MANY consumers want to "buy local" and support their local economy with their purchases. When local food marketing opportunities exist for rural producers, they cause ripple effects throughout the rural economy, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a recent column.
The 2012 "Census of Agriculture" results, which were released in May, indicate that nearly 150,000 farmers and ranchers nationwide are selling their products directly to consumers, and 50,000 are selling to local retailers.
Today, local food is an industry worth more than $7 billion and growing, according to industry estimates.
"The excitement around this market is drawing young people back to rural communities, generating jobs and improving quality of life," Vilsack said.
The nation touts 8,100 farmers markets, which provide important community spaces and are helping many farmers, particularly smaller and beginning farmers, increase their revenues.
In the 2002 census, direct-to-consumer sales equaled $812 million, and that climbed to $1.3 billion in the 2012 census, an increase of 60%. Additionally, the number of farms selling directly to consumers has increased from 116,733 in 2002 to 144,530 in 2012.
When compared with the 2007 census, the current census shows an increase of 8% for the number of farms selling directly to consumers and 5% for sales in dollars of directly marketed agricultural products.
For the first time, the 2012 census provides a more detailed glimpse into local food marketing, providing categories such as direct-to-retail marketing, production and sales of value-added commodities and marketing through community-supported agriculture (CSA).
For CSA and direct-to-retail marketing, many of the top 10 states, such as California, Wisconsin, New York, Washington and Pennsylvania, were also among the top 10 states for the number of organic farms or organic sales.
In the direct-to-retail category, however, southern states also made a strong showing, with Texas, North Carolina and Virginia making the top 10 list, while Texas and North Carolina rounded out the top three states after California for CSA marketing.
In the production and sales of value-added commodities, the southern states dominated, with Texas, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Virginia among the top 10 states.
For a long time, farmers markets were the principal face of local food. Today, the local market is growing and maturing, creating even bigger opportunities.
To help develop these and many other promising opportunities, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is working with its partners through the White House Rural Council to coordinate federal resources and programs.
One of the new ways the agency is doing this is through Local Food, Local Places, a new effort that pools federal funds to provide technical assistance to communities that want to use local food to spur economic development.
Under this effort, a team of agricultural, transportation, environmental and regional economic experts will work directly with local communities to develop comprehensive strategies that use local food systems to meet a variety of needs.
"Buying locally is one of the best things a community can do to grow its economy. Partnerships like Local Food, Local Places help rural leaders develop strategies for promoting farm products grown by people right in their own communities," Vilsack said. "The demand for local food is growing rapidly nationwide, creating more opportunities for American farmers and ranchers and growing the entire country's rural economy."
The new program, which was launched June 9, invites communities to apply for assistance and part of the $650,000 in funds from USDA, the Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Department of Transportation, Appalachian Regional Commission and Delta Regional Authority. Special consideration will be given to communities that are in the early stages of developing or restoring local food enterprises and creating economically vibrant communities. Selected communities in Appalachia and the Delta region will be eligible to receive financial assistance to help them implement those plans.
Vilsack added that Local Food, Local Places will put communities in a strong position to develop business plans, create financing and fund-raising strategies and implement their vision for more vibrant, livable and healthy communities.
Farm to school
Schools are also increasing their local food options, according to an updated "Farm to School Census."
Farm-to-school programs exist in every state in the country and in rural and urban school districts of all sizes. Farm-to-school programs involve healthy, nutritious school meals and snacks incorporating food products from local and regional sources and school gardens, as well as lessons in health, nutrition, food and agriculture.
USDA's Farm to School program, which is housed within the Food & Nutrition Service and coordinated under the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food Initiative, provides grants for farm-to-school activities and supports program participation with training, technical assistance and research.
Vilsack explained that institutional purchasing through Farm to School is a remarkable example of that. As schools let out for the academic year, USDA updated its "Farm to School Census" and found that 44% of school districts surveyed are actively engaged in farm-to-school programming.
That means more than 4,300 school districts that serve more than 23 million children are buying local products and teaching children where food comes from. In the 2011-12 school year, schools purchased more than $386 million in local food.
While the majority of farm-to-school programs target kindergarten through 12th grade (with the vast majority, 87%, targeting kindergarten through fifth grade), 30% of school districts have farm-to-school activities in pre-kindergarten settings.
Schools served local foods most often at lunch — 87% of school districts — followed by 48% at breakfast and 27% for the Fresh Fruit & Vegetable snack program (Figure 1).
Farm-to-school programs present economic opportunities for all segments of agriculture. While fruits, vegetables and milk top the list of foods schools buy locally, respondents stated that in the future, they'd like to buy more plant-based proteins, grains and flour, herbs, meats, poultry and eggs from local suppliers.
In the 2011-12 school year, the total farm-to-school dollars invested in local communities increased to $385 million (Figure 2). Additionally, 56% of the school districts that purchased local foods said they plan to buy more local foods in the future.
Such local investments in agriculture are important not only to the farmers and ranchers but also to other local businesses that benefit from the multiplier effect.