Local food is growing roots

WASHINGTON – With 341, Michigan ranks among the top 10 states across the country for farmers markets. Every day Michiganders join their friends and neighbors to buy directly from the area’s local farmers and food vendors, learn more about where their food comes from, and experience the uniqueness of their community. At the same time, local farmers are building their businesses, creating jobs, and contributing to the local economy.

Farmers markets celebrate Michigan’s agricultural bounty. They also are the roots to a bigger story about what is happening with local foods. Before our very eyes, local foods systems are blossoming into a robust and resilient market sector. With each transaction, the supply and demand for local food is growing more sophisticated and sustainable.

According to a recent report from USDA’s Economic Research Service, farmers across the country sold an estimated $6.1 billion in locally marketed foods in 2012. Industry estimates suggest local food sales topped $11.7 billion in 2014. This is serious money. More and more of it is coming from sales to retailers, institutions and restaurants rather than through farmers markets and Community Supported Agriculture (CSAs). In other words, the demand side is maturing as businesses pay more attention to what their customers want.

On the supply side, we already know that from 2006 to 2014, the number of American farmers markets jumped 180 percent to 8,260, giving farmers across the country opportunities for robust direct-to-consumer sales. This growth is due, in part, to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s significant commitment to local and regional food systems under the Obama Administration. Today, these markets give farmers opportunities to grow their businesses and meet evolving consumer demands.

One change came through farm-to-school programs. In 2012, more than 4,300 school districts reported spending more than $385 million on local food through farm-to-school programs. In Michigan, there are over 1,159 schools spending more than $10 million on local food.

These numbers show that not only is the local food movement alive and well, it is growing up and becoming a healthy, established part of the broader marketplace. Indeed, the National Restaurant Association has been identifying locally sourced produce, meat and seafood among the top culinary trends for several years running. As demand for local food grows, so do the supporting businesses. In many cases, restaurants, schools, supermarkets and other institutions are using regional food hubs to move local food from farmers to meet wholesale, retail and institutional needs. There are now more than 135 operational food hubs in our National Food Hub Directory and 3 are in Michigan.

Where is all this local food coming from and who is producing it? According to the 2012 USDA Census of Agriculture, more than 163,600 farms were engaged in the local food sector across the country and rely on both direct-to-consumer retail opportunities as well as institutional buyers. So, as farmers expand their reach, options for consumers expand, too, and people have more opportunities to get locally produced food directly from retailers in a variety of settings, including supermarkets, cafeterias, schools, restaurants and hospitals.

The USDA Census of Agriculture also notes that nearly one of every five American farmers has operated a farm for less than 10 years. These new farmers are innovative, entrepreneurial and creative. They are as diverse as American agriculture itself. They are growing traditional crops and new varieties, organic produce, and heirloom products. They are developing added-value products from sauces to ciders. They are part of row-crop farms and are employing cutting-edge technology. More than ever, they are developing their businesses to meet the demand for locally sourced food.

USDA is investing in these new and beginning farmers by offering the tools and resources they need to succeed, like easier access to capital through microloans, business development training and education, and changes in crop insurance to help manage risk for a wider variety of crops.

USDA’s Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food initiative coordinates our work as the local food market sector continues to grow. In the past two years alone, USDA has made over 500 investments in food hubs, local processing facilities and distribution networks. For example, Eastern Market in Detroit, a public market for over a hundred years, represents more than 250 regional vendors. The market has received support from USDA to expand the availability of healthy, local food. The market currently works with Detroit Public Schools and processes up to $30,000 in SNAP benefits each month.

As market demands continue to grow and evolve, Michigan’s local and regional food movement has proven again that the best is yet to come.

– – –

Krysta Harden serves as the Deputy Secretary of the United States Department of Agriculture. Raised on a farm in Camilla, Georgia, Deputy Secretary Harden helps lead the department, working to strengthen the American agricultural economy, revitalize rural communities, and expand access to healthy food for every American.