Would You Buy Locally Grown Spices?

©. K Martinko -- Heaps of spices in a Tel Aviv market

Coriander, mustard, ginger, galangal, paprika, and saffron could all be grown successfully on U.S. soil, if the incentive were there.

There's a good chance you have some locally-sourced meat in your freezer, some CSA veggies or eggs in your fridge, a jar of local honey or a bottle of local wine in the pantry. Buying food produced within one's own region has become a much higher priority for shoppers in recent years. There is greater willingness to pay more for fresh, high quality ingredients whose path can be traced back to its origin and whose producers can be met personally.

But have you ever stopped to wonder where your favorite spices come from? This is one food group that's continually left out of the locavore conversation, despite its enormous popularity. Spice consumption has tripled in the United States since 1966, when each person ate 1.2 pounds annually, to 3.7 pounds in 2015. As Americans' palates have expanded, so has demand for flavors like cumin, saffron, pepper, chili, vanilla, cinnamon, sesame seeds, and turmeric.

Hardly any of these are grown on American soil, however, and an intriguing article on NPR's The Salt suggests that it's not through a lack of suitable growing conditions. The article quotes Lior Lev Sercarz, a spice merchant (OK, he's the owner of a spice store in Manhattan, but 'merchant' sounds so much more exotic) who's advocating for a stronger local spice scene:

"We don't really grow spices in the United States. Not because we can't, but because big agriculture is more focused on things like corn and soybeans. So we import from other countries and we pay a price for that."

Lev Sercarz says that spices such as coriander, mustard, ginger, galangal and paprika could all be grown successfully on U.S. soil. Chili peppers and garlic are already part of the local food scene, but garlic in particular faces competition from China. Some sesame seeds are produced domestically but tend to be exported, meaning the seeds on your breakfast bagel are most likely imported.

Interestingly, growers in Vermont are starting to experiment with growing saffron, the world's most expensive spice. While there's definite appeal in the idea of local saffron, it's a clever way for small-scale farmers to diversify their crops with relatively little investment up front. The Salt describes farmer Patti Padua first attempt at growing saffron in Vermont:

"We purchased 2,500 corms [bulbs] from Holland and planted them in beds in late August of this year. Our first harvest was this October." That harvest was a bit of a disappointment, with a yield of about 150 stigma (the part of a plant where pollen germinates), but Padua is undaunted. "There was a learning curve on drying, and I think we finally got it right by using a food dehydrator, where we can dry at a low temperature. Harvesting went well and the processing is a pleasant and doable task."

The biggest hurdle could be labor costs, since every stigma must be hand-picked. But spices have a way of taking on regional fame, of becoming recognized for the place where they're grown, meaning Vermont saffron could stand a chance at success. Lev Sercarz uses the example of Espelette pepper, which is not native to southwestern France, but has become famous, driving 30 percent of the region's economy. It makes me think of Tahitian vanilla and Aleppo pepper.

Before reading this article I'd never really thought about local spice production, mostly because I assumed tropical climates were required to grow them. When I shop for spices I prioritize organic, fair-trade (via Ten Thousand Villages in Canada), or zero waste (buying with reusable containers at Bulk Barn), but if local were an option, I'd happily go for that.

The more we can centralize our food production, bringing it closer to our homes, and the less reliant we are on distant food suppliers and fossil fuel-powered transportation networks, the better off we'll all be.