Can Farmers Markets & CSA Farms Really “Grow” Sustainable Food?

Like its cousin, community supported agriculture (CSA), farmers markets offer significant appeal to fans of local, sustainable and organic foods.  And with more than 4,600 such markets across America, along with over 12,500 CSA farms, the retail landscape is changing, if even just a little.

When considering all direct food sales, data released by the USDA Agricultural Census show such sales rose 49% to $1.2 billion in 2007 from $812 million in 2002, an inflation adjusted increase of just under 30 percent.  The number of farms selling direct also increased from 116,733 to 136,817 over the same period, a gain of 17%.  The USDA first began collecting direct sales data in 1997, when 110,630 farms had sales of $592 million.

And while this is impressive growth, the magnitude of direct food sales is still a drop in the bucket of overall farm commodity sales, representing 0.4% of the $300 billion of farm sales in 2007.  This leaves me with the nagging question of how much direct food sales can fundamentally affect the much-desired growth of sustainable food in our country.

Consider the USDA’s recently announced Farmers Market Promotion Program (FMPP), which allocates approximately $5 million for FMPP in fiscal years 2009 and 2010 and $10 million in fiscal years 2011 and 2012.  FMPP is designed to “help improve and expand domestic farmers markets, roadside stands, community-supported agriculture programs, agri-tourism activities, and other direct producer-to-consumer market opportunities.”

Sounds like a step in the right direction, right?  Yes, until you contrast it with U.S. farm subsidies, which the USDA is required by law to provide to over two dozen commodities, and which were budgeted to reach nearly $17.0 billion in 2006.  The $5-10 million for promoting direct food sales isn’t even in the noise level when compared to farm subsidies. For those wondering how much of that $17.0 billion in subsidies finds its way to specialty crops (e.g., edible fruits and vegetables), here is how the 2006 subsidies were expected to be distributed:


US Dollars (in Millions)

Feed grains




Upland and EIS cotton










Minor oilseeds




Vegetable oil


Wool and mohair


Other crops


Source: USDA 2006 Fiscal Year Budget

One thing that jumps out is that each subsidized commodity crop was expected to receive more in government subsidies than the largest annual allocation to the FMPP, which clearly shows the entrenched financial interests that sustainable food champions are up against.

What is needed reminds me of a somewhat typical episode of Star Trek (for the record, I am not a Trekkie, so forgive me if I don’t get this just right).  The USS Enterprise has once again found itself in a battle against significant odds.  The ship is damaged and its destruction seems imminent.  Suddenly, Captain Kirk orders his crew to concentrate all the ship’s energy to the front deflector shields to stage a last, heroic counterattack.  It works (it always works) and the good guys win the day.

Sustainable food needs a similar concentrated strategy, one that catches the “enemy” off-guard and unprepared by not hitting them where they are strongest. For example, going after industrial food in the halls of the U.S. Congress plays into their hand, since significant energy will be required to make very little progress (see FMPP). And, rather than destroying the enemy (i.e., conventional and industrial food systems), one goal should be to convert them, thus accelerating progress toward a truly sustainable food system for all.

For me, such a strategy must center on consumers and how they shop for, cook and eat food.  By getting enough citizens (or voters) interested and committed to sustainable food in their everyday lives will be the most effective way to change policy, as well as entrenched corporate interests. The odds are great, but the determination is there to go where no food has gone before…or something like that.

Rob Smart is a food entrepreneur focusing on regional food systems and consumer retail experiences. He blogs on alternative food systems at Every Kitchen Table and Civil Eats (guest blogger), and micro-blogs on Twitter as Jambutter.

Further Reading:

10 responses to “Can Farmers Markets & CSA Farms Really “Grow” Sustainable Food?

  1. Thanks for writing this. I used to own a health food store, and we were the distribution point for a local CSA. They always had a waiting list of people wanting to become members, as did the other CSA in the area. People are getting tired of industrialized food, and the swine flu outbreak is more proof that the entire system is a disaster waiting to happen.

    I produced a video of a recent conference on sustainability, with sustainable food systems being the subject of the following workshop. One of the panelists runs a CSA:

  2. This was very interesting! I like how you compared the numbers- shocking how little they get subsidized for produce! ugh.

