“When a chain locates here, only 16 percent of their revenue stays in the community,” said Mike Callicrate, owner of Ranch Foods Direct, 2901 N. El Paso St. “When a local business opens, 43 percent stays here. And when you have a business like ours — one that only contracts locally, keeping everything in the region, 100 percent of the revenue stays here.”
Those numbers are hard to argue with — and that’s why the Pikes Peak Sustainable Business Network is creating collaboration for local companies to learn and partner with each other.
“This could not be more important,” said Catamount Institute Executive Director Eric Cefus. “It’s a top issue, one of the top things we focus on. There is a high environmental ingredient, but there is also a strong economic component.”
While studies show only brief gains are from “buy local” marketing campaigns, there seems to be little disagreement that keeping business close to home keeps local businesses open and thriving.
Cefus said on average food travels 1,000 miles before getting to the grocery store, and the price of that travel is seldom reflected in the price of the item.
“For food, it’s extremely important. We ship in all that carbon, all that waste, when we could buy local food and keep the money at home,” he said.
And buying food from fast food chains and chain grocery stores means putting your money in pockets far away, Callicrate said.
“I always tell people, these big box stores, fast food restaurants are only points of extraction,” he said. “They are selling food, and trucking away money from the community. Your money won’t exchange hands here again. It’s supporting Wall Street, but not supporting Main Street.”
While environmentalists focus on reducing carbon footprints, Dawn Thilmany, professor of agricultural economics at Colorado State University, says that approach seldom works.
“You can’t focus on carbon. People aren’t interested,” she said. “Interestingly, they don’t trust the government for food safety, and they really don’t trust foreign governments. People want only one degree of separation between them and their food supplier. They want to be able to visit, if necessary. It’s become a safety issue for so many people.”
Callicrate opened his business in Colorado Springs seven years ago.
He was concerned that large, multinational companies were forcing farmers and ranchers to accept substandard wages for their products.
“These large companies are conglomerates,” he said. “They are monopolies. They force farmers and ranchers to take less and less money for their product — and people can’t stay in business that way.”
Callicrate’s meat — beef, bison, poultry and seafood — comes direct from producers. He hires local butchers, local packers and sells at local retail stores.
“We’ve grown that business,” he said. “Where we’ve struggled is the restaurant business. Managers tend to go with the cheapest meat, assuming the consumer doesn’t care where it’s from. So our business tends to go up and down in that sector.”
Callicrate cautions that buying local doesn’t mean buying cheaper. Locally owned businesses often charge more because they do not buy in bulk — but Callicrate says the quality is often higher.
“This isn’t going to mean cheap,” he said. “But you are putting money back into the community, supporting people, your neighbors.”
Callicrate notes that some of the big box stores — Wal-Mart and Whole Foods — say they are buying local, but they pay so little for the products that farmers and ranchers can’t stay in business. The big box stores are “co-opting” the buy-local marketing — but they aren’t local, he said.
“You can go into Wal-Mart or Whole Foods and see the signs that say this came from Colorado,” he said. “But people have to know, they have to be aware, that buying local produce from there, still means the money goes out of the community, still means that farmers and ranchers are not getting paid a living wage.”
Callicrate said big chains are driving local companies out of business — grocery stores have fallen prey to Wal-Mart, as have hardware and other clothing stores.
“So you just have to leave them alone,” he said. “Let them do their thing, which is scan the world for the cheapest goods at the cheapest prices. And you get what you pay for — but we should all patronize the local places, the places that build our community.”
People are noticing the issue on a national level. The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently launched a “Know your farmer, Know your food” campaign designed to keep food production at a local level.
Tony Gagliardi, Colorado director for the National Federation of Independent Businesses, also points to the push at the federal level to keep local companies in business.
“The trade polices are really making it difficult for some local manufacturers to stay in business,” he said. “And there’s a huge push to get Colorado’s Congressional delegation and state government to review those policies. We import items at the expense of our small businesses. And this is an opportune time to address it.”
While Cefus and Callicrate focus on the health, economic and environmental benefits of buying locally, Gagliardi said it’s also about community
“Small businesses are what keep this state vibrant,” he said. “They keep the economy moving. They are the first ones to step up when they need to. Small businesses are families, and they are rooted in the community. Keep it local, and the money stays local.”