A local food blueprint
by Tom Laskawy.
The most exciting aspect of the
new USDA report on the local food and farm economy [PDF] isn’t the sizable $4.8 billion in annual
sales of local food it says occurred in 2008. It’s the fact that, as the AP noted, the local food economy is
poised to grow as fast as even the most optimistic estimates. The way things are
trending, local food sales in 2011 could pass $7 billion — a number that local
food boosters (as well as the USDA itself [PDF]) threw around a few years back. That
figure would represent an impressive 15 percent annual increase since 2008, and it’s especially
impressive given that we’re still in the teeth of the Great Recession.
But that’s not the only
interesting tidbit from the report; it also shows that the local food movement
has flipped the current agricultural economy on its head. Small farms are king
– at least in terms of the number participating — while large farms are
Of course, despite what Big Ag wants you to think,
the vast majority of large farms don’t actually grow food. They grow sweeteners,
additives, animal feed, fuel, and fiber –or what I like to call Everything But
Food. On the other hand, the local food economy is predominantly about selling
fruit and vegetables — corn, soy, and cotton growers need not apply.
The USDA also found that the local food economy is
concentrated on the West Coast, as well as in the Northeast. Surely population density
plays a role, but the study noted that local sales are higher in these two
particular areas than in other equally dense regions of the country. The study’s
authors speculate that there might be a “neighborhood effect” (though I might
call it a “network effect”) of some kind where the presence of a certain
critical mass of local farmers makes it more possible for new ones to get into
Farmers with a local market also spend more time farming
than their counterparts who don’t sell locally. As the USDA put it, “These
measures suggest that the occupational and time commitments to farming are
valued more by local food sales farm households than the foregone labor income
they could have earned off farm.” And whether those “time commitments to
farming” are more valued or simply more necessary when growing food at a
smaller scale, it’s still a difference worth noting.
The USDA also analyzed the economic impact of focusing on
local sales and found that, though “the same share of farms with and without
local food sales earned … profits,” farms that sold locally generally started
profiting sooner. For farmers, that’s great news. The report also suggests that
local food represents the future of farming in this country. Almost half the farmers selling locally on the
West Coast and a third of those doing so in the Northeast are beginners.
This is important given that the average age of farmers
nationally is now 57. After all, the older farmers who mostly grow
industrial-style commodity (i.e. Everything But Food) agriculture will see their farms fully “chickenized” as they retire and get replaced by massive,
This good news is
offset by the daunting facts just released by the National Young Farmers Coalition. The Coalition found that a menacing
three-headed beast of capital, land, and health insurance keeps young farmers
from pursuing their dreams. And a recent New York Times article illustrates the challenges and obstacles
faced by young farmers, including the fact that only 22 percent of them turn a
profit their first year.
Now there’s lots that can be done, from encouraging institutional buying of local food to offering helpful toolkits on rewriting local zoning laws for urban agriculture. But the federal
government needs to do its part as well.
That’s where the bill introduced in the House and Senate by
Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) and Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) comes into the
picture. It’s called the Local Farms, Food, and Jobs Act of 2011 and it would rewrite various aspects of
the Farm Bill to support local food sales. It’s full of practical (if not exactly
sexy) approaches to improving local food infrastructure, like improving slaughterhouses
and institutional sales, but it would also ease access to credit and crop
insurance for small and organic farmers. The best part is that, compared to
conventional farm subsidies, these kinds of programs are dirt cheap; they cost
millions, not billions.
As we’ve discussed, commodity subsidies paid to the largest,
richest farmers are already on the chopping block in this round of Farm Bill negotiations (despite
the desperate efforts of corporate lobbyists). Can you imagine if even a
portion of those funds went to these vital, less expensive efforts?
Of course, our government is of, by, and for the 1 percent right
now, so I’d be surprised if changes like these happen right away. But the
convergence of this necessary data from the USDA and the policies from
forward-thinking legislators might at least create the map needed to rebuild an
agriculture system that would grow food (not Everything But), create jobs, and
generate income for the middle class. Who can argue with that?
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