Image: Chris Schrier via flickr
"What's holding farmers markets back?" That's the question behind a new report from the Union of Concerned Scientists, which determined the culprit to be federal policies that favor industrial agriculture over small and local farms. Change those policies, though, and you get a quick turnaround.
According to the report, just a little public funding for 100 to 500 farmers markets a year could create up to 13,500 jobs within five years."On the whole, farmers markets have seen exceptional growth, providing local communities with fresh food direct from the farm," said Jeffrey O'Hara, a UCS economist and author of the report, Market Forces: Creating Jobs through Public Investment in Local and Regional Food Systems. "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."
An example of how, from the report:
when greater consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables draws on produce supplied locally or regionally. Studies have suggested that this phenomenon could lead to thousands more jobs in the Midwest alone, even if land allocated to fruits and vegetables displaced some production of corn and soybeans.
The report highlights the importance of developing direct marketing channels. So many farmers markets right now are community-based and rely on volunteer labor, which almost inevitably stunts their growth. But, says the report, "modest public funding for 100 to 500 otherwise-unsuccessful farmers markets a year could create as many as 13,500 jobs over a five-year period."
According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, direct agricultural product sales amounted to a $1.2 billion-a-year business in 2007 (the most recent USDA figure), 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."
If you don't believe it, the report provides a few examples:
- 34 farmers markets in West Virginia led to a gross increase of 119 jobs (net increase of 82 jobs), a gross increase of $2.4 million in output (net increase of $1.1 million), and a gross increase in personal income of $0.7 million (net increase of $0.2 million).
- 21 farmers markets in Oklahoma led to a gross increase of 113 jobs, $5.9 million in output (with a multiplier of 1.78), and a $2.2 million increase in income.
- 152 farmers markets in Iowa led to a gross increase of 576 jobs, a $59.4 million increase in output (with a multiplier of 1.55), and a $17.8 million increase in income.
- 26 farmers markets in Mississippi led to a gross increase of 16 jobs, a $1.6 million increase in output (with a multiplier of 1.7), and a $0.2 million increase in income.
Some Progress Has Been Made, But There's Plenty More to Do
Local food systems have no doubt seen a boost in recent years: the number of farmers markets has jumped nationwide from 2,863 in 2000 to 6,132 in 2010.That might lead some people to question why farmers markets need public support. But there are major economic and political barriers that stump the growth of these markets and food systems. And the government helps agricultural giants that have already surpassed their potential, while in comparison almost ignores the little folks.
The USDA gave $13.725 billion last year in commodity, crop insurance, and supplemental disaster assistance to primarily large industrial farms. In the same year, the same agency spent less than $100 million to support local and regional food system farmers.
The Way Forward
To address these barriers, the report calls 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."
The report was released just a few days ahead of the USDA's 12th annual National Farmers Market Week, which starts this Sunday, August 7.