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Try as he might to buy Alabama-grown potatoes, Tony Glover always ended up sticking with Dakota- and Minnesota-grown spuds instead.
That experience, gained while he was running his own produce business, turned out to be an enduring lesson in economics.
Conditions in the upper Midwest enabled growers to produce potatoes at three times the yields and, in spite of transportation costs, considerably more cheaply than Alabama growers.
"Back then, it cost about $3 to $4 to buy a 50-pound bag of potatoes from the Dakotas or Minnesota, while it cost about $8 to $10 to buy a comparable amount of Alabama-grown potatoes," says Glover, now an Alabama Cooperative Extension System horticulture agent who works extensively with home gardeners as well as some aspiring growers who want to sell their produce.
"Even with the added transportation costs, the upper Midwestern potatoes always won out, and I would buy those for as long as supplies were available because I had to compete with other retailers."
Long ago, economist invented a term for this phenomenon: comparative advantage, namely one's ability to produce products more efficiently and cheaply than one's competitors.
More than any other factor, comparative advantage accounts for why locavorism, as the locally grown movement is now popularly known, has run up against a brick wall, particularly in the South.
Like everyone else associated with locally grown produce, Glover and his Extension colleagues are stuck in a dilemma, popularly described as the locavore's dilemma. While seeing plenty of reason to celebrate the growing regional — and national — passion for locally grown produce, they feel compelled to stress the hard realities that accompany it.
Glover's colleague, Kerry Smith, a self-described Food Channel junkie, is invariably reminded of these hard realities whenever one of the channel's chefs goes off about how wasteful it is for New Yorkers to buy from California when so much produce is available locally.
"That just implies a shallow knowledge of considerably a bigger and more complicated picture," says Smith, who serves as coordinator of Alabama Extension's Home Grounds, Gardens and Home Pests team.
"There's simply no way I could raise enough wheat in my backyard to put bread on my family's table — much less for other consumers," Smith says. "For that matter, I couldn't grow sweet corn in my backyard for even close to the price available at a local grocery store."
Invariably, the issue always returns to that inconvenient truth: comparative advantage.
"We don't want to devalue the benefits of locally grown, which are many," Smith says, "but I'm going to continue buying Florida and California-grown oranges at the grocery store because, frankly, who wants scurvy?"
Smith can marshal many arguments in favor of locavorism — and often does — but virtually all of them invariably are rooted in quality of life issues rather than economic efficiency.
She says local production, whether expressed as farmer's markets or community-supported gardens, is benefitting growing numbers of people, though in comparatively intangible ways.
"All of this really boils down to qualitative issues," Smith says. "Home gardens are bringing families together, and it's giving adults and younger people alike a better understanding of how food is produced."
Smith has also discerned a community-building factor at work too.
"Really, the biggest bonus that has come out of community gardens and markets is that word — community," Smith says. "They bring people together and create relationships that otherwise wouldn't have occurred."
Through her own experiences working with home gardeners and assisting community gardening projects, she has also seen how gardening mitigates what she considers to be another effect of contemporary life: self-centeredness.
"Life has become so rushed, so hurried, which has led to so many of us into becoming introspective, focused on ourselves," Smith says, adding that local markets have a way of forcing people "to see a larger community beyond themselves."
To be sure, there is some economic merit to locally grown food production, even in the more comparatively disadvantaged South: To a limited degree, local markets are providing growers and consumers alike with some economic benefit.
Danielle Alexander, an Extension Home Grounds, Gardens and Home Pests outreach administrator, confesses occasional amazement at how well some Alabama-grown produce, especially cantaloupes, tomatoes and peppers, competes with retail products.
"The lettuce you encounter at a farmer's markets isn't necessarily going to look like the greenhouse-grown lettuce see at the grocery store, but despite its blemishes, it's still going to be competitive in terms of price," says Alexander, who stresses that some locally grown specialty crops, such as pumpkins and herbs, remain at a distinct disadvantage.
Locally grown produce also has one other distinct advantage, she says — its novelty.
"In one respect, fresh-grown produce is a lot like designer clothes — people are buying it because it's trendy," Alexander says.
"I'm glad it's trendy because this will work to allow consumers a better idea of where food comes from and serve growers in the process."
Moreover, the South's current disadvantage vis-a-vis California and other western states may not last indefinitely.
Up to now, California and other states in the comparatively arid West have enjoyed distinct advantages over the humid South, where fruits and vegetables are more prone to disease outbreaks, says Glover.
Sooner or later, though, the West's looming water shortages may alter that dynamic.
"When that happens, much of the momentum will shift from the West to the East, to states like Alabama, where water is more readily available," Glover says.
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