It’s Time to Find Out If Buying Local Vegetables Actually Helps Farm Towns

Surprisingly, there’s no research establishing the benefits of urban sales in farming communities.

(Photo: Mardis Coers/Getty Images)

Mar 20, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Sarah McColl has written for Yahoo Food, Bon Appétit, and other publications