Americans are hungry for local food. With rising consumer interest in “buying local,” local and regional food systems are emerging to help farmers meet the demand. As the New England Governors Conference identified:
Growing demand for local food … fuels exciting new market opportunities in agriculture. Direct-to-consumer sales – through farmers markets, roadside stands, farm restaurants, and pick-your own operations – have skyrocketed.
The growing interest in locally grown is impacting other aspects of our food production. According to the governors’ report, the direct-to-consumer connection is also sparking interest in land conservation and farmland protection.
Reconnecting the food system also makes economic sense. A recent report, Ohio’s Food Systems – Farms at the Heart of It All, by Ken Meter of Crossroads Resource Center finds that the clusters of community-based food businesses forming across Ohio create both jobs and collaborative groups of new business owners. At the same time, it questions why local and regional food—a major industry in the state—have been eroding despite rising personal income and increased food consumption. In fact, the steadiest growth in Ohio’s farm economy—at about five percent annually—involves direct food sales from farmers to consumers. According to Meter, “If this were a single product, it would count as the 13th-ranked farm commodity.”
Food is an important industry in the Buckeye state. Ohioans purchase $29 billion of food per year, and the food industry accounts for 13 percent of the state’s economic activity. According to Meter, state policies that focus on distant markets rather than local consumers are detrimental to the economy—resulting in a $30 billion economic outflow each year, more than four times the $7 billion of total farm production in the state.
Recapturing these dollars would create significant economic opportunities, especially in Ohio where personal income increased 70 percent and food consumption increased 32 percent over the past 40 years. In recent years, direct sales from farmers to consumers rose significantly: 45 percent in Ohio (just shy of the 49 percent national average). The value of those sales rose 70 percent in the state. While the total sales figures remain small, farmer-to-consumer sales are one of the fastest growing sectors of the food economy, offering valuable opportunities to keep farmland in farming, especially in areas where farmers have close access to consumers. Indeed, a report on Northeast Ohio proposes that a 25 percent shift to local products could result in the creation of more than 27,000 jobs!
In Ohio, as in other parts of the country, local and regional food systems face many obstacles when scaling up to meet consumer demand, especially from institutional and other large market outlets. Public and private investment in infrastructure like food hubs (as pointed to by the USDA), processing facilities and distribution channels is needed to foster this growth and incentivize farmers to expand production to meet demand. The time is ripe for collaboration and strategic partnerships that develop the proper infrastructure to better connect farmers and consumers. It’s something that just makes sense.
About the Author: Julia Freedgood is Managing Director for Farmland and Communities at American Farmland Trust.