Since Real Pickles’ beginnings in 2001, one of our key social commitments has been to source our vegetables only from Northeast farms and to sell our products only within the Northeast. We do this because we want to promote the development of strong local and regional food systems. There are so many good reasons to be getting our food from closer to home – freshness and nutritional value, food security, strong agricultural economies, climate change, and more. And, as I’ve written about here, it’s not just local that’s important but regional, too.
We’ve always had some sense about how far Real Pickles products travel from farm to fermentation to fork, but we’d never before really tried to figure it out. For our most recent annual report, we decided to go for it. We posed the question, “What can a business do to build a strong local & regional food system?” We offered up our answer: “source locally & regionally…sell locally & regionally!”. And, then we got to work with the calculator and spreadsheets to ascertain just how far – on average – our vegetables traveled from farm to fermentation last year, and how far our products then traveled from fermentation to fork.
Upon delving into the project, it quickly became apparent that we weren’t going to come up with precise numbers. The reality of food transport involves all kinds of complexities that we could never fully sort through. But, we could arrive at some useful estimates that would illustrate the difference it makes when a business commits to sourcing and selling within a region.
Farm to Fermentation
Determining the average distance that our vegetables traveled last year from farm to Real Pickles was the more straightforward of the two calculations. We received a total of 128 vegetable deliveries from ten farms – beginning with the first load of cucumbers from Atlas Farm in late June, ending with our last drop-off of storage beets from Red Fire Farm in February. For the purposes of the calculation, we assumed that all vegetables traveled straight from the farm to Real Pickles, with no other deliveries along the way.
The result? The 285,000 pounds of vegetables used to make Real Pickles products from the 2014 harvest traveled an average of 17 miles from farm to fermentation!! We’re very excited by this number. Of course, it’s also what we’d expect given our commitment to working with suppliers like Riverland Farm (13 miles away), Atlas Farm (7 miles away), and Old Friends Farm (22 miles away).
What if we made no commitment to sourcing from Northeast farms? Real Pickles would likely be buying vegetables from much farther away. Most of our cabbage, for example, would be coming from major cabbage-producing areas like California, Texas, and Mexico. In that case, our cabbage would be traveling thousands of miles from farm to fermentation.
Fermentation to Fork
Figuring out the average distance from fermentation to fork was a more challenging task. Nearly 20,000 cases of Real Pickles products traveled to over 400 stores last year. Retailers here in the Pioneer Valley – like River Valley Co-op and Foster’s Supermarket – receive their pickle orders via the Real Pickles delivery van. While those further afield – such as the Park Slope Food Coop and Martindale’s Natural Market – get their Real Pickles products through our distributors or via UPS. We couldn’t possibly know exactly what route each jar of kimchi or sauerkraut took to get to each store last year, nor can we know the route each jar traveled to get to our customers’ plates!
We do, however, have good data on how many cases of Real Pickles product were sold to each store last year. So, we mapped the driving mileage from Real Pickles direct to each of our top 50 retailers – which together sold about half of our product last year. (We made the assumption that doing the calculation based on this group of stores would yield a reasonably accurate result, while saving quite a bit of time.) Then, we used our sales data to calculate an overall weighted average for distance traveled. Based on this approach, the final result was pushed higher by fast-selling stores in places like New York City (~175 miles away), while kept lower by nearby stores selling lots of our pickles in such towns as Northampton, MA, and Brattleboro, VT (~20 miles away).
When all the math was done, we learned that Real Pickles products traveled an average of 131 miles last year from fermentation to fork!
We’re pretty excited by this number, too. As a growing business producing an ever more popular food (fermented vegetables), we know we could easily be shipping our Real Pickles products thousands of miles all around the country. But, we also know there are so many important reasons to be sourcing and selling regionally. When we consider that our 20,000 cases last year traveled an average of 131 miles – rather than 1,000 or 2,000 miles – we know we’re making a difference.