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)
|Upland and EIS cotton||
|Wool and mohair||
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.
- 10 Thoughts About Farmers Markets (A Rebuttal)
- Why Community Supported Agriculture Isn’t Enough
- 10 Innovative Sustainable Food Retailers
- 7 More Innovative Sustainable Food Ventures
- 10 Ways to Save Real Food
- Innovating the Food Buying Experience
- Is Organic Food the Answer?
- Follow me on Twitter: Jambutter