certain number of farmers considered the
local auction or packing plant to be an “end consumer” of their products. When asked
specically about their future plans to increase their use of direct marketing (in this case
dened specically as the “face-to-face” sales methods of farmers markets, roadside stands,
Community Supported Agriculture, and “U-pick”) over a quarter of all farmers and over
half of vegetable farmers said they wanted to increase their use of these methods.
From the farmer’s perspective, there are clearly signicant obstacles to increasing
local sales. A second open-ended question asked farmers what changes would need to occur
before they could sell more foods locally. While these answers varied highly by the type
of farm, most immediately obvious were statements about the regulatory and processing
barriers to meat and value-added product sales, the limitations imposed by marketing
contracts, and the oversupply of certain crops (especially apples) in relation to local market
demand. Apple growers commented that “everyone would have to eat 15 more pounds of
apples each year” or “reduce imports of competing fresh fruits” in order to create a local
market for apples. In extremely rural areas, farmers made comments like, “We live in a
sparsely populated county—what we can sell locally is limited,” or “We would have to
go beyond our county to reach people with money.” One farmer in a sparsely populated,
highly productive, agricultural county put it this way:
Well, for starters, the locals would have to buy 7 million pounds of onions, 1 million
pounds of peas, and 5.7 million pounds of sweet corn … We are growing enough food
for the nation and the world.
Another recurring sub-theme was the lack of inspected local processing facilities for meats,
the lack of local milling and transportation options for specialty grain products, and the
regulatory obstacles to creating and selling new kinds of value-added products on farms.
Farmers, as a whole, favored policies that encourage direct and local market development
over international market development. For example, while approximately 77% of all
farmers think that a “grown in Washington” labeling program would benet Washington
farmers, under a quarter believed that free trade agreements would help them. A majority
of farmers believed that consumers in their counties should have access to more locally
grown foods and that direct marketing could help keep farms viable in their counties. When
asked for an opinion about the value of a “buy local” campaign, more than half agreed
that this could increase the consumption of locally produced agricultural products. On all
of the questions about local and direct marketing, however, there was a clear association
COMMUNITY DEVELOPMENT: Journal of the Community Development Society
between the type of crop grown on the farm and the farmer’s support for these concepts. On
practically every question, wheat growers (comprising most of the farmers in some eastern
counties of the state) were far less likely to see the value of local or direct marketing or the
importance of having more locally grown foods available. This belief is clearly related to
the fact that, in these counties, virtually all crops are undifferentiated commodities grown
for export markets. At present, it would be extremely rare for Washington wheat to be
eaten by anyone in Washington State. Therefore, the idea of “local foods” carries very little
relevance for this subset of producers at this time.
DISCUSSION AND IMPLICATIONS
While there were certainly many complex variations in the way the concept of “local”
was constructed and interpreted by Washington residents, these survey results suggest
that there may be more consensus about the relevance and meaning of this term than rst
suspected. Above all, our ndings conrmed that most residents have positive associations
and a strong common interest in the idea of local foods. Consistent with ndings from
studies of “communities,” the various ways respondents constructed and delineated “local”
were uid and included physical, relational, and qualitative elements. Spatial perceptions
of “local” among both farmers and consumers favored a fairly close distance of one’s home
county or neighboring counties, although consumer constructions of scale sometimes
varied to incorporate the climatic zones within the state needed to obtain a variety of
foods. Denitions of “local” generally stopped at the state borders, except for producers of
particular commodities grown for national and international markets. Even farmers located
far from the major urban markets were still inclined to describe “local” as their county or
an adjacent county. Some farmers were clearly stymied in their efforts to conceive of local
markets by the nature of the commodities they produced and the insufcient demand or
infrastructure to market their products close to where they lived.
Consumer constructions of “local foods” were closely intertwined with positive
perceptions about product freshness and quality and idealized images of “local” farmers.
Purchasing local foods was seen as contributing to the success of desirable types of
agriculture and a way of helping the community economy. These positive associations with
“local” explain why marketing specialists from the grassroots to corporations have been so
eager to capitalize on this term.
