Back in the day before green was the new black, back before Al Gore’s lift and pointer raised sustainability to new heights , a Santa Cruz tech-geek turned activist had a vision. Knowing that chain store produce travels an average of 3,000 miles and one week before even hitting our shopping carts he wondered, “how much tastier, more nutritious and economically feasible would our food be if we could go direct from farm to plate?” That very question inspired Local Harvest founder Guillarmo Payet to do what software architects do best – build a cool program.
In this case the result is an amazing searchable database of farms and CSAs throughout the country, designed to help you locate the ones nearest to you. In fact, Local Harvest is the most comprehensive listings of farms, farm stands, farmers’ markets, restaurants, groceries/coops, and community supported agriculture groups selling local food in the U.S. The idea is that by making it simple to access, users can start enjoying that local bounty straight from the source, which is better for the farmer, the consumer and the environment.
Local Harvest is the go-to site for local food not only because of its size, but because of its amazing search capabilities. You can search by store, farm stand, restaurant, or even by specific crops. People everywhere are realizing that buying local not only keeps your dollars in your community, but your food is fresher, tastier and more nutritious to boot. In other words, it just makes sense. So if you haven’t yet discovered LocalHarvest.org, this is your lucky day! I recently connected with founder Guillermo Payet to find out more:
EB: LocalHarvest.org seems like a huge undertaking. How long did it take you to build?
GP: Well it’s still going on, it’s never ending really. It took probably 6 months of work by three full time engineers for the first iteration, which launched back in 1999. I was running a software company which focused on big projects. There was a lot of time in-between projects, so we thought it would be nice to use it to donate some of what we learned back to the community. In 2001 the economy collapsed and my software company went under but I continued to work as a consultant. In 2003 I decided to focus on Local Harvest full time – that’s when I add the catalog, the forums, the store – a bunch of the features available today.
EB: How many members do you currently have?
GP: We now have 27,000 – farmers markets, restaurants, independent growers and producers.
EB: What are the biggest benefits you see for LocalHarvest.com users?
GP: We have made it easy for small farms to reach their local public. When we started this in 1998, we had been talking with some of our local small farmers about ways to improve their visibility and along with it, their bottom line. The main problem they had was getting the word out. Our goal was to help people connect with their local farms. We now get 30-35,000 visitors per day, so we’ve done that.
EB: Back in 1998 when you started, did you foresee the big trend toward supporting local agriculture that’s underway today.
GP: It was clear to me that was going to happen – at that time the organic food movement started to get commercialized. There are lots of reason people buy organic, and a big one is the craving for “authenticity”. The food system had become so impersonal and commercialized, that people were drawn to organic as a rejection to that. From many buyers’ point it wasn’t just about “no chemicals”, but also about wanting to establish a connection with the growers.
This is what gave initial momentum to the organic food movement. Once it became clear that large growers’ “industrial organic” would take over much of the market, I saw that “organic” was going to lose appeal to the people that really do care about authenticity, local economies, and grass roots. People would eventually turn back to local and independent, since avoiding industrialized food was a big part of the appeal of buying organic in the first place.
EB: When it comes to convincing people of the importance of shopping locally, what are some of your biggest challenges?
GP: None – once people become aware of this option, they like it. The challenge was getting the word out, but that’s been dealt with. One risk is that the same thing that happened with ‘buy organic’ might happen with ‘buy local’ – the bait and switch tactic – saying it’s locally grown when it’s not, or twisting the meaning. At some grocery stores they use words like ‘local’ to lure customers in and they have only one or two local items, or their definition of local is grown within a 1000 mile radius. We have also seen people calling themselves CSAs but buying most of their items from wholesalers.
It’s up to the buyer to stay informed and That’s where LocalHarvest can help.
EB: It’s true, we can’t really trust the ads or labels, we still have to do the research. Managing a site like LocalHarvest sounds amazing. What is your favorite part of your job?
GP: The food. That and visiting farms and hearing back from the them that our service has helped. WE get lots of emails that let us know how we’re doing – all very positive. The occasional box of treats or fruit helps too. We recently got a huge box of grass fed beef from one of our farmers and we’ve been making all kinds of yummy treats.
EB: Speaking of food, what are some of your favorite Santa Cruz grown recommendations?
Freewheeling Farm, Camp Joy, Pie Ranch, Everett Family Farms, Farm and Garden at UCSC. I go up there with my kids, 2 and 3, they love walking around.
Sounds wonderful! Visit LocalHarvest.org today!!