    I do agree with the last minute effort- a la star trek lol.

    We are going to join our local CSA today!

  3. I liked the Star Trek analogy. The only way to change the system is to change consumer demand. Heck, even Wal-Mart started carrying organics in response to growing consumer demand.

    To do that, we’ve got to 1) spread the word so more of our neighbors, family, and friends will join us, and 2) create venues for buying sustainable food that will lead to increased demand.

    Great post, and thanks for sharing it in today’s Fight Back Fridays carnival.

    (AKA FoodRenegade)

  4. You make some valid and important points, but your comparisons of commodity farm subsidy levels to USDA grants is a little disingenuous. While FMPP may be the only USDA grant program with the words “farmers market” in the title, there are numerous other Federal grant programs that have supported farmers markets and direct farm marketing activities and are likely to continue to do so in the future. Off the top of my head, I would point in particular to the Community Food Projects program at USDA/CSREES, state block grants for specialty crops (administered by USDA/AMS), and USDA/RMA’s grants in risk management education. Nor do your calculations include the money allocated to USDA/FNS to support purchases of fresh produce at farmers markets by members of low-income households, or the amount of funding that has been allocated under the new Farm Bill to beginning farmers and ranchers (which is being administered by USDA/CSREES), or Federal grant programs that exist *outside* of USDA (such as HHS’s Office of Refugee Resettlement) that provide support to political refugees/immigrants seeking to become agricultural producers and direct farm vendors. Just thought it was important to note that the situation isn’t quite as dire as you paint it. For a somewhat dated, but still useful, overview of farmers market resources at the Federal level, I would recommend you take a look at the Farmers Market Resource Guide prepared by USDA/AMS, available from:

    • Debra: Thanks for the additional information regarding resources available to farmers markets and direct food marketing programs. My guess is that even if I added up every program helping farmers sell product direct, the total investment would be far less than the subsidies that most (if not all) single commodity crops receive. Even more important is the 0.4% market share of the $300 billion farm sales. My point is that despite good (or even the best) intentions, current paths to market are not making much of a dent in the marketplace, so we need new and innovative solutions if we want to substantially grow sales of sustainable food.

  5. Pingback: Can Farmers Markets Save America? « Farm To Table: The Emerging American Meal

  6. Our farm grows the pastured pork to feed thousands of people on about 20 acres. I’m hopeful that yes, small farms can once again supply all of our food needs. We can grow just about everything we need for our family on just a couple of acres. This return to the past will require some shift in how people eat – that is to say eating less. It would also be great if people return to growing some of their own food. It is good for more than just physical health, although that too of course.

    What I would really like to see is an elimination of subsidies. Not just farm subsidies but all subsides including oil. Oil is a big one that doesn’t show up in your chart (great chart) but actually makes all of those numbers far greater. If we all paid full price for oil (say $8/gallon) then food, and other things, wouldn’t be shipped such great distances so cheaply. This would normalize the market and level the playing field making the unsubsidized small producer’s prices the norm. A big reason prices seem high at the farmer’s market is they aren’t subsidized. The reason Big Ag’s prices look so low is we are all paying out the back pocket in taxes for subsidies instead of when we buy.

    One of the things to keep in mind is who’s definition of small farm you use. The USDA’s definition is actually pretty large, bigger than what most people may think of as small.

    • Walter: As always, thank you for your thoughtful and reasoned comments on the Every Kitchen Table blog. Your insights on all things farming, as well as how fresh produce, meat, dairy, etc. make it to market, has really helped refine my points. Perhaps I can arrange a time to come visit you at Sugar Mountain Farm. It would be great to meet, as well as see your farm. Let me know if that is something we can set up.

  7. Hi, Rob,
    I have spent the last 4 years making a documentary (FOOD FIGHT) that does (I hope) what you are asking, ie showing people something that they like and inviting them to join the party. We are screening in Santa Cruz on May 12–our national roll-out will be later. Please check us out on Facebook and our website,

    Chris Taylor

  8. Pingback: The Evolution of Pro Food « Every Kitchen Table

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