Louisville, Kentucky.  I was talking to sheep farmer and meat marketer Jim Mansfield the other day, about local meat and the challenges he faces trying to get more of his lamb in front of more potential customers.

Mr. Mansfield raises Katahdin hair-sheep in central Kentucky, and through his business Four Hills Farm he works directly with another two dozen farmers in Kentucky and neighboring states to sell their lamb to wholesale buyers. He is creating a market for regionally raised lamb in an area where for years all you could buy in the supermarket was lamb raised as far away as New Zealand.

The business challenge faced by small growers and the small companies that market their food is not generally quality. My state is dotted with good herdsmen who can raise lamb humanely and well on some of the rolling Kentucky hillsides that are much better suited to pasture than to row cropping. Like hemp, and like wine grapes, sheep are a traditional Kentucky crop that languished due to various factors, but they were once widely raised here because they are well suited to this part of the country.

The challenge is not supply, either. Mr. Mansfield says some of the farmers he works with would gladly increase the size of their herds, if the demand was there for the meat.

No: the main challenges remain 1) price, because with a smaller scale comes higher costs, and even though New Zealand lamb travels eight thousand miles to get to Kentucky, it is still cheaper, and 2) access to capital for investment. Mr. Mansfield would like to expand his business, but he is too big for “alternative” ag loans in this state, too “alternative” for traditional ag money, too small for a venture capitalist, and the banks don’t know how to assess the risk of what he is doing, because around here his model is still an unusual farming business.

But he mentioned a third challenge to me the other day, and I thought I’d mention it here, given that a certain number of our readers make an effort to buy local food. I’ll put it as a series of questions: are you buying local to save on energy use and shrink your carbon footprint? Or are you buying local in order to increase the network of food suppliers in your area, so that there is actually a local food economy, with local producers? Or both? What if one goal gets in the way of the other?

Let’s say we define “local” as within a hundred miles, as many do. What if a food marketer/farmer needs a bigger circle than one with a hundred-mile radius in order to get his business on a solid footing? How do you feel about regional food?

These days Mr. Mansfield has built a decent business supplying several Kentucky Whole Foods stores and some independent, higher-end groceries with his premium lamb, but he is stymied in his attempts to expand in this state because the really big players—such as the Kroger stores—won’t carry his product. Kroger did stock his meat for a while, Mr. Mansfield says, but dropped him when a much larger supplier (of internationally-raised lamb) was given a contract to supply all the Kroger stores, of which there are now 2400 in 31 states. Plenty of customers who could afford and who would be interested in Four Farms Lamb shop at Kroger, but if they want to buy Mansfield’s lamb, they have to shop somewhere else.

So Jim Mansfield is going further afield to find markets, only to discover that the “local foods” movement which has done so much to drive his business in Kentucky is proving a barrier elsewhere. There is a Columbus, Ohio, store which carries Four Farms Lamb, at least for now, but the owners there have told Mr. Mansfield they have some qualms about doing so, because by Ohio standards the meat isn’t local.

I must run with a careless crowd, because I was surprised at the desire for this degree of logistical purity.  But the argument is obviously worrying Mr. Mansfield, who is quick to point out that central Kentucky is a lot closer to Columbus than Auckland is. A good Columbus local food purist would avoid lamb altogether, of course, but in doing so his purity will undermine a different good.

Let’s say local food is our goal: well, local food, in either Ohio or Kentucky, outside of some CFO chicken, is going to be raised on what we all used to think of as a “farm” and which is now closer to an antique: a smaller-sized family-owned piece of land of somewhere between twenty-five and three hundred acres. This kind of an operation needs a market so that the farmers can earn enough cash to pay their mortgage, their taxes, and their health insurance. Without a market, we will lose those local farmers. Katahdin is an easy keeper, as sheep go, but lamb does not raise itself.

If we bypass the lamb that’s traveled twice our preferred distance, we may be purer in our actions in certain respects, but we are undermining our own regional food economy—and what is regional for us is local for our neighbors living a bit to our north or south. We are withholding our business from that network of suppliers who will build up a real local foods web in this Upper South/Lower Midwest region only if they can survive. As far as I am aware, the choice at the Columbus store is not between central-Ohio lamb and Kentucky lamb. It’s between Kentucky lamb or no lamb at all.

My own answer to what is, for some Buckeyes at least, a dilemma is that we all have what I could call a perfectly selfish interest in a local food economy that’s more flexible about whose food and how far, because with fewer farmers who can make a living farming, we will have fewer choices of local foods to eat. Not to mention the residual economic effect on all the little towns where farmers generally live.  I would say the deck is stacked against farmers enough as it is.

