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.
The 2012 Census of Agriculture results 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 a more than $7 billion industry 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.
USDA’s local food work takes many forms. Last week, USDA opened the 19th season for our farmers market with great fanfare. This is one of the 8,100 farmers markets across the country. These are important community spaces and are helping many farmers, particularly smaller and beginning farmers, increase their revenues.
For a long time, farmers markets were the principal face of local food. Today, the local market is growing and maturing and with that, we’re seeing even bigger opportunities. Institutional purchasing through Farm to School is a remarkable example of that. As school closes out for the year, we’ve updated our 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 serving over 23 million children are buying local products and teaching children where food comes from. In school year 2011-2012, schools purchased over $386 million in local food.
To help develop these and many other promising opportunities, USDA is working with our partners through the White House Rural Council to coordinate Federal resources and programs. One of the new ways we’re 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. Local Food, Local Places will put communities in a strong position to develop business plans, create financing and fundraising strategies, and implement their vision for more vibrant, livable and healthy communities.
At USDA, we see local food systems as a critical part of our work to support rural economies more generally. When marketing opportunities expand, farms and ranches buy seed, invest in farm machinery, contract the services of custom operators, and support local businesses like restaurants and retailers. Growth in these areas leads to additional demand for community services, like schools and hospitals, and new support for small businesses, which in turn leads to new job opportunities and new growth in rural communities.