The benefits of buying local

Mary Soike '13 studies the impact of supporting local agriculture

December 06, 2012 | Carol Anne Winchester

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by Sara Morano ’13, Contributing Writer

“It’s been a learning experience for me and my professor”, says Mary Soike, of her research project on local agriculture with Wes Dripps, professor of earth and environmental sciences.

This spring, Soike will be one of the first Furman students to graduate with the Sustainability Science major. Dripps, who is Soike’s academic advisor, worked with her over the summer to survey five farmer’s markets in the Upstate and six Community Supported Agriculture programs across the country.

They headed out to the field; farmer’s markets from Anderson to downtown Greenville, to distribute surveys and meet the customers of the Upstate’s local foods movement. They asked questions like, “How do you expect the produce at this farmer’s market to be different from the produce at local supermarkets?” and collected information on participant’s educational levels, race, sex, and political views.

Soike, who is double major with political science, wrote the 24-question survey herself. She noted that while analyzing surveys is a research method familiar in the social sciences, it was something completely new for her advisor; whose shared interest in the local foods movement comes from a “hard science” background as an EES professor with a Ph.D. in Geology and Geophysics. In its interdisciplinary nature, the Soike-Dripps study is indicative of the Sustainability Science program at Furman.

Many of the course requirements for the Sustainability Science major can be shared across departments in the sciences and the humanities. A relatively new discipline, when Furman added the major in 2010 it was only the second university in the United States to do so, sustainability science is unique in that it encourages “systems thinking” to address complex social and environmental problems. How to grow the local foods movement is one example of the kind of problem suited to the sustainability science approach.

As Soike explained, most supermarket produce travels thousands of miles from “farm to plate”. The implicit ecological cost of this distance is thousands of diesel-burning trucks that cover the mileage from farm to plate. How soon food travels this distance is also key, because, as Soike explains, crops are picked before they are fully mature to prevent them from spoiling in transit. Picking fruits and vegetables before they are ripe compromises their nutritional value once they reach the plate.

“Medical problems can be solved by studying biology, and mechanical problems can be solved by studying physics”, says Soike, in light of the challenge of studying a complex process and multi-faceted problem, “but environmental problems involve so many factors. It requires combination. You have to think of it in a different way”.

Soike has submitted her research to the Southern Sociological Society, and plans to share its findings with the local community as well as other scholars. The trends and consumer preferences the study identifies will also be shared with area farmer’s markets to help expand their use in the Upstate.