Photo credit:  photogramma1

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Katherine Dalton
Katherine Dalton has worked as a magazine editor, freelance feature writer and book editor.  She started in journalism in college, working at The Yale Literary Magazine during most of its controversial few years as a national magazine of opinion based at Yale.  She then worked briefly at Harper's magazine in New York, and more extensively at Chronicles magazine in Illinois, where she was a contributing editor for many years.  She has has written for various publications ranging from the Wall Street Journal to the University Bookman, and was a contributor to Wendell Berry: Life and Work and Localism in the Mass Age: A Front Porch Republic Manifesto.  She lives in her native Kentucky.


  1. I think you’re right. I think there’s also a bigger issue of local economy in general. For instance, what does it mean to buy clothes locally? Unless you can afford to get them custom-made, or you’re lucky enough to live somewhere that produces garments (probably for sale internationally), regional is about the best you can hope for. Even that is probably a stretch–buying American is a more realistic threshold. But then you get into another dilemma. If I can order locally made and locally sourced moccasins from a small business at the other end of the country, or I can buy a pair of (American made) New Balance sneakers from my local small-business shoe store, which is the better option? What if my local shopkeeper sells only foreign-made products because it’s the only way he can compete against the retail giants?

    I think your scenario has the advantage that by buying regionally sourced lamb when there’s no local option, you’re still sending the message that there’s a market for locally raised meat, while also supporting a small operator, even if he lives in another state. But what if there’s not even a regional option? How do you communicate you preference for local production *and* local retail if the two are mutually exclusive?

  2. This is an eye-opening little essay, Katherine; thanks very much for the contribution! Like you, I’m surprised at seeing localists and locavores show the kind of ideological purity that puts up barriers to producers from just one state over being able to access markets…but then–and here we move into the realm of broader philosophical reflection–I suppose that all localisms, just like all forms of communitarianism on any level, are ultimately about drawing boundaries, and the boundary between Kentucky and Ohio isn’t obviously or in principle different from any other. So that just brings it back to the producer and the marketer and consumers in question, and the best response to them is the arguments you bring up in your final three paragraphs: that, given the available realities of the situation, some flexibility in drawing boundary lines is appropriate. It’s possible that the owner of the local food co-op in Columbus will say something like: “No, if I compromise on ‘100-mile localism’ in favor of ‘regionalism,’ then how would I be any different from the marketer who is willing to buy from anyone in our ‘national region,’ etc.?” And I’m not sure there’s any obvious, principled boundary that can make that distinction. In a world of essentially unlimited capital movement, defending boundaries and limits is always going to have to be a contextual matter. Hopefully, Mr. Mansfield will be able to make those contextual arguments persuasively. (Incidentally, it occurs to me that this phenomenon is analogous to the whole crisis of the “agriculture of the middle“–that generally speaking, tiny, boutique, hobby farms have no problem finding a niche, and of course huge monocultural mega-farms have the whole food industry on their side; it’s the diverse mid-sized farms that struggle the most.)

  3. Russell, you are right: this is precisely the sort of problem felt by agriculture in the middle.

    But there is an answer to the question of where should we draw our boundaries of obligation or “rightness,” and it is Tom Fleming’s argument that we can best think of our obligations as concentric circles based on how close (physically or emotionally) another person is to ourselves–with a heavy emphasis, after our immediate family, on closeness in space. I owe most to my siblings and children (wherever they may live), next most to my extended family, then to my neighbors and town, to my region, to my enormous country, etc. That tiered way of thinking doesn’t say I owe nothing to Washington State; it just says Washington State is much lower on my priorities list than Eastern Kentucky is, and much, much lower than Cousin Shirley. Thinking in that way of how we ought best to spend our money and our time makes a lot of these overwrought questions a good deal simpler, if not always perfectly simple.

  4. Kate, I like that idea of concentric circles. It means, I think, that while building community means accepting limits, those limits are a natural consequence of the process and not preconditions for it. If my food-buying obligation is first to my neighbors — to people I know personally — then I’m going to find myself limited sometimes by what they grow. Last summer I learned a lot of ways to cook eggplant, because I have neighbors (three miles away, but we know them through other connections and they’re the closest farm to our house) who grow a lot of it, and I buy some of what they have every week in season. If I thought in terms of a “foodshed,” though, a term I’ve seen kicked around a lot lately, I’d have to define that, arbitrarily and abstractly, rather than in terms of actual human beings, and it’s those real people who would be limited by the limits I’ve chosen allegedly for myself.

