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It takes a plan to eat locally

Kathleen Purvis
Kathleen Purvis is the Food Editor for The Charlotte Observer.

It sounds so simple: Shop locally, eat seasonally. A farmer grows it and sells it, you buy it and eat it.

But nothing is ever simple.

How can you tell if that local food is local? How can you tell if that farmer is really a farmer besides checking his boots for mud? And do you have to take a sample of the mud for a soil analysis?

A friend stopped me recently with a lament. She has gotten interested in this local food idea, so she went to a particular market. She thought the produce looked like what she could buy in a supermarket, so she asked.

The person selling it assured her he was from Union County. Yes, she told me, but his produce sure wasn't.

“How can I tell what's likely to be local and in season? It shouldn't be this hard.”

I know it's tough. I started prowling farmers markets more than 15 years ago. Back then, a trip to my local market in April turned up Florida-grown versions of the tomatoes and green beans that wouldn't be local until July.

So I started laying down my food tracks. Now I have years of experience in knowing who farms where and what they grow.

Go to N.C. apple orchards enough times and you'll get a good idea of which strains are likely to be shipped from Washington State – even when a vendor tells you otherwise. Note to the seller who tried to tell me his Pink Lady apples were local: Pink Lady is a trademark, and licensed U.S. growers are in California and the Northwest.

See what I mean? I shouldn't have to play Web detective to buy a local apple.

My friend had a great idea. Someone should put together a list of what is grown around here and when it's in season. Yes, I know what you're thinking: Why don't you do it, Food Writer?

Because it isn't that simple. Look at lettuce: By the calendar, lettuce is a spring crop. When our summers turn hot, lettuce usually bolts and goes to seed.

But even in August, I know several farmers, at least two at the Charlotte Regional Farmers Market and one at the Matthews Community Farmers Market, who grow local lettuce all summer. Some use greenhouses, another has a cool area on her farm between a creek and a pond. I know because I've been to her farm and seen it.

The local farmers around us have been like geese playing in rain for years, happily planting handed-down or rare seeds and figuring out what will grow here and what shoppers will buy. A list of it all would get very long.

So how can you tell? You can pick a market and go regularly. You can pick certain farmers and stick with them, season after season. You can ask what they're planting and what's likely to be on their table a month from now.

You can watch for signs, like the ones Slow Food members post at the regional market that say “Local Farmer Local Food.” You can get to know the rules at grower-only markets and figure out the difference between roadside stand and farmer's market.

But maybe what we all need to do as well is realize that eating locally takes thought and planning.

A few weeks ago, I spoke on a panel put on by WFAE on local food. I was impressed when I saw how many people tackled uptown traffic at 5:30 p.m. on a Thursday to talk about it.

Our appetite is growing with our supply. And like all those students who go back to school this month, we need to get back in the habit of doing our homework.

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