Drop big retailers, buy local instead

Buying local is an important part of supporting local businesses as well as being an ethical consumer



Purchasing food locally is one of the many ways consumers can support the local economy, as well as purchase better food for themselves. Whenever possible shoppers should purchase items from nearby businesses rather than rely on large companies.

JACOB HERSH, Evergreen columnist

Bananas from Guatemala, avocados from Mexico and strawberries from California are linked in a supply chain that reaches around the world. Suppliers and distributors work to make sure that the average US consumer has access to fresh goods year-round, regardless of location.

Now consider food that has been grown, often less than 50 miles from your home. The person selling it to you might be your neighbor, or the lady next to you at the gym, or even your mailman, running a side gig to make a little extra cash. That’s the heart and soul of the “buy-local” movement, a lifestyle that’s rapidly increasing in popularity throughout the country.

We often see this exemplified in farmer’s markets and farm-to-table restaurants, but there are many more ways to buy locally.

“Food is a big element of the buy local movement,” said Jason Winfree, a University of Idaho agricultural economics professor, in an email. “Many consumers seem to like the idea of eating food from a small, local farm.”

Similarly, many consumers seem to enjoy the small-town, individualized atmosphere that comes as a result of buying locally.

“We really consider our vendors to be your neighbors,” said Amanda Argona, the market manager of the Pullman farmer’s market.

Community involvement is one of the key benefits of buying locally, and it has tangible effects on the general public.

“More demand for local goods and more local production can translate into a more economically vibrant community,” Winfree said. “This can translate into a wide variety of things like farmer’s markets or lower local unemployment.”

Buying locally stimulates the communal economy, and it brings people closer together, both figuratively and literally. Pullman’s yearly Lentil Festival is a perfect example.

“The community gets a benefit that’s above people buying tomatoes and peppers,” said Philip Watson, a University of Idaho agricultural economics professor. “They get community engagement and social capital, and that creates interactions and trust and relationships between people in the community.”

On the producer side, buying locally allows creators and growers the opportunity to start a small-town business, giving them room to experiment and grow, adapting to meet the demands of the market.

“There’s a lot of folks that come to sell at the market with some very niche products: pastured pork, micro-greens,” Argona said. “A lot of times, family projects can create the pathway to becoming a vendor at the farmer’s market.”

Given Pullman’s location, in the heart of American agriculture, it would make sense that people are more connected and supportive of their farmers.

“I think the whole buy-local movement in this area is more of a value,” Argona said. “If you know your neighbors at the farmer’s market, you know how they’re producing their product, so you might be more likely to come out and support them in that arena.”

That said, there are drawbacks to buying locally, but only insofar as producers lower their efficiency to produce more goods that might not be region-specific. For example, farmers don’t try to grow peaches to sell at the Pullman market simply because they don’t grow well in Washington.

“My concern with the ‘buy-local’ movement is that if consumers in all regions are buying local, then regions are no longer producing what they have a comparative advantage in,” Winfree said. “We’re all better off if regions produce what they’re good at and then trade with other regions. If everyone starts buying locally, then the benefits disappear and we’re just producing things inefficiently.”

In that sense, producers must weigh their opportunity costs versus the demands of the market and produce the most efficient good for the highest possible market price. Consumers can obviously pick up the production slack by purchasing goods produced out of state; that’s just sound business, and no one expects Pullman to be producing oranges in winter. With that in mind, the buy-local movement is still one to support. Community involvement, increased local revenue and small businesses getting a foothold in the market are all significant positives that consumers ought to keep in mind when shopping for goods.

Too often, we get disconnected from where our food comes from. Buying locally and meeting with farmers and producers can bring us back to where food  — organic, healthy, objectively tastier food — comes from, and how it affects our community. The next time you mash some Idaho potatoes as a side dish, or have a slice of Cougar Gold cheese, think about where they came from, and how each act of buying locally creates a tangible benefit to your community.