Local in Lancaster County
It’s a Sunday afternoon in Paradise, Pennsylvania and tourists are everywhere. They flock to antique shops, buffets and outlets up and down Route 30, hoping to experience Lancaster County at its finest. Though they came for the deals and the Pennsylvania Dutch food, what they’re really hoping for is a glimpse of what people say makes Lancaster so idyllic: the Amish buggies, rolling hills, and acres of farmland. According to the Lancaster Farmland Trust, Lancaster County has over 400,000 acres of farmland and 6,000 working farms.
The true essence of both Lancaster’s abundant farmland and rich heritage manifests itself in local produce. When it comes to buying produce in Lancaster County, it’s the supermarket and the farmer’s market. Although they might seem to be contradictory entities, the reality is their relationship is more mutually beneficial. Farmers sell to grocery stores, which in turn sell their produce. Local produce has commercial appeal for consumers, who seek out more local produce from individual farms. But when winter hits, its back to the supermarket for what farmers can’t provide. And so the cycle continues, with the concept of local driving transactions. But what is local, anyway? And how does it affect consumers and growers alike in Lancaster County?
The concept and appeal of “local” differs, depending on who one asks.
For Jill Carter, the appeal of buying locally began when she moved to Lancaster County years ago.
“When you’re living surrounded by the farming community, you think more about food products, where they come from, and what you’re buying,” says Carter.
Carter tries to buy most of her family’s produce from local vendors because she thinks it’s healthier, although she has never noticed any differences in the food’s taste. In nicer weather, Carter frequents roadside stands that farmers set up at the end of their long driveways around the county. Each Tuesday, Carter heads to Roots, one of many local farmers’ markets in Lancaster County.
Like Roots, Lancaster’s Central Market is incredibly popular. The market is located in downtown Lancaster city and is the oldest operating farmers’ market in the country. Loyal shoppers like Lois Straus trust that produce at the Market is local and attend each week.
“I don’t buy anything at the supermarket. I don’t how it is packaged,” says Straus. “I like to talk to the people who run the stands, and run into the same people I know at the market.”
Each Tuesday, Friday and Saturday, hundreds of residents and tourists alike swarm Central Market to socialize and buy local goods. There are over 60 vendors that specialize in all things local, from crafts and collectibles, to pastries and produce.
“People think Lancaster County produce is the best, because it is,” says Vince Hillegas, owner of Sweethearts of Lancaster Celery Farm. Hillegas sees the same customers each week at his stand.
“It’s part of the Amish heritage to support your local community,” he says.
But, not everything that comes from the market-or makes it way onto the shelves of Lancaster grocery stores-is local. Sometimes local is a broad, all-encompassing term.
Weis Markets Produce Manager, John Donovan, says to him local means produce grown within Lancaster County. Donovan says that years ago it was much easier for commercial supermarkets to connect with local farmers. Now, since most farmers don’t want to wade through cumbersome paperwork, Weis only consistently works with two or three local farmers. However, Donovan says local produce lasts longer on the shelves.
“If we can get something in locally, it’s nicer. It just holds up better,” he says.
For Zane Stauffer, the Asst. Produce Manager at family-owned Stauffers of Kissel Hill, local means something different. Stauffer says the term “local” may refer to produce that comes anywhere from the entire state of Pennsylvania. “Homegrown,” rather, is the term he uses to describe products strictly from Lancaster County. Right now, Stauffer (with no relation to the Stauffer family’s local supermarkets) says most of the produce comes from elsewhere, aside from locally grown apples.
“I don’t think that the quality suffers when we don’t buy local all the time,” Stauffer says, adding, “I’ve never had any complaints.”
At Stauffers there are oranges from California, pears from Argentina, and an assortment of products from Chile, Guatemala, and Mexico. Although Stauffer admits he has no idea if growers from which the store purchases used pesticides or herbicides, he says that the farming practices are not the biggest concern for customers.
“People aren’t really worried about that. Most care where it comes from, and some won’t buy if the product is from Mexico.”
Across the street from Stauffers, farmer Andrew Buckwalter surveys the ground. For Buckwalter, now in his second year running Buckhill farm, local is knowing exactly where produce comes from. His farm is CSA, or Community Supported Agriculture. Each season members pay for a share of Buckwalter’s crops, which include over 30 types of organically grown vegetables. Buckwalter says that CSAs connect people to agriculture by introducing them to locally grown foods.
“We give people an education. I share recipes and we show them how to use food,” he says.
Buckwalter is one of many Lancastrians who subscribes to the notion that local food is better quality. Buckhill Farm depends on crop rotation and product diversification to keep soil healthy, which Buckwalter says is important for healthy crops. Buckhill’s growing season begins in late March with leafy greens like cabbage, arugula and broccoli, and then moves into peppers, watermelon and sweet corn with the summer months. Buckwalter says a key component of eating local produce is learning to eat with the seasons. Often growers pick produce before it is ripe so the food doesn’t spoil during long shipping.
“You can still go to the grocery store for it, but it’s not how it’s meant to be eaten,” he says.
In addition to better quality, Buckwalter says another appeal of buying produce locally is the impact on the local economy. Buying from local farms keeps farmers in business, creates jobs, and cuts down on pollution caused by shipping produce long distances. In turn it preserves vital Lancaster County farmland.
“People love to look at farms. But if you don’t support local farms, they’re not going to last,” he cautions.
Steve Painter agrees. Each week Painter supports local farms by buying produce at markets and even directly from some farmers, including Buckwalter. As the Food and Beverage Manager of Bent Creek Country Club Lititz, Painter is responsible for catering to every culinary whim of members-which often entails buying as much local produce as possible.
“There’s a lot of people in this area who want to support local farmers,” says Painter, adding, “I think people are more aware of what they’re eating. They’re more healthy, and trying to get their kids to eat more healthy too.”
While buying local produce is not always feasible for, or appealing to, every consumer, many Lancastrians do take some part in the local food movement. After all, with thousands of acres of surrounding farmland, residents understand the impact of local farms on the economy, as well as the consequence if farmland diminishes in the future. A sense of community and appreciation for local agriculture are deeply entrenched within Lancaster County’s fabric, just like an Amish patchwork quilt.