Beyond Farmers Markets: Why Local Food Belongs on Grocery Shelves

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When South Carolinians buy South Carolina peaches, there are unique regional benefits. Here's how the USDA is helping make that happen.

farm-wide.jpgFood hub Keewayden Farms sells organic Wisconsin-grown products to grocers in the Midwest. (rufushau)

Several years ago, South Carolina dairyman Tom Trantham presented me with a conundrum. "We grow great peaches here," he said, "some of the best in the country. But once they're picked, they disappear - at least for a little while." After harvest, the South Carolina peaches were shipped to California, where they were repacked and sold wholesale to companies that supply the nation's major grocers. "And then those peaches get put on another truck and shipped right back to South Carolina, where they end up on our store shelves," Tom said. "Can you explain how that makes any sense?"

The national and international distribution chains that Tom described have evolved over time to the point where they are highly organized and streamlined. For American agriculture, this network has helped farmers increase their bottom line and enabled a remarkable trade surplus in agriculture - which set records last year at nearly $43 billion and supported more than a million American jobs.

But we also know that there are tremendous untapped opportunities for producers to sell their products locally, further fueling the U.S. economy and expanding agriculture's impact. When South Carolina peaches are sold directly to South Carolinians, there are uniquely local economic benefits. When the farmer, the packer, the wholesaler, and the retailer all prosper in the same region, it creates opportunity for home-grown jobs, draws more people into agriculture, and fosters relationships between the people who buy food and the people who grow it.

This is happening in places like Charlottesville, Virginia, where Local Food Hub aggregates products from more than 70 farms in the state, markets them to institutions, restaurants and grocers, and distributes them to more than 150 locations in the region, including the cafeteria at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The "food hub" model is gaining traction nationwide as a vehicle to help small and midsized farms supply buyers they cannot reach on their own, and for these buyers to access large volumes of local product.

It is happening in Viroqua, Wisconsin, a town of 4,400 that was rocked by a factory closing and the loss of 81 jobs in January 2009. The Vernon Economic Development Association leveraged public and private funds and bought the shuttered factory, turning it into an incubator for food businesses. One new business using the space is Keewaydin Farms, a food hub selling organic Wisconsin-grown products to grocers in the Midwest; another is the Fifth Season Cooperative, which connects producer-members with new institutional markets.

In both Charlotte and Viroqua, the USDA helped these businesses grow. That's because local and regional food systems are an important part of our broader mission to expand economic opportunities in rural America.

Here's why.

First, we know that there is a segment of farmers and ranchers who are too small to compete on the global market, but large enough that the proceeds from a farm stand or weekly farmers market are not going to cut it. Expanding into regional sales is an opportunity for them. With access to these larger markets, they have a chance to prosper. Without these connections, "agriculture of the middle" will continue to disappear.

Business models like food hubs and cooperatives, and infrastructure like regional storage facilities, processing plants, and distribution networks, can help these producers reach new markets that are demanding locally grown products. That's why the USDA supports business development planning as well as the brick and mortar needed to get food from the farm to the consumer.

A second reason why regional food systems are on the USDA's agenda is because they can offer important opportunities for young and beginning farmers. The average age of an American farmer today is 57; for every farm operator under the age of 35, we have six over 65. Unless a young person inherits land and equipment, it is unlikely that he or she will have any chance at getting into - let alone surviving in - the global marketplace. On the other hand, with a relatively small plot of land, new farmers can build a profitable business selling high-value crops like produce directly to consumers. I see tremendous energy among young and beginning farmers for entering farming through local and regional sales.

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Kathleen Merrigan is deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

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