Why Eat Local?

Ask Fran Wolff.

Fran Wolff on a visit to Ben Stoltzfus’s farm in Cochranville, PA

As the 4th generation owner of Wolff’s Apple House and someone who grew up in a farming family, Fran is uniquely positioned to talk about this issue in a straightforward, common-sense way.  I recently sat down with him to get his take on this question, “Why Eat Local,” and here’s what I learned.

The History of Fresh Produce

Typical August harvest in the Mid-Atlantic region.

From ancient times until about 1850, not much changed in the way that people consumed fresh produce.  They ate what they were able to grow, or what they could trade with friends and neighbors.  Canning and drying were the only ways to “extend the season.”  But starting in 1850, this simple reality that had remained virtually unchanged for millennia underwent massive changes.  It was because of four major innovations:

1) Trains
2) Refrigeration
3) Tractors
4) Trucks

Right around the same time that intercontinental trains were getting faster, refrigeration was becoming a real viable technology.  Starting in the early 1900’s, it became possible to send fresh produce by train from California to our region.  For the first time, people could enjoy “out of season” crops.

Farming with tractors really took off in the mid-20th century.  Now one family, instead of farming just 2-4 acres, could conceivably farm 2,000 to 4,000 acres!  That’s a huge change!  These three technologies together paved the way for our modern “agribusiness” model: growing large amounts of food in designated agricultural areas, and shipping that food to faraway places.

In modern times, huge trucks dot the landscape, bringing food from Florida or California (or other countries!) to states hundreds or thousands of miles away.  This is how we eat now.  The average person in an industrialized nation has 365-day access to crops from around the world.  Buying grapes and peaches in the winter?  They’re from South America.  Apples in the spring?  From New Zealand.  Lettuce and Strawberries… whenever you want them?  From California, of course.

California’s Conveyor Belt

Fran showed me this graphic of California’s Central Valley.  He said it is like a 12-month conveyor belt system for fresh produce.  In the way that our Mid-Atlantic growing season is essentially May through September, these three separate valleys have their own growing seasons– and they offfset each other.  For instance, Salinas Valley experiences perfect farming weather in the winter months.  But when it starts getting too warm there in April, the same produce can be grown in San Joaquin Valley and then Sacramento Valley.  And technology has made it possible for all of this fresh produce to make its way to us, no matter what the season.

So technology and innovation have made it possible in the year 2018 to eat NO locally grown produce whatsoever!  NONE!!  But just because it’s possible to eat that way… does it mean that we should?  No, of course not!  And there are lots of reasons why.

Reason 1: It’s better for our planet!

Do you know what it takes for California to be so productive?  Intense irrigation.  Farms must pull water from the Colorado River, Sacramento River, San Joaquin River, and Salinas River to irrigate otherwise desert-like conditions.  This makes what is already a dry and water-challenged region even drier.  As more water is taken from the rivers, it lowers the water table, making the soil saltier– which means you need to use even more water when you irrigate!  Fran told me that 8 out of 10 of the worst forest fires in recorded history out west have happened since 2000.  Our nationwide demand for out-of-season produce has helped to turn California into a tinderbox.  So while it is truly amazing that in modern times we have access to this year-round food, it definitely comes at a cost.  And as Fran told me: the meter’s running, and time will run out.

Don’t get me wrong, Fran is definitely no activist.  “I’m not saying don’t ever eat non local produce,” he says.  “I’m not a militant.  But it’s in all of our best interest to use as much local stuff as we can.  We need more local farming in an area that actually has rain and a local growing season.”

Eating local also reduces our carbon footprint!

Check out this graph that explains how long our favorite crops can travel to get to us—and this is “in season” stuff we’re talking about!  The yellow line is how far things travel to get to your average big grocery store.  The green line is how far they have to travel to get to Wolff’s!  WOW!

Why such a big difference?

For the most part, large scale grocery stores are actually not able to bring in the variety and quality of local produce that small markets like Wolff’s can.  They operate on such a large scale that they require big deliveries from a limited number of sources.  Whereas on any given day at Wolff’s, you can find Jamie Wolff (our produce manager) talking to different farms and lining up daily deliveries of all our in-season produce!

Reason 2: It’s better for our community!
Think of the money you spend on food as an investment.  When you buy locally grown, what are you investing in?

FAMILY.  Wholesale prices can be artificially low.  Local farmers, who are closer to their buyers, can often get better prices for their crops, which helps farming families stay on the land.

CONSERVATION.  When farmers get paid more, they’re less likely to sell their land to developers.  This preserves land for open space and agricultural use.  And well managed farms do a good job of conserving fertile soil and clean water.  Small scale, local farms also preserve genetic diversity of crops: they can grow crops for great taste or interesting variety, not just crops that ripen uniformly and travel well!

LOCAL ECONOMY.  Did you know?  According to several studies, farms contribute more in taxes than they require in services.  Most other kinds of development contribute less in taxes than the cost of services they require.  It benefits the economic health of our community to have more farms around!

The next time you are shopping for produce, think of your dollar as your “vote.”  It’s best for everybody if you vote for “locally grown” as much as you can!

Reason 3: It’s better for YOU!

Fresh fruits and veggies experience “nutrition attrition” after picking.  According to a University of CA study, green vegetables lose 30% of their nutrients after three days.  Some varieties of spinach lose up to 90% after 24 hours!  The closer to harvest date, the more nutrients remain in your fresh food.  By eating locally, you really maximize the benefits of a healthy diet!

Eating locally grown is safer!  When you know the source of your food, there is less anonymity and more accountability.  Remember the Romaine E. Coli scare a couple months back?  It took the CDC three weeks to pinpoint the source of the affected lettuce.  Whereas if you point to a head of hydroponic lettuce at Wolff’s, we can tell you without a doubt that it was grown by Tim Gehman in Telford, PA.

Reason 4: It’s better for your TASTE BUDS!
Locally grown produce just tastes better.  Let’s look at three major crops of the summer season: Corn, Peaches, and Tomatoes.

Sweet corn starts losing sweetness the moment it is picked.  Within days of harvest, most of the sugars have turned into starch!  But the corn on the cob you find for sale at Wolff’s was still on its stalk at 4 am that morning.  That’s the way to eat fresh corn!


Peaches and Tomatoes taste sooooo much better when they’re locally grown.  Is it magic soil?  Perfect climate?  Nope!  They are picked ripe.  That makes all the difference.  Tomatoes that are picked green, travel for hundreds of miles, and ripen with the aid of ethylene gas, will NEVER taste like a vine-ripened tomato.


High Tunnel Technology: a Win-Win!

There is one exciting technology Fran and I talked about that has no drawbacks and all benefits: “high tunnel” growing.

The first of many ripe tomatoes in Enos Stoltzfus’s high tunnels, early in the growing season in Lincoln University, PA.

High tunnels use “passive solar” energy– the sun shines through the plastic, creating a greenhouse effect and warming the soil without the use of any heaters!  Best of all, water can be strictly controlled (no tomatoes splitting from too much rain!) and pests are much easier to deal with.  As a result, high tunnel tomatoes are often some of the best of the season!

Before the use of high tunnels, our region didn’t see locally grown tomatoes until July.  Now we can have awesome locally grown, ripe-picked tomatoes in May!  With this technology, we’re exploring ways to “extend the season” right in our own area.  Good news all around for local growing!

So the moral of the story? Eat locally grown whenever you can! Whether you get your produce direct from a farm or farmer, at weekly farmer’s markets, at Wolff’s (which we like to think of as a daily farmer’s market!), or what is arguably the best way of all…

Shane and Grace Wolff enjoying the (very) local harvest of their backyard garden!