By Hugh Finlay
There is a rising demand for locally grown food in the US, according to a new book produced by the US Department of Agriculture. In the book, ('Harvesting Opportunity: The Power of Regional Food System Investment to Transform Communities') the USDA marketing services deputy director, Deborah Tropp says, there is data to show that customers are ready to pay more for locally grown food.
In 2015 over 150,000 US farmers sold their products to local customers. This adds up to almost $9 billion worth of business, and the majority of this business, over half, was done through wholesalers in their areas. The advantages of this are pointed out by the book's author, Deborah Tropp: "Recognition is growing that support of small/local farm businesses may keep a greater share of money recirculating in the local economy and allow farmers to retain a greater share of consumer expenditures on food." She says this could revive the economies of rural areas throughout the US.
Many rural areas have been coal mining areas, which have been economically hit by the dropping demand for coal. Coal mining areas were boom economies but 75% of them, have lost their boom status. Other sources of income for rural areas, such as natural gas and oil production, have also been unpredictable, subject to change at any time. "No one community should be reliant on one employer - it's not sustainable, not good for business, and it doesn't let people sleep well at night." said Sanah Baig the National Association of Counties program director.
Many of these rural communities are turning to a more predictable source of income: agriculture.
This is where local organizers come in. Local experts are helping farmers to sell their products. As one of these helpers puts it, "They (the farmers) may be making a great sauce or chocolate, but don't necessarily have the skill base or the experience around distribution, marketing, planning and financials. We're doing specialized support in that area." A one local farmer summed up his position, "When you try and run any kind of business, from growing all the food to marketing it to getting to the end user, there are so many steps. If we can take (marketing) off (farmers') plates, that will give more time to grow."
The Harvesting Opportunity report points out that government support is not enough to regenerate local farming in these former fuel mining areas. Private companies and investors also need to finance the changeover to farming. Said Sanah Baig, "If the government, which is so risk adverse, is willing to put money into these communities, then the private sector has a lot to gain by doing the same. This is a call to action for them to step up to the plate."
Another way that US agriculture is regenerating is through recruiting military veterans to join farms. This fills an important manpower gap on US farms, where at the moment, the majority of US farmers are over the age of 65.
"What (people) don't realize is that veterans are great for farms and farming and for our food supply because they have a work ethic like nobody's business and they have the endurance and they have the mission drive and grit and everything else to start a farm." said Leora Barish, the originator of Heroic Food Farm, a project to train veterans to farm.