  5. I understand your argument, but I think it has a faulty assumption built in … the price of lamb should be high and local producers should stay small or we never counteract the main problems of the ag business today — people over consuming meat and farmers growing so large that their honorable practices get trumped by the allure of higher incomes. I don’t know how big this lamb farm is and perhaps it is small enough that your concerns are warranted, but I would guess that this farmer is making a living off of the farm and suppliers he has and, more importantly, he has or can diversified beyond lamb, so it is not the only product he relies on. I know, I know, this means that, in price, he cannot compete with New Zealand. I say “so what!?!”. The local economy movement should acknowledge that we can pay more for our food (and should!), but this means consuming less (especially less meat!).

  6. Mr. Walbert: Yes to limits as natural consequence. And the joy of those limits is the goodwill you have undoubtedly built between yourself and those neighbors. It helps that I like eggplant.

    Ms. Beal: Ah. What the local food movement should do, it is doing, to a surprisingly widespread extent given its numbers. But there are plenty of people not in the local food movement, and “should” is not going to get us very far with anyone beyond our own children, over whom we have particular (if brief) leverage. If we are overconsuming meat, it is not Mr. Mansfield’s meat, and if you assume he should be busting his tail to find a market and supply chain for a second product, when he is busting his tail to find the first, then I would ask, respectfully, what product you yourself have marketed lately? He is somewhat diversified in terms of markets and well-diversified in terms of partner-suppliers. It is a whole ‘nother job to diversify in terms of product–and there are only so many hours. How much money he is making I don’t know, but I do know he’d like to make enough to employ a few more people–surely a good thing. In any case, let us be aware of the challenges, as we judge a business that is probably not our own.

    I will also add that in Kentucky, there is plenty of land that is much better suited to be kept in grass than plowed, and until the perennial grains are developed, the best way to harvest sunlight on those acres is meat. Thank you for your comment.

  7. Kate,

    I’m late in responding further to this, but I just had to say…

    Tom Fleming’s argument that we can best think of our obligations as concentric circles based on how close (physically or emotionally) another person is to ourselves–with a heavy emphasis, after our immediate family, on closeness in space. I owe most to my siblings and children (wherever they may live), next most to my extended family, then to my neighbors and town, to my region, to my enormous country, etc. That tiered way of thinking doesn’t say I owe nothing to Washington State; it just says Washington State is much lower on my priorities list than Eastern Kentucky is, and much, much lower than Cousin Shirley.

    …that this is subsidiarian thinking at its finest. Concentric circles, respecting closeness and locality as much as possible, but not absolutely; there are and always will be certain relationships and tasks and priorities which must be privileged at certain levels, regardless of whether or not they fit within one’s local environment. The key, of course, as always, is developing the kind of sensibility to be able to wisely adhere to the circles, and not consider them transcended and useless just because sometimes you–rightly–need to look beyond them.

  8. Noble but I’d say coffee’s a deal breaker. Chicory root is just not to my fancy. And if we can’t get through breakfast I’m thinking there’s not much use in keeping down this path. Outside of that I’d say that big river there is the cognitive barrier, not the rule. I have seen the Ohio before, at Ripley and Point Pleasant.
    The distance you are describing seems to me to be not alot further than that from the Great Valley of Virginia to the cities along the Fall line – and I do not believe there is the same sort of dissonance.
    And outside of all of that, I thought you wrote one time about an aggregator in Louisville or there abouts – anything transferrable?

  9. I’m pretty sure the tea I drink is not grown in Tennessee. Even the 100-mile eaters often make an exception or two, and I am no purist and no angel myself.

    Louisville’s aggregator is Sarah Fritschner, who is still on the job as a marriage broker, really, between the food raisers and makers who surround Louisville and the food purveyors who feed this city. If by “transferable” you mean could the job she is doing be done elsewhere–yes indeed it could, and should, if somebody will fund it. Funding her (partial—not even full-time) salary has been a challenge here, though it should be an easy Yes for those willing to fund economic development for either cities or the countryside that surrounds them. No tax abatements required, either.


  10. That’s precisely it. Thank you for the link.
    And then Meister Eckhart wrote something along the lines of this: “The verdict of one who is not the judge has no meaning”.
    I am certain I’ve gotten the exact translation very wrong, but the meaning I think is close.