Clearly, at this point “local” is a message that works. These results would seem to argue
for less paralyzing deliberation about whether “local” means: “within sight,” 3 miles, 10 miles,
100 miles, or even within a state; and a greater pragmatic focus on overcoming the practical
infrastructural and regulatory obstacles to local food system development. Conceiving of “local”
using geopolitical boundaries such as counties or a state provides a denable space in which the
environmental and social parameters of food systems can be assessed and democratic interests
can be negotiated as illustrated by the effectiveness of county and state-level food policy
councils (Hassanein, 2003). While the meaning of the term will certainly remain contested
and a topic of healthy debate among scholars and activists, it already appears to hold some
degree of shared meaning for the general public. It is important to consider whose interests
are served by maintaining that the concept of “local food” is devoid of meaning or by dening
“local” so narrowly that we have excluded most of the productive agricultural capacity of our
rural areas. In so doing, we miss the opportunity to substantially change diets, energize and
educate consumers, and effect the policy changes needed to engage the largest possible number
of farmers in supplying regional dietary needs.
While more research is needed on the effectiveness of “buy local” campaigns, farm
directories, and place-based labeling strategies, the evidence from our surveys suggests
that most farmers and consumers will not nd a failure to dene “local” as an obstacle
to participation. Instead, what seems to be needed is more transparent communication
and interaction between farmers and consumers so that consumers can make informed
purchasing decisions in the marketplace in keeping with their stated values. Consumers
seem eager to know more about the actual farmers that grow their food, the growing
practices they use, and the unique characteristics of the food. This desire is undoubtedly
difcult at a scale as big as the state of Washington, especially since consumers place
such a high value on convenience. In markets where face-to-face interaction is impractical,
the Hartman (2001) researchers emphasize the importance of communicating with clear
identiers that describe the farmers, their unique growing practices and ecosystem, and
their location. Communicating detailed information about the unique attributes of a
particular farm and the food it produces provides an important way of connecting and
building common ground among farmers and consumer interests and insuring that the
term “local” cannot be appropriated by transnational corporations. Finally, it is through
building common ground among consumers and farmers based on their identication with
a “locality” and their common interests that the social capital needed to address the very
real, practical barriers to local food distribution can be addressed.
1 For examples see: Devine, 2004; Halweil, 2003; Flint, 2004; Mapes, 2004; Pierce, 2005; Raloff, 2003.
2 For Websites featuring local food buying campaigns, see: www.foodroutes.org; http://www.buylocalfood.
com/about.html; www.eatlocal.net; http://www.ecotrust.org/foodfarms/; http://www.organicconsumers.org/
btc.html; http://www.newfarm.org/features/0803/localfoodchall.shtml; and http://groups.yahoo.com/group/
LocalFoodCafe Numerous other community Websites focus on local foods, many of them part of the “Buy Fresh,
Buy Local” campaign started by the FoodRoutes Network (Website above).
3 The most extensive national farm locator Website currently is: http://www.localharvest.org/farms/M9006,
however, countless numbers of regional groups throughout the country maintain their own databases and printed
farm directories, guides, and maps, some of them established a decade or more ago.
4 See: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/LocalFoodCafe/ (downloaded on May 24, 2005).
5 For the full text of this policy, see: www.woodburyiowa.com/departments/economicdevelopment
6 The 2002 producer and consumer surveys were administered by M. Ostrom, R. Jussaume, and L. Jarosz with
funding from the W. K. Kellogg Foundation, the WA Farming and the Environment Project, and the USDA-NRI.
7 The farmer survey had 46 refusals, and 1,047 ineligibles and returns. Ineligibles were dened as households
that sold less than $1,000 in commodities in 2001, as well as those farm households that had moved, passed away,
retired from farming, or received multiple surveys because they owned more than one agricultural property.
8 Of these 5,200 telephone numbers, 1,043 were determined to be business and/or non-working numbers
and were removed from the sample. This made the corrected sample 4,157.
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