When the Oxford University Press announced their word of the year for 2007, some people were pleased by their choice and others were perplexed. The publisher selected “locavore,” a term that describes folks who try to eat only foods produced within a certain radius of where they live. In many cases, that radius is no more than 100 miles.

Among the bloggers and discussion board posters who reacted to the selection, there were those who felt the term was too obscure, having never heard it themselves. There were those who applauded the choice, saying that the time had come to draw attention to the impact of food choices on the environment, the local economy and the energy supply. Still, others felt the publishers were making a political statement.

As for the word being too obscure, it’s no less so than the 11 runners-up, which include bacn (e-mail that’s slightly more welcome than spam), cloudware (online computer applications) and mumblecore (an independent film movement). It’s not the only agricultural term on the list; colony collapse disorder made the cut as well.

According to the Oxford University Press, the term locavore was coined by four women in San Francisco who challenged Bay Area residents to eat only food grown or produced within 100 miles for one month. The term has since been adopted by other groups, with some spelling it “localvore.”

Some bloggers took exception to the locavore term itself, saying that locatarian would have been more appropriate, as it connotes a choice, like vegetarianism, rather than an instinct, like carnivore.

If you check the Web site run by the original locavores (www.locavores.com), it does have an activist slant. According to this site and others like it, if you buy anything but local food you’re contributing to the energy crisis, pollution and global warming. While these sites promote local food and farms, they are at times slightly critical of conventional farming practices like pesticide and fertilizer use and soil tillage.

Locavores even have a pledge:

If not locally produced, then organic.

If not organic, then family farm.
If not family farm, then local business.
If not a local business, then fair trade.

The logic seems a bit off. After all, local farms are most likely family farms. Organic may be neither. If produce isn’t local, it’s going to be difficult to determine if it was grown on a family farm. And, they’ve left out other options like IPM and other best management practices. I guess you can only put so much in a pledge, though.

If you’re a farmer involved in direct marketing, locavores are the perfect target market. What more could you ask for than customers who refuse to buy anything but local food?

The challenge here in the Northeast is feeding locavores year-round. It’s not surprising that the movement took hold in a slightly warmer climate. I’ve heard that many northern locavores are willing to change their diet with the seasons, so at least they’ll work with what you have available.

How do you connect with this emerging demographic? Well, there are any number of locavore and other food Web sites where farms can get listed or advertise as a source of local products. Think of the boundless publicity possibilities for playing up this trend and your role in it.

It may not be possible, or even advisable, to eat locally produced food exclusively. Even sailors centuries ago had to import limes and other citrus fruits to prevent scurvy. Locavores make concessions for spices, coffee and other necessities that are not produced locally. And a few people who are willing to go to such extremes are not going to support an entire local agricultural economy.

However, if they can get ordinary consumers thinking about their food choices and buying local more often, then locavores will have accomplished something even more important than securing a reference in a dictionary.

The author, a freelance writer, is a public affairs specialist for the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service in Amherst, Mass., and was previously director of communications at the Mass. Dept. of Food & Agriculture. Read past marketing columns at http://farmmarketing.blogspot.com.