  11. The difficulty ideas like the 100 mile rule pose to egotists like myself is that the best possible outcome is I only add 14 more chapters to Leviticus; the worst is that I end up with my arms raised thanking God I am not like the sinners all around me. It becomes a badge, an achievement, a way of separating myself out.
    I could do similar damage with the circles idea, so I think it’s important to say it’s not a matter of who falls within our circles so much as discovering which circles within which we are bound. I don’t think it’s limited to people. Yes, I’m within the periphery of strangers on the internet, but also the chickens in the backyard, farther out for the pileated woodpecker that came by over the winter; then yes, the folks with whom I will share the road this morning, those who I work with, shop with and so on.
    These are not things I can accomplish or finish, they are relationships I can either attend to or not.
    And it seems to me all those rings of obligation can be a irritable burden without some sort of vertical, something transcendent. Either a primer mover or Reiff’s VIA or something – I’d wager the one thing I could get Professors E.O. and J.M. Wilson to agree upon is that we live in a cathedral, we walk on consecrated ground. There is no finer thing than to attend to what’s before us.
    And the problems I get into with the 100 mile rule go by the wayside. It’s just not the point of things.

  12. I don’t know if my taste buds are suspect after a 15 year period of sauteing them in Laphroaig to an elaborate degree but the reason I buy local products at a higher price is because they generally taste better. Markedly so. I can also see where the food I consume comes from.

    At a recent Conservation board meeting , I reviewed the notion of an agricultural sustainability plan….the exercise of finding out how much and where the land might exist within the region to feed the populace. The biggest harrumph was from someone who asserted that it makes no sense to limit food production to the local as the global marketplace can produce it cheaper. There seems to be no recognition, whatsoever about the intelligence of living on our land in a more strategic and sustainable manner because the Great Oz Marketplace will provide for us.

    I would never endorse “limiting” food production to the local, I need my morning fix of java too but to surrender to the “hidden hand” of the marketplace in toto seems a tad cultish as too often, this “hidden Hand” comes covered in a boxing glove.

  13. Well I don’t mean to argue with Kingsolver, I think she is wonderful and I’d lose badly, it just seems this is an arena where many of the ideas that are discussed on this site can be implemented in an experimental form.
    So rather than 100 miles, maybe the metric to use is something on a human scale. I don’t know what that looks like, exactly, but I do not think it is lamb en masse from New Zealand. Kentucky to Ohio, maybe so. I did find it interesting that a Buckeye might balk at Kentucky lamb. Maybe that means it is possible identity can once again include place.
    And it seems it’s tough for young farmers to overcome land costs. So raising their income is important, and I don’t if that is possible without the development of regional networks, food aggregators and so on. Interestingly to me is that the current examples I know of in this area the actor is always government. Most farmers just do not have the time to develop the markets. Lately I’m wondering, because of many of the ideas I’ve encountered on this site, whether or not it is possible for some association other than government to facilitate the development of these regional networks. Would that be indicative of a healthier community?
    And then ideally our market responds to local conditions – the consolidation of power at a corporate level means less responsiveness to local variations. To my mind, this is indicative of a parasitic relationship. You know, I think if I’m versed in something like Catholic social teaching then maybe I’m trying to avoid parasitic economic relationships and trying to foster symbiotic relationships. So it seems to me once again we can go ahead and try things out experimentally.
    What does a human scaled, beneficent food system look like? And step one is what, exactly?

  14. Step One is David Walbert’s eggplant. I think we can have too much internal debate and spend all our energy debating, when even an incremental change in buying habits–ten percent local is a lot of food–will make a significant difference. Even if it’s one buyer dealing with one farmer, ten percent will be significant to that farmer.

    Mr. Sabin, people who argue we should import everything we eat must spend their vacations in Las Vegas, and love the high wire act without a net.

    Yes indeed there are lots of barriers. Cost, skills, markets, price, transportation, health reg’s, time. I would agree that the more viable solutions are coming from private and not public efforts, though Louisville’s publicly-funded food broker job is a great and cheap governmental solution (that job doesn’t have to be publicly funded, though). I also think it’s going to take hundreds of small solutions rather than a handful of large ones. People are working on loan costs, for example, and though the efforts are currently limited in their reach they nevertheless make a big difference to a few mortgage holders. Organizations like the Berry Center in Kentucky and several others in Vermont, North Carolina, California, Oregon and no doubt many other places you know about and I don’t are working on these challenges. If your state has a farming organization (besides the Farm Bureau), that would be a group to check out.

  15. Mr. Walsh– Yes, occasional FPR contributor Mary Smith was a speaker there in Boulder.

  16. You have a good group. Busy time of year now, but maybe when it’s cool again if she has time she won’t mind giving an account.

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