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USDA Is Finally Investing in Local, Organic Farming

The agriculture secretary announces $52 million in competitive grant programs.
Sep 29, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

When the last farm bill was passed in 2008, there were 4,685 farmers markets in the United States. The organic food sector, then in its seventh year with a federal standard backing it, did $20 billion in sales. The term locavore—one who eats foods grown locally whenever possible—wouldn’t be added to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary for another year.

How times have changed. In the past six years, farmers markets have boomed, increasing by 76 percent to 8,268 across the country. That has made a weekly trip to the farmers market a much more common experience for Americans, but with organic food sales set to hit $35 billion in 2014, what was once the agricultural fringe has become big business. The 2014 farm bill treats local and organic food like the proverbial grown-up it has become, providing $125 million in research funding and $50 million in conservation programs over the next five years. Today, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack announced the first programs to be funded by the new federal cash: USDA is putting $52 million toward improving local and regional food distribution and retail networks—farmers markets, food hubs, and the like.

Vilsack says the new programs—which will fund competitive grants focused on marketing, new research on organic farming systems, distribution, and linking food-insecure people with local foods—are geared at revitalizing rural economies.

“If you can connect local produce with markets that are local, money gets rolled around in the local community more directly compared to commercial agriculture, where products get shipped in large quantities somewhere else helping the economy there,” he said in an interview with The New York Times.

Currently, small growers are limited to selling at farmers markets and maybe to a handful of nearby restaurants. But even with companies like Walmart spending big money on organic, the growth in the market overall doesn’t touch the little guy—the distribution network that moves fruit and vegetables from field to warehouse to big-box refrigerators are designed to handle massive quantities—not the relative pittance harvested off 200 acres planted with 10 or 15 different crops.

The question is what kind of organic growers will benefit from the new money? In 2008, the average size of an organic farm was 285 acres versus more than 400 acres for conventional operations. Although the report on organic farming based on the 2012 farm census has yet to be released, that number has likely increased thanks to growing interests from the big players in agriculture. But just as that newfound big-business status has caused concerns over the very standards that define USDA’s organic code, larger certified growers may be better positioned to take advantage of the federal money.

Yet if USDA ends up paying for small, overworked farms to develop marketing plans, improves their distribution options beyond direct sales through local distribution networks and food hubs, and connects hungry Americans with inexpensive food grown not quite in their own backyards, this new approach will make a progressive shift in American ag policy. Still, with $44.4 billion in commodity programs and $89.8 billion in crop insurance subsidies also included in the 2014 farm bill, we’re a long way from anything that could be described as parity in federal support for organic and industrial agriculture.

In September, Pivot TV is featuring an entire month of “Food for Thought” programming to explore what’s really happening in the American agriculture system. Head over to the “Food for Thought” page to find out when the next program airs, and take action.