Eat Tennessee

By Patricia McDaniels

Local produce and products catch on across the Volunteer State

Trendy media would have you think the movement to “know your food” was relatively new. Labels like “locavore” (those who seek food from local sources) and CSA (community-supported agriculture) have been popping up in magazines and on TV news for about five years. Truth is, though, one alumnus of the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture was way ahead of his time. About 25 years ahead, to be exact.

Joe GainesBefore farmers’ markets became all the rage — again — Joe Gaines (’69, ’76) was working on a plan to make Tennessee’s relatively small-scale producers more profitable by helping them grab a larger share of local agricultural sales and niche markets. Gaines, an assistant commissioner with the Tennessee Department of Agriculture, leads Pick Tennessee Products — a campaign to encourage consumers to buy products grown, baked or manufactured in the Volunteer State. Promoting everything from pick-your-own strawberries to country ham, the program shines a spotlight on Tennessee’s 76,000 farmers.

Pick Tennessee Products began in 1986 identifying local food products in retail stores. The effort has expanded to connect the public directly to Tennessee farmers. The website lists producers who sell their products at farmers’ markets, online and on the farm.

Rob Holland (Martin ’91, Knoxville ’93), director of UT Extension’s Center for Profitable Agriculture, says statistics prove buying local is catching on. Recent studies show more Tennessee farmers are selling directly to consumers; the value of the products they sold increased by almost 84 percent from 1997 to 2007.

The Organic Crops Production Program in the UT Institute of Agriculture also supports the buy-local movement. Annette Wszelaki, assistant professor in the Department of Plant Sciences, heads the effort, supported by the state Department of Agriculture, to teach organic production methods. She also pairs growers with buyers, including retail outlets and restaurants.

Wszelaki works with undergraduate students who have an interest in sustainable food systems. “The students sell some of our produce at our farmers’ market at the UT Gardens [in Knoxville],” she says. “Other local producers may apply to sell their produce and wares as well.” This summer, the UT Farmers Market will be held every Wednesday from May 16 to Oct. 24 at the UT Gardens in Knoxville on Neyland Drive.

Given the national interest in health, safety and food security, the “eat your zip code” trend isn’t likely to fade anytime soon.

Coming to Terms

Consumers interested in locally grown produce that’s also organic can usually find what they’re looking for at farmers’ markets or right on a farm. But it’s important they know some terminology. For example, consumers may think a product labeled “organic” is more healthful and safer. In truth, there is a difference between a product labeled “organic” and one that is certified as organic and bears the U.S. Department of Agriculture organic seal.

Organic foodThe organic seal certifies that the food or other agricultural product has been produced through approved methods that integrate cultural, biological and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance and conserve biodiversity. No certification, no seal.

For organic crops, the USDA organic seal verifies that irradiation, sewage sludge, synthetic fertilizers, prohibited pesticides and genetically modified organisms were not used.

For organic livestock, the USDA organic seal verifies that producers met animal health and welfare standards, did not use antibiotics or growth hormones, used 100 percent organic feed and provided animals with access to the outdoors.

For organic multi-ingredient foods, the USDA organic seal verifies that the product has 95 percent or more certified organic content.

And what about the term “natural”? For the USDA, “natural” may be used to describe meat, poultry and egg products that are minimally processed and contain no artificial ingredients. The natural label does not include any standards regarding farm practices. There are no standards or regulations for the labeling of natural food products if they do not contain meat or eggs.

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