Do More Farms Mean More Local Food?

A new report shows that in one fertile region, more people farming doesn’t equal more local food purchases.

(Photo: Getty Images)

Steve Holt is a regular contributor to TakePart. He writes about food for Edible Boston, Boston Magazine, The Boston Globe, and other publications.

When it comes to ranking states by their commitment to local food, Massachusetts always fares well. In the Strolling of the Heifers’ 2014 Locavore Index, the Bay State was ranked the 11th-friendliest state for food sourced in state. But while the index is based on the number of farmers markets, the number of community-supported agriculture operations (CSAs), and the number of food hubs in a state, it doesn’t measure the amount of money consumers spend directly with farmers and food producers.

By and large, Americans still spend the lion’s share of their food budget in supermarkets. On Massachusetts’ South Coast, one of the most farm-friendly regions of the state, a food system assessment conducted by the Southeastern Massachusetts Food Security Network recently found that despite a 64 percent increase in direct purchases from farmers, locals still only spend around $5 per person annually on local food. That in a region with lots of small farms—1,700 on 108,000 acres across three counties.

“Buying local is growing; it just is a really small fraction of the total agricultural growth of the region,” said Sarah Kelley, who researched and wrote the report, in the Taunton Gazette. “If you break it down and look at what people are actually spending on, local food is a very small percentage of food spending.”

Kelley also found that of the roughly $157 million in market value produced by the region’s farms, only $8.6 million—or 5.5 percent—is sold to locals. This, experts say, is because Americans still prioritize one characteristic of retail over almost all others: convenience. Jeff Cole, executive director of Mass Farmers Markets, said this is especially true for food shopping.

“Supermarkets provide that for the vast majority of folks,” he said. “Other sales venues, like farmers markets, are convenient for relatively small numbers of people on a market-by-market basis.”

Cole added that the state’s 251 summer markets and 41 winter markets serve a population of roughly 6.5 million people, meaning each market will necessarily draw smaller crowds than, say, New York City—with its population of 7 million and 139 markets. Still, some South Coast farmers complain about a lack of “vibrant” markets in the area. But Cole would like to define “success” in different ways than just numerically or monetarily.

“Many markets across the state are relatively small and generate lower sales/economic impact,” he said. “They may, however, be highly successful as community engagement, neighborhood building, and access to local food events.”

Purchasing food directly from producers benefits the farmers much more than buying through a third party such as a supermarket. When we buy groceries conventionally, research has shown that only about 16 cents on every dollar makes its way back to the farmer, with the other 84 cents distributed along the food production chain.

Technology, especially mobile, will likely play a major role in creating a future in which Americans spend as much or more with their local farmer as they do at a supermarket. Growmingle, for example, is connecting eaters in Austin, Texas, with the farmers who grow their food, as well as restaurants serving fresh, local cuisine. But sites like Farmstr may hold the most promise. The start-up gives growers and ranchers a platform to harness the reach of the Internet in selling their goods rather than going through the grind and uncertainty of setting up at a farmers market. Farmstr—which recently announced $1.3 million in angel investment to expand its business in the Northwest—has plans to expand to states outside Washington, but expect to see similar start-ups popping up everywhere over the next few years. If convenience is what Americans want in food shopping, what’s more convenient than pulling out your smartphone to buy groceries?

But Cole cautioned anyone seeking to put all the farm-fresh eggs in the technology basket as the solution for getting more people to shop locally: Food shopping, he said, is still very much an in-person experience, “and we don’t see that changing for the majority of people soon.”

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