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Local Food Systems: What Do We Know About National Trends?

Posted by Steve Vogel and Sarah A. Low, Economic Research Service in Food and Nutrition Farming Research and Science
Feb 21, 2017
Farms with intermediated sales of local foods are located largely in urban counties. Source: USDA Economic Research Service, data from Census of Agriculture, 2012; Agricultural Marketing Service, 2014.
Farms with intermediated sales of local foods are located largely in urban counties.

This post is part of the Science Tuesday feature series on the USDA blog. Check back each week as we showcase stories and news from USDA’s rich science and research portfolio.

American consumers are enjoying increasingly more opportunities to buy food directly from farmers and to patronize grocery stores and restaurants that offer local foods. Policymakers have taken notice, and as part of Congress’s FY14 Appropriations Bill, the House Agriculture Committee asked the Economic Research Service (ERS) to report on the scope of local and regional food systems and recent national trends. The result - Trends in U.S. Local and Regional Food Systems: Report to Congress - details the latest economic information on local food producers and consumers, and reviews policies supporting local food systems.

The ERS report poses questions like how rapidly direct-to-consumer farm sales are growing, some characteristics of local-food farms, and the level of organic farm participation in local food sales. It addresses consumer issues such as willingness to pay premium prices for some local foods, and how local food prices compare with those at retail outlets.

According to the report, 163,675 farmers sold an estimated $6.1 billion in locally marketed foods in 2012. Farms with local food sales represent 7.8 percent of U.S. farms, and local food sales account for an estimated 1.5 percent of the value of U.S. agricultural production.  Although 85 percent of all local-food farms are small, with gross revenues under $75,000, over two-thirds of all local food sales are by farms with $350,000 or more in gross revenues.

As the report notes, farmers have two main channels for marketing their food locally - directly to consumers (at farmers' markets, roadside stands, farm stores, etc.) or through “intermediated marketing channels” (grocers, restaurants, schools, universities, hospitals, and regional distributors). Of the total local-food farms and sales, 48,371 farmers sold an estimated $4.8 billion in 2012 through intermediated marketing channels.

Regional “food hubs” that serve intermediated food channels are becoming integral in the growth of local food systems. These “food hubs” are collaborative enterprises that aggregate locally sourced food to meet wholesale, retail, institutional, and even individual demand. Their numbers have increased almost threefold between 2007 and 2014, to a total of 302. Food hubs’ market outreach activities and technical services provide market opportunities for midsized farms and small and beginning farmers.

Such up-to-date information on local foods is critical for understanding the evolution, growth and effects of local and regional food systems. Learn more about local foods – direct-to-consumer and intermediated channels - in the ERS report.

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Feb 03, 2015

A big shout out to U.S. farmers and ranchers who responded to the 2012 Census of Agriculture. This great report is just a small sampling of the many ways the data from the Census can be used to tell the story of modern agriculture. The data also can provide the information needed for new or updated programs and services to help producers.

Royal Rife
Feb 04, 2015

I fully support local food producers, especially those that are non-GMO and minimize use of chemicals as in large scale "industrial" agriculture, where food is treated as a commodity. My wife and I consider food to be the most important thing we spend money on and gladly pay more for the good stuff. "Let medicine be your food and food be your medicine" Hippocrates

Brian Parker
Feb 12, 2015

"Farms with local food sales represent 7.8 percent of U.S. farms, and local food sales account for an estimated 1.5 percent of the value of U.S. agricultural production."

These numbers can be much higher. Locally grown food is proven to have more vitamin and mineral content than mass produced produce. Not to mention people love a good wholesome farmers market, or better yet a local farm with a shack selling produce. Local farms and food sources can be evermore valuable to our countries infrastructure in that we can use them to improve health of nearby community members, improve community itself, and help combat rising food prices. Local farms can be utilized by school nearby for salad bars and other fruits and veggies-- thus giving our students the best nutrition on the block. People deserve healthy local food and communities are missing them all through out the country.

Feb 14, 2015

My farm data wouldn't be captured in the "local" census data but everything we grow is sold within 100 miles of our MD farm. It all goes to canneries for products like spaghetti sauce, stewed tomatoes, canned veggies etc... Local is also the grocery store, buying from brands farmers sell to in your region. The grocery store should not be discounted. The products there were still grown by farmers.

Aug 10, 2015

I'm running a campaign challenging people to eat, for 10 days, food grown within 100 miles of home, allowing 10 exotics, foods from afar they can't live without. The point is to have fun while testing ourselves and our local food systems. How local can we go? I believe that eaters to take the Challenge will be far more committed to local, relational eating, and help restore this sector of our food economy.