By Cassidy Hobbs Hall
Area Agent, Family and Consumer Sciences
Johnston County Cooperative Extension
“Local food” has become a bit of a buzzword within the food world. Inevitably, the term has a exploded with connotations to the phrase that aren’t always true. For example, some people believe that locally grown food indicates the farm is a small producer, only uses organic practices, and is ‘healthier.’ These ideas may or may not be true. Let’s take a look at our agricultural landscape in Johnston County and how this influences the health of our community and family.
Let’s first examine the scale of food production. Johnston County is home to small produce farms as well as farms that grow watermelons, butternut squash, and sweet potatoes to grocery stores, including stores beyond our borders! Both small and large scale farms employ local people to help plant, care for, and harvest crops.
Johnston County is one of the top producers of sweet potatoes in the nation due to climate and soil conditions in the region. No matter if the farm grows a few acres or a hundred acres, Johnston County is home to lots of nutritious fruits and vegetables, making it easier to access fresh produce for a nutritious diet. It is also important to consider that even if a farm grows a larger amount of food, these foods are still local and proximal to someone somewhere. Smithfield Foods is a great example of this. Murphy-Brown began as a small family farm in Duplin County, and after many years of growth, Smithfield Foods acquired Murphy-Brown.
While Smithfield Foods is a large brand name today, they continue to contract with local families and employ local people across Sampson, Duplin, and other nearby counties to grow, process, and package food. In terms of fruits and vegetables, you can find the face of a Johnston County farmer on a package of frozen butternut squash at nearby grocery stores. Johnston County farmers feed our community and beyond.
The second connotation of ‘local food’ is that it is grown using organic practices- this may or may not be true. Each farm uses a variety of methods to conserve energy and limit the use of pesticides. These pesticides, whether they be an organic pesticide or conventional, are very costly to the farmer and are only used when it is a matter of profitable yield or a destroyed crop due to pest or disease damage.
Both organic and non-organic growers may discover a need to use pesticides; both farming practices include the use of crop rotations and planting cover crops to preserve and restore soil nutrients and reduce soil pathogens which can ultimately lead to disease and inability to harvest a crop.
Produce may be grown on sheets of plastic to avoid the use of herbicides to control weeds competing for soil nutrients. Farms know all too well the fragility of natural resources and strive to preserve the land for future generations. Regardless if food is grown organically or conventionally, it is all safe, equally nutritious, and a source of nourishment to our families.
Another great benefit of Johnston County growing a variety of foods is that transportation costs can be decreased. By purchasing directly from farms and farm markets, you can help reduce the transportation necessary for food to travel, further impacting the health of our community’s environment.
Finally, you may have heard that locally grown foods are healthier. Due to the shortened, or eliminated, time in transit, locally purchased foods may contain more nutrients. As soon as food is harvested, it begins loosing nutrients- unless it is immediately canned or frozen.
Purchasing foods from farms in our county helps to ensure you are purchasing the freshest food available! You can then freeze or can these foods yourself. I can’t help but also mention how much more delicious foods grown locally are in recipes! Their bright colors reflect tons of flavor and nutrients. Research also shows that locations with locally grown foods tend to be healthier due to increased availability of fruits and vegetables.
This leads to more frequent fruit and vegetable consumptions and healthier diets. These improvements in food choices are often seen through weight loss, improved blood pressure, improved cholesterol, and improve blood sugar- all promoting overall wellness. Johnston County has a variety of CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) produce boxes available on a weekly, bi-weekly, or single basis. We are also home to several U-pick farms which preserve our open space and offer opportunities for physical activity and getting children excited about healthy eating.
In closing, it is also important to note economic benefits of Johnston County agriculture. Studies estimate that for every dollar spent on local products, up to $.90 worth of additional economic activity takes place. When our county’s economy thrives, our communities thrive.
According to the latest USDA Census data, Johnston County alone provides 183,281 acres of farmland distributed across over 1,000 farms. Our greenhouse, sod, floriculture, and nursery sector provided over $12 million in value in 2017. Johnston County farms sold over $2.2 million in direct-to-consumer products in 2017, up 162% from 2012. This number is likely even higher today due to increasing demand and agritourism in Johnston County.
To find local foods, plants, and agritourism events in Johnston County, please visit www.jocogrows.org or download the NC Farms app today! You can also like “JoCo Grows Agriculture” on Facebook for weekly recipes, information, and more.
My next Food Friday article will be focused on how to incorporate more local foods into your diet.