Localizing Decency

The North Country Food Co-Op is working to further the efforts of the food localization movement

Story by Liz Davidson
Photos by Liz Davidson and Ryan Ward

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Along with a wide variety of fresh organic foods, NCFC also offers many organic and health oriented cooking goods.
Photo by Ryan Ward

It used to be simple. Before the last century, most of America was comprised of self-sustaining, rural communities. Vegetables came from the man down the street, milk came from over the hill, and meat from the house next door. People knew where their food came from and could visually see the process.

Much has changed since then, and now the country’s food system is dominated by a large-scale, government-subsidized agriculture system that often utilizes chemical pesticides and genetically modified seeds, while also undercutting the prices of small-scale farmers’ crops. A movement has formed across the country to restore the local, organic system of food trade, and the North Country Food Co-Op is bringing that movement to the North Country.

Members of the North Country Food Co-Op have made it their mission to provide an alternative, all-natural food source outside the large national system, and to provide help to local farmers in the process. What began in the 1970s as a small buying club of about six people has grown into a key regional source of local organic produce.

“We’re trying hard to support local farmers who are raising and growing our foods with organic methods.”

“We’re trying hard to support local farmers who are raising and growing our foods with organic methods,” says Carol Czaja, NCFC Manager. “We have about 30 farmers who contribute, and I think they appreciate our commitment to our mission. We try to help them succeed.”

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NCFC has a variety of fair trade teas and coffees from around the world.
Photo by Liz Davidson

This food movement has been gaining national momentum steadily over the past decade. Following in the large footsteps of the green movement, which promotes recycling and reduced energy use, the food movement promotes organic produce, humane treatment of livestock, fair pay for agricultural workers, and above all, local community sustainability. 

“When you buy something at the Co-Op, your money is staying inside the community and contributing to it,” says Kimberly Cummins, NCFC member and employee. “That’s what it’s all about.”

 “During the off-season, we may amend our produce department with products from large organic distributors, but we always give priority to local food,” says Kimberly LeClaire, NCFC member and local garlic farmer. “We’d never turn down local lettuce for the lettuce from our large distributor.”

“More and more people are getting on board,” says Seth DeFayette, NCFC employee. “In the last few years in New York, the presence of large-scale farming has declined, and the small farming has gone way up, which we’re very happy with.”

“When you buy something at the Co-Op, your money is staying inside the community and contributing to it.”

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The NCFC's produce department is stocked with organic, mostly local, produce.
Photo by Ryan Ward

The large-scale farming methods this movement is countering began on a wide scale when government farm subsidies were enacted during the Great Depression.  The 1922 Grain Futures Act, the 1929 Agricultural Marketing Act, and the 1933 Agricultural Adjustment Act established a new system wherein the government now had a hand in deciding which crops would be grown and sold, and for how much, by only providing subsidies for certain crops.

These policies forced farmers to charge lower prices for their crops because there was such a high supply; therefore, the farmers had to adjust by finding cheaper ways to grow food. This is why most of our nation’s farms now use pesticides on their produce, growth hormones on their livestock, and cruelly-packed livestock facilities. Farmers have also had to sacrifice their land’s biodiversity, as they’ve had to abandon growing their other crops and grow corn or soy exclusively just because they need the subsidy to survive.

The subsidies left farmers with a choice: continue to sell locally, competing with the prices of the large farms, or join the national system. Most have joined in, and those who haven’t now rely on buying clubs and co-ops like the NCFC. “The government should be doing more to support not just large-scale farming, but also small-scale farming so that communities can be strengthened, as they were so many years ago, by their farmers,” Czaja says. “Since they have not, co-ops step in and do that, but there are things I think the government could be doing to help.”

Czaja says the government can support farmers without issuing subsidies. Instead, she says the government should help farmers by providing networks for them to market their products. “I think what farmers do need today is marketing advice. You may be good at growing things, but you may not be a businessperson,” Czaja says. “I think rather than a subsidy for just growing something, [they should] help them achieve more efficiency in their farms, show how they can use better marketing, or if there are new methods or some way that they can be enhancing the selling. Give them the tools they need to sell their produce on a more regional level.”

“We do our best to hold the community together and make it more independent and sustainable unto itself.”

The NCFC acts as a bridge between farmers and consumers, providing the farmers with income and the consumers with organic produce they would be hard-pressed to find at a large grocery store. “I think we’re probably the backbone of the organic food trade in our area,” Czaja says, “and whether it’s supporting a local farmer or supporting the organic food movement in general or supporting the town and state with the taxes we pay in, we do our best to hold the community together and make it more independent and sustainable unto itself.”

Do you buy local? Why?

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