Local Farmers Markets On the Rise, Despite Lack of Federal Support

Over the last several decades, thousands of farmers markets have popped up in cities and towns across the country, benefiting local farmers, individuals and economies, but they could growing faster and create many more jobs, according to a report released today by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS).

What’s holding farmers markets back? Federal policies that favor industrial agriculture at their expense.

"On the whole, farmers markets have seen exceptional growth, providing local communities with fresh food direct from the farm," says Jeffrey O’Hara, report author and economist with UCS’s Food and Environment Program. "But our federal food policies are working against them. If the U.S. government diverted just a small amount of the massive subsidies it lavishes on industrial agriculture to support these markets and small local farmers, it would not only improve American diets, it would generate tens of thousands of new jobs."

UCS released the report, Market Forces: Creating Jobs through Public Investment in Local and Regional Food Systems," just a few days before the 12th annual U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Farmers Market Week, which starts Sunday, August 7. 

The number of farmers markets nationwide more than doubled between 2000-2010, jumping from 2,863-6,132. Over 100,000 farms now sell food directly to local consumers.

All that growth happened with relatively little help. Last year, for example, the USDA spent $13.7 billion on commodity, crop insurance, and supplemental disaster assistance payments mostly to support large industrial farms, according to the Congressional Budget Office. The amount the agency spent that year to support local and regional food system farmers? Less than $100 million, according to USDA data.

In 2007, the most recent USDA figure, direct farm to person sales amounted to a $1.2 billion-a-year business, and most of that money recirculates locally. "The fact that farmers are selling directly to the people who live nearby means that sales revenue stays local," O’Hara says. "That helps stabilize local economies."

Keeping revenues local also mean more sustainable jobs. Last summer, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack asked Congress to set a goal in the 2012 Farm Bill of helping at least 100,000 Americans become farmers by, among other things, providing entrepreneurial training and support for farmers markets.

O’Hara’s report takes up Vilsack’s challenge and argues that supporting local and regional food system expansion is central to meeting that goal.

In the report, O’Hara identifies a number of initiatives the federal government could take to encourage new farmers and the growth of farmers markets in the upcoming Farm Bill. For example, the report calls on Congress to:

  • Support development of local food markets, including farmers markets and farm-to-school programs, which stabilize community-supported markets and create permanent jobs.

    For example, the report shows the Farmers Market Promotion Program could create as many as 13,500 jobs nationally over five years, if reauthorized, by providing modest funding for 100-500 farmers’ markets each year.

  • Level the playing field for farmers in rural regions by investing in infrastructure, such as meat-processing or dairy-bottling facilities, which would help meat, dairy and other farmers produce and market their products more efficiently. These investments could foster competition in food markets, increase product choice for families, and generate jobs in the community.
  • Allow low-income residents to redeem food nutrition subsidies at local food markets to help them afford fresh fruits and vegetables. Currently, not all markets are able to accept Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits.

"Farmers at local markets are a new variety of innovative entrepreneurs, and we need to nurture them," says O’Hara. "Supporting these farmers should be a Farm Bill priority."

Supporting Local Growers and Nutritious Produce

Senator Gillibrand (D-NY) introduced the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) bill last week to attract more people to participate in CSAs – there are about 350 in NY State and 13,000 nationwide with about 400,000 members.

Under CSAs, people buy shares in a local farm that gives them a "share" in their crop. In exchange for paying their share up front, they get weekly deliveries of fresh, locally grown, seasonal food, fruit, herbs, and other products, depending on the specific farm.

This has been a boon to local farmers, allowing them to stay in business and prosper because they can plan their crops in advance based on the number of shareholders who’ve made a financial commitment.

The legislation would create a competitive grant program to support local growers (giving preference to farms who are operated by or employ veterans) and facilitate the delivery and distribution of nutritious, locally grown produce while connecting customers to the farmers who grow their food. 

Urban Farming Becoming Essential

As people around the world move from rural to urban settings in search of economic opportunities, urban agriculture is becoming an important source of both food and employment, says a recent Worldwatch Institute report.

Urban farming legend and CEO of Milwaukee’s Growing Power Inc., Will Allen, agrees.

Allen is known for developing urban farms on neglected inner-city properties, providing healthy, local food to inner city people who live in "food deserts." In addition to growing vegetables, herbs, fish, chickens, turkeys, ducks, rabbits, goats and bees, he plans to develop vertical farms to produce more food on even less land.

He uses compost to improve the soil and fertilize his crops, and to generate heat for his greenhouses. He recycles irrigation water to fill tanks filled fish such as perch and tilapia. And he uses renewable energy for electricity.

Urban farming could grow much faster, Allen said in an interview for Marketwatch, if more of the nation’s farm subsidies support local farms instead of big agribusiness corn and soy growers.

Imagine rebuilding the economy from the ground up, he says, instead of from the corporation down. Imagine putting abandoned properties to productive use, creating jobs in neighborhoods where there are none, and getting obese kids off junk food so they don’t drain the health-care system.

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