When I grew up on our family farm in Southern Maryland in the 1950s and 1960’s, a large portion of our food was locally sourced. Our garden supplied vegetables. In the winter months, we ate the surplus goods canned the previous growing season. Most of our protein came from fish in the Patuxent and farm eggs, milk, pork, and beef. In the area, there were still local butcher shops which sold meat at locally owned general stores. Our local food diet was not unusual. However, by 1970s food that was processed and sold at major chains was viewed as ‘modern’ and better and nearly all of our family’s food came from a grocery store.
Today, U.S. food travels at least 1,500 miles to our table and around 80% of our seafood, 39% of our fruits and nuts, and 18 percent of our vegetables come from foreign sources. Food recalls and stories about how food is processed have changed attitudes about food security, food policy and the distance that food travels.
In the last two decades, locally sourced food has regained some ground. According to the USDA report Local Food Systems, Concepts, Impacts, and Issues, direct-to-consumer sales of vegetables and melons grew 69% from 2002 to 2007. Direct-to-consumer sales of fruit and nuts grew 75% and direct-to-consumer meat sales grew 84% over the same period. Farmers markets have grown 260% since 1994. In every region of the country, direct-to-consumer sales grew nearly twice as fast as total agricultural sales between 1997 and 2007. We will learn more about the trends in the last five years when the 2012 Agricultural Census is completed.
So what is the growth potential for locally sourced food? A 2010 New Hampshire report (Home Grown: The Economy impact of Local Food Systems in New Hampshire) estimates that up to 6% of its total food demand is coming from local sources, which compares very favorably to just 0.24% of locally sourced food in Southern Maryland in 2007. Meanwhile, Boulder County, Colorado has set as a goal that 10% of its total food budget be locally sourced. According to a 2012 Policy Choices Survey by the University of Baltimore Schaefer Center for Public Policy, Seventy-eight (78) percent of Marylanders are more likely to buy produce that is identified as having been grown by a Maryland farmer.
Whether locally sourced food will continue to grow in Southern Maryland depends on many factors, including energy costs, the number of food safety recalls, local food policy, the food distribution system, how many farmers we have, and consumer demand.
Next week’s topic: The Call For New Farmers