Farmers Market in Williamsburg, Virginia

Farmers Market in Williamsburg, Virginia

In the U.S., the local food movement still represents a tiny percentage of total agricultural sales. However, it has been growing rapidly and it has captured the attention of the media. The USDA Census of Agriculture has begun to track the trend. How do states compare?

A census of agriculture is a five year snapshot of farming and its accuracy is impacted by an 80% return by farmers, by weather variability across the nation and by economic cycles. That said, some trends and conclusions can be drawn from the data about the local food movement.

In the 2007 and 2012 censuses, USDA asked the question, did you produce, raise, market.wbor grow any crops, livestock, poultry, or agriculture products that were sold directly to individual consumers for human consumption? Farmers were to include sales from roadside stands, farmers markets, pick your own, door to door, and Community Supported Agriculture. Not to be included were craft items, processed foods such as cheese and butter, jellies, sausages and hams, wine and cider. Sales of these value-added goods is a part of the local food movement, and I would like to see these counted in the future.

Nationwide, direct sales grew 8.1% between 2007 and 2012, hardly an explosive growth rate. However, direct sales grew without much federal assistance, as opposed to some other segments of the farming industry. More funding will be available as a result of the 2014 Farm Bill. Despite the lack of support, in five years, Nevada’s direct sales grew 298%, South Carolina’s grew 116%, Utah’s grew 57% and West Virginia’s grew 53%. Maryland’s direct sales grew a very respectable 32%. On the other hand, many states saw a significant decline in direct sales, including Mississippi, Ohio, Oregon and Texas.

Another way to measure the local food movement is to look at annual per capita

Understanding Vermont Report: Local Food for Healthy Communities

Local Food for Healthy Communities: Bringing Food Security to all Vermonters

sales. Nationwide, the undisputed leader is Vermont, where residents spent roughly $44 in direct purchase of goods for human consumption in 2012. The next highest is Maine, at $18 per person per year. New England states New Hampshire, Connecticut and Massachusetts also ranked high in this category. Maryland’s direct sales per capita figure of approx. $5 is 24th highest. Florida and Texas are at the bottom, with approximately $1 per capita.

Nationwide, the local food movement is generating $1.3 billion in direct sales of farm products for human consumption, not including value-added sales or indirect sales to consumers via food hubs or other aggregators. Why the wide disparities between the states?

It is clear that New England is a leader in direct sales. In my last blog, I mentioned how land preservation movements originated in New England and the Mid-Atlantic. The motivation may be food security and economic security, in addition to the desire to purchase fresh local food directly from a farmer, as highlighted in Vermont’s publication Local Food for Healthy Communities: Bring Food Security to all Vermonters.  It may also be that state and local programs and policies are helping to facilitate direct sales.

Over time, I expect that the USDA will do more research into why farmers in some states are doing much better than others with direct sales. Meanwhile, we will be continuing with our review of this treasure trove of data of the next few months.