A Short Trip to the Table

By Jonathan Mummolo
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 5, 2008

The Piedmont Environmental Council has long fought to preserve Loudoun County's remaining rural landscapes by lobbying against development projects and backing political candidates who favor restrictions on growth.

Now the group is taking on a new cause in Loudoun, urging residents to buy food produced by its farmers and boost the bottom line of the area's "original conservationists."

The council is promoting a series of events this month that will showcase those food offerings in Loudoun and other Virginia Piedmont counties. By midsummer, it plans to mail a printed guide to every Loudoun resident showing where to buy local food products, an initiative the county helped fund with a $5,000 contribution.

The "Buy Fresh, Buy Local" campaign is similar to efforts the council started in the Charlottesville area last year and in five Piedmont counties last month.

The Loudoun campaign will kick off Sunday with an event at American Flatbread in Ashburn -- a pizzeria using locally grown products -- that will include cooking demonstrations, a moon bounce, crafts, farm animals, hayrides and raffle prizes. The event was organized by the Piedmont Environmental Council and the Campaign for Loudoun's Future, another slow-growth group.

"Farmers are the original conservationists in the sense that they want to protect the land and keep it in production for agricultural purposes," said council spokesman Bob Lazaro. "Wherever we can help farmers find markets for their food and produce, it goes a long way for keeping that property as a farm and not having it sold off for residential development."

In addition to preserving land, buying food grown close to home supports the local economy, provides fresher products that are often free of pesticides and helps the environment by reducing the emissions associated with long-distance trucking of goods, Lazaro said.

The buy-local movement has garnered media attention in several parts of the country in recent years, aided by food scares such as the 2006 spinach-borne E. coli outbreak. Such incidents have prompted some consumers to avoid supermarkets and buy from people they live near or, in many cases, know personally, said Warren Howell, agricultural development officer with Loudoun's Department of Economic Development.

Howell's office calculated that gross sales for direct marketers in Loudoun -- those who sell food directly to the public or to restaurants or at farmers markets -- totaled $1.2 million in 2001. The comparable figure for 2007 was more than $6 million, he said.

"People, it turns out, have much more trust in someone that they know or someone who comes from their local neighborhood who lives just a few miles away," he said. "People know that if you buy something from California or Florida that it has to be shipped here and it's going to take two or three or four days. . . . Here, if you can pick a tomato this morning and sell it this afternoon at a farmers market, that's a real fresh tomato."

Those tomatoes might cost an average of 50 cents a pound more than the ones sold at the supermarket, Howell said -- the downside of locally grown food. Supermarket chains can afford to offer lower prices for mass-produced staples such as tomatoes, making up the difference with revenue from sales of the wide array of food items that are not produced locally, he said.

Howell said, however, that some indigenous foods in Virginia such as peppers, cucumbers and squashes are sometimes cheaper to buy locally than in a large store. He added that with the high cost of diesel fuel raising shipping costs for large chains, price gaps are narrowing in some cases.

Other events in the campaign include a display of local wines, flowers and food items on Main Street in Warrenton tomorrow night. On Tuesday, dinner guests at the Toliver House Restaurant in Gordonsville, Va., will have a chance to meet the farmers and viticulturists who supplied the food and wine on the menu.

For Elaine Boland, who operates a livestock farm in Purcellville specializing in lamb, the local food movement has been a boon. She sells meat at farmers markets and restaurants, including Tuscarora Mill in Leesburg, and said her business is thriving.

That's because mass-produced meat pales in comparison to the quality of locally raised meat, she said.

"Once you eat fresh-butchered meat, knowing how it's raised and the pastures we're fortunate to have in Virginia, it's hard to go back to the grocery store," Boland said. "On Tuesday, we pull it off pasture, I drive it up to our butcher, and on Thursday or the following week -- depending on how long I hang it -- you're getting it fresh."

On Sunday, Boland will join other growers at American Flatbread, where her lambs will be on hand for petting and for eating, with a barbecue grill churning out lamb sausage sandwiches, she said.

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