Five Billion Reasons to Eat Local

, senior analyst, Food and Environment | November 14, 2011, 5:53 pm EDT
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A recent report from the USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS) provides new evidence of the importance of local foods systems. Despite its unfortunate title, Direct and Intermediated Marketing of Local Foods in the United States (yawn) actually comes to a startling conclusion—local foods have become a $4.8 billion-a-year industry.

Photo: Claire Bloomberg/Bloomberg Photography

That’s a lot of Brussels sprouts.

It’s also about four times higher than the USDA’s previous estimate.The difference is in the wonky-sounding word “intermediated.” You see, the department’s 2007 estimate of $1.2 billion only accounted for food that farmers sold directly to consumers at farmers markets, through community-supported agriculture (CSAs), and the like. But the new ERS report also looked at foods sold locally through institutional intermediaries like supermarkets, restaurants, and regional distributors.

It turns out those channels are a huge piece of the puzzle, with farms selling foods exclusively through them reporting $2.7 billion in sales in 2008. As co-author Steven Vogel points out in the Associated Press today, the report will expand people’s notions of what the local food market is.

Other findings include:

  • Some 40 percent of vegetable, fruit and nut farms across the U.S. sell in local and regional markets. Nearly 110,000 farms participate in these markets.
  • The value of locally sold food is highest in metropolitan areas and is geographically concentrated in the Northeast and on the West Coast.
  • The vast majority (81 percent) of local food farms in 2008 were small farms (with less than $50,000 in gross annual sales). They averaged $7,800 in sales per farm and were more likely to sell exclusively direct-to-consumer.
  • Medium-sized farms (with gross annual sales of $50,000 – $250,000) accounted for 17 percent of all farms reporting local food sales in 2008. They averaged $70,000 in local food sales per farm.
  • Large farms (with gross annual sales of $250,000+) accounted for 5 percent of all farms reporting local food sales in 2008, but averaged $770,000 in local food sales per farm. They accounted for the vast majority (92 percent) of the value of local food sales marketed exclusively through intermediated channels.

Local foods = jobs (again)

Furthermore, as USDA’s Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan pointed out in her blog post on the report, local food systems are job creators:

The ERS report finds that fruit and vegetable farms selling into local and regional markets employ 13 fulltime workers per $1 million in revenue earned, for a total of 61,000 jobs in 2008. In comparison, fruit and vegetable farms not engaged in local food sales employed 3 fulltime workers per $1 million in revenue.

In that finding, the ERS report provides echoes what UCS has been saying, and provides additional support for the Local Farms, Food and Jobs Act, introduced earlier this month in Congress. If you haven’t yet urged your representatives to support this legislation, you can do so on the UCS Action Center today.

Of course, the local food sector is still relatively small (comparable in size to the zombie “industry”—who knew?), and industrial agriculture still dominates the landscape.

But unlike the undead, it is increasingly clear that local food systems have taken on a life of their own.

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  • Tony Poda

    The $4.8 billion dollars flushed into tres chic “local” food each year, those are your “Five Billion Reasons To Eat Local”? Are you serious? Confirms this entire locovore hoax is simply another faddish fashion statement flaunted by vapid materialistic elites. Drive BMW, wear Gucci, eat local, yada, yada, yada…

    • Tony, thanks for your comment. I’m not sure why you object to consumers’ food dollars going to hardworking farmers and recirculating in their local economies. Further, why would anyone object to small businesses that create more than four times as many jobs per million dollars of revenue compared to their counterparts that don’t sell food locally? Isn’t job creation and local economic development exactly what we need right now?

      I see you’re not a big fan of BMW-driving elites (I also prefer more fuel-efficient vehicles), so you’ll be happy to know that local food systems are serving a much broader cross-section of consumers. Many farmers markets now allow low-income shoppers to redeem nutrition assistance benefits, and UCS supports expansion of those programs. And a recent study in 19 communities in Virginia, Tennessee, West Virginia, Kentucky, North Carolina and South Carolina found farmers market prices to be highly competitive with those of mainstream supermarkets for a range of commonly consumed foods. This study, available at, echoes the findings of previous surveys in other regions.

      So you see, local food really isn’t just for the wealthy.