WASHINGTON, Sept. 23, 2015 - Once seen as fringe movement that could be easily dismissed, recent research on the progress of locally produced foods show the movement is no longer one that can be ignored.

USDA’s 2012 Census of Agriculture found that almost 8 percent of U.S. farms are marketing foods locally either directly to consumers or through intermediated sales. Industry analysts in a report released last week by the agricultural think tank AGree estimated local food sales in 2014 at $11.7 billion, up from what AGree called a “conservative estimate” of $6.1 billion by the census for 2012.

On Friday, AGree hosted a tour demonstrating the progress and potential of local foods in the Washington, D.C., area, which ranged from an overview of the White House garden to eating at a restaurant in the Old Town neighborhood of Alexandria, Virginia, that sources many of its ingredients locally. Kathleen Merrigan, a co-chair with AGree, said that the report and tour are signs that the country is “saying goodbye to the era where we were having political battles about local food.”

“It’s still a very small percentage of American agriculture,” Merrigan, a former deputy agriculture secretary, told Agri-Pulse, “but I think that its importance goes beyond the market size right now.”

While many think of local foods as a trip to the farmers market for fresh tomatoes, Merrigan said there has also been progress in marketing of locally produced grains and meat products. Of farms that market their products locally, 50 percent raise livestock, almost 30 percent are strictly fruit, vegetable or nut operations, and the remainder raise crops, according to AGree’s report.

The tour also included a stop at Union Kitchen, a food incubator where beginning food companies can take advantage of its full-service kitchen as well as marketing, and distribution services that currently handle about $100,000 worth of product per month. Founder Jonas Singer spoke very practically about his business, telling tour participants, “If we don’t succeed, I lose my house.”

A stop at a mobile market operated by the Arcadia Center for Sustainable Food and Agriculture provided another look at a local food operation. The market sells produce grown at its farm near George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate at different locations in Washington, and in 2014 sold 20 tons worth of fruits and vegetables in neighborhoods with low access to healthy foods.

Pamela Hess, the non-profit’s executive director, acknowledged that their roving market “will always probably be a money-losing operation,” but she pointed to other metrics showing that Arcadia was filling a need.

More than 50 percent of mobile market sales go to low-income customers using some form of food assistance, she said. Additionally, Arcadia represents just 2 percent of revenue from farmers markets in the D.C. area, but 20 percent of all farmers market sales using the Supplemental

Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). She said that encouraging healthier eating habits among the less fortunate also reduces the risk of diabetes and other diseases.  

“You can either pay the doctor or you can pay the farmer,” she said.

AGree’s report calls for flexibility in the federal definition of local food systems to allow continued innovation at the local and state levels. It also suggests USDA and FDA adapt programs and regulations to serve local food systems, and advocates for more research to better understand demand for local food and to inform investment.


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