The definition of local is getting more and more complicated
In 1984, Allison Hooper and Bob Reese converted an old Vermont barn into a thriving creamery, the Vermont Butter & Cheese Company. The name was changed to Vermont Creamery in 2013.
Vermont Creamery is headquartered in Websterville, Vt., a small town nestled among the rugged fields and granite quarries near Barre. Vermont Creamery brings tens of millions of dollars annually to Vermont and employs nearly 100 Vermonters full time.
Websterville is about 50 miles northwest of the Upper Valley. By our Co-op’s definition, that makes Vermont Creamery a local business. Taking a nod from our friends in the locavore movement, we define “local” as products grown or produced fewer than 100 miles from our stores. More than 300 local farms and food producers supply our Co-op throughout the year.
But this spring, there was a big change at Vermont Creamery. Land O’Lakes, a monolithic, member-owned dairy cooperative known for butter and cream products, acquired Vermont Creamery. The reason was to “accelerate growth.” Whether this is good for either business or good for Vermont is too early to tell. But what we do know is this: A legendary “local” Vermont business is now owned by a co-op in Minnesota.
This begs the question: Is Vermont Creamery still local?
To put it into context, consider another local business, Root 5 Farm, a small organic vegetable farm in Fairlee, Vt. Root 5 is one of our newest suppliers. The farm will deliver bok choy, cabbage, collard greens, cucumbers, swiss chard, parsley, radishes, turnips, yellow squash, delicata squash, and sauerkraut throughout the season. Root 5 provides high-quality foods, grown with expertise and care, and exemplifies a wonderful local farm.
But what about a business like Vermont Creamery? It’s located in Vermont, its employees are in Vermont, and it brings tremendous economic development to Vermont. Yet, the business is owned by an out-of-state entity. Does that mean Vermont Creamery is no longer local? Are some local businesses more authentic than others? And who has the right to decide?
I know I’m posing questions rather than offering answers. It’s because I’d like to start a conversation about this issue and hear what you have to say. I suggest it’s time to rethink local. The term has become so vague and such a marketing ploy that it is in danger of becoming meaningless. Some mega retailers have taken advantage of this and stretched the definition of local beyond recognition. Even at our Co-op, our current definition is relatively rigid and simple, while our food system is more and more fluid and complex.
In a department huddle recently, Lindsay Smith, Food Educator and instructor at our Culinary Learning Center, made a great observation about local. “Local,” she told her colleagues, “is a deeply personal thing. What it means is different for different people, and we should respect that.”
That’s a great starting point for a conversation about local. People care about this issue, and they have different ideas about what local is and what it means. Want to share your ideas? In the next few weeks we’ll be holding some member conversations to talk about this subject, and we’d love to see you there. Give it some thought and stay tuned to our website, social media channels, and e-news for dates, times, and locations as it gets closer. In the meantime, if you have thoughts or feedback, reach out to me anytime. My door is always open to you.
Photos provided by our friends at Root 5 Farm.