They’re Growing Nationally, but Federal Policies Favoring Industrial Agriculture Hold Them Back
WASHINGTON (August 4, 2011) – Over the last several decades, thousands of farmers markets have been popping up in cities and towns across the country, benefiting local farmers, consumers and economies, but they could be doing a lot better, according to a report released today by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). What’s holding farmers markets back? Federal policies that favor industrial agriculture at their expense.
“On the whole, farmers markets have seen exceptional growth, providing local communities with fresh food direct from the farm,” said Jeffrey O’Hara, the author of the report and an economist with UCS’s Food and Environment Program. “But our federal food policies are working against them. If the U.S. government diverted just a small amount of the massive subsidies it lavishes on industrial agriculture to support these markets and small local farmers, it would not only improve American diets, it would generate tens of thousands of new jobs.”
UCS released the report just a few days before the 12th annual U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Farmers Market Week, which starts on Sunday, August 7. According to the report, “Market Forces: Creating Jobs through Public Investment in Local and Regional Food Systems,” the number of farmers markets nationwide more than doubled between 2000 and 2010 jumping from 2,863 to 6,132, and now more than 100,000 farms sell food directly to local consumers.
All that growth happened with relatively little help. Last year, for example, the USDA spent $13.725 billion in commodity, crop insurance, and supplemental disaster assistance payments mostly to support large industrial farms, according to the Congressional Budget Office. The amount the agency spent that year to support local and regional food system farmers? Less than $100 million, according to USDA data.
In 2007, the most recent USDA figure, direct agricultural product sales amounted to a $1.2 billion-a-year business, and most of that money recirculates locally. “The fact that farmers are selling directly to the people who live nearby means that sales revenue stays local,” O’Hara said. “That helps stabilize local economies.”
Keeping revenues local also can mean more job opportunities. Last summer, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack asked Congress to set a goal in the 2012 Farm Bill of helping at least 100,000 Americans to become farmers by, among other things, providing entrepreneurial training and support for farmers markets. O’Hara’s report takes up Vilsack’s challenge and argues that supporting local and regional food system expansion is central to meeting that goal.
In the report, O’Hara identified a number of initiatives the federal government could take to encourage new farmers and the growth of farmers markets in the upcoming Farm Bill. For example, the report called on Congress to:
- support the development of local food markets, including farmers markets and farm-to-school programs, which can stabilize community-supported markets and create permanent jobs. For example, the report found that the Farmers Market Promotion Program could create as many as 13,500 jobs nationally over a five-year period, if reauthorized, by providing modest funding for 100 to 500 farmers markets per year.
- level the playing field for farmers in rural regions by investing in infrastructure, such as meat-processing or dairy-bottling facilities, which would help meat, dairy and other farmers produce and market their products to consumers more efficiently. These investments could foster competition in food markets, increase product choice for consumers, and generate jobs in the community.
- allow low-income residents to redeem food nutrition subsidies at local food markets to help them afford fresh fruits and vegetables. Currently, not all markets are able to accept Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits.
“Farmers at local markets are a new variety of innovative entrepreneurs, and we need to nurture them,” said O’Hara. “Supporting these farmers should be a Farm Bill priority.”