Gas fueling food costs

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By Brent Schanding

By Brent Schanding

Landmark News Service

See that banana? It has a story.

Wrapped in a yellow peel, its journey likely began on an Equador plantation. Then chop. Wrap. Ship. Consume.

That's the condensed version, anyway.

Most produce in the U.S. is picked four to seven days before being placed on supermarket shelves. It's shipped in refrigerated crates for an average of 1,500 miles before being sold.

Your Chiquita has likely traveled farther. That's partly why the global fruit supplier has already hiked banana prices by as much as 10 percent in North America.

As escalating fuel costs continue to climb, it's making shipping costlier for growers everywhere. Not surprisingly, that price is passed on to consumers, so "sticker-shocks" at the supermarket should be expected this season.

How much more can you expect to pay for truck-shipped produce this year?

"We can not predict that right now," said Stephen Smith, manager of IGA in Campbellsburg. "But there's going to be a pressure on prices as long as fuel prices are high."

Diesel - which fuels long-haul tractor trailers - has already skyrocketed to more than $4 per gallon at some outlets, causing gas pains for truckers, who are reportedly spending more than $1,200 to top of their tanks. Turmoil in foreign food-supplying countries and erradict weather patterns, could also drive up the cost of food, Smith said.

Demands for corn-concocted ethanol biofuel, have already spiked prices for that crop by almost 70 percent in the past six months, and economists and farmers are predicting the situation will only get worse for consumers.

Want a reprieve from gas gouging and surges at the supermarket?

Then buy from local farmers, says Melissa Blankenship.

"We should be able to keep our prices, right at or below grocery stores," she said.

The small farmer began selling produce from her Drennon Hill Farm operation at the Henry County Farmers Market last year. It's fresher, tastier and more nutritious says Blankenship, who expects her tomatoes, green beans and zucchini to hit stands later this year.

"Everything sold at the market has been produced in-county. It is as local, and as fresh as it gets," she said. "Most of the time we pick from the garden that day, or the day before we sell."

The market opens April 26, at the courthouse square in New Castle. Consumers can take their picks of local produce at least three-days a week, and at specialty events throughout the season. Cold-bedding plants like lettuce and cauliflower will likely be available next week.

Why buy local?

Federal Agriculture studies show that fresh produce loses nutrients quickly. In a week-long delay from harvest to dinner table, sugars turn to starches, plant cells shrink and produce loses its vitality. So even in you're not a biochemist, it means your California-shipped produce will likely be less-nutritious and less-tasty than something hauled from the fields of Pleasureville or Turners Station. California produce will likely be more expensive, too, considering shipping costs.

"Our prices are pretty much according to regulated pricing. We're right in the same ballpark," Barbara Gregory, president of the local farmers market said of its vendors. "It's cheaper because you don't have to go anywhere to get it."

Instead of spending gas money to drive out-of-county for groceries, Gregory encourages locals to shop here.

Supporting local farming operations is good for the county's economy and promotes sustainability, she said. That's becoming increasingly important as prices for foreign and out-of-state commodities continue to rise.

County seniors - as well as women and children, reliant on federal WIC assistance - are supported by the farmers market. Consumers of the farmers market also support the families of about 30 growers here, Gregory said.

It's estimated that only 18 cents of every dollar goes to growers, when buying at a large supermarket. Cut out the middlemen and that's more money in the pockets of farmers.

IGA in Campbellsburg buys locally when they can, Smith said, and will likely stock local produce later this year. Chat-N-Nibble Restaurant in Eminence also relies heavily on homegrown produce. The eatery stocks up on lettuce, tomatoes, peppers and other items during the market"s summer growing season. Chat-N-Nibble's fried green tomatoes are often from the market and its homemade coleslaw is made largely from county-grown cabbage.

"It's the best coleslaw around," owner Alice Ferguson said. "Any of the produce we can use from there, normally is better than what we can ship in."

Produce shippers have lately been issuing fuel surcharges to the restaurant, Ferguson said. So it makes more fiscal sense to get those products locally.

"They work with us so we can do it. It's affordable," she said of the local market. "And they can make some money too."

Need another reason to buy locally?

"It's good for the ground," Gregory said. "If you have the ground you need to grow it."

Local farms protect genetic diversity, curtail erosion, preserve open space and support cleaner environments by capturing emissions and curbing global warming.

E-mail us about this article at editor@hclocal.com.