Martin Langeveld insists that the numbers weren’t rigged: Vermont is now officially, quantitatively the number one state in the union for local foods two years running, according to Strolling of the Heifers’ 2013 Locavore Index.
The annual ranking, which the Vermont-based nonprofit started compiling last year, looks at the number of farmers markets, food hubs and CSA programs per capita in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. “We certainly didn’t set out to put a spotlight on Vermont,” Langeveld, the index coordinator, told me in a phone interview. “The real reason is to sort of let everyone compare” the local food systems that exist around the country, and to “provide a little incentive to get people thinking about it.”
Maine, New Hampshire, North Dakota and Iowa round out the top five in the 2013 index—an unlikely quartet, especially considering that California, which has more than 800 markets, the most in the country, is number 42 on the list. Who else is at the bottom? Texas came in dead last, with Nevada, Arizona, Louisiana and Florida ranked 47 through 50, respectively.
“A state that is significantly urbanized will be at somewhat of a disadvantage,” Langerveld offered as both an explanation and admission of the rural-state bias that comes from considering local food systems in relationship to population. But the very challenge of quantifying the presence and significance of the non-globalized food trade has inadvertently become part of the point of the index.
“At this point, for all of the hoopla that local foods have gotten over the past ten years or so, the measuring it is very, very difficult. There just aren’t good, consistent metrics that are comparable across all 50 states,” Langerveld says.
The USDA keeps track of farmers markets and food hubs, but Heifers had to turn to the website Local Harvest for CSA numbers. In 2014 there will be a trove of new data to work into the ranking calculations, thanks to the upcoming release of the 2012 Census of Agriculture—but that survey is only conducted every five years.
But just as the rank of a given state might help provoke a conversation about the success or failures of nurturing the small farms and food production in, say, Connecticut (29th in the country), talking about the list on the micro level eventually shifts into a macro discussion—about local food nationwide and local food as an idea alike.
“One other thing that’s a problem in doing solid metrics is what’s the definition: what is local food?” wonders Langerveld. Data sources and methodologies and weigthed scores are disclosed, but Heifers doesn’t put forth it’s own definition of “local.”—that’s something to hash out while arguing over who (like California) got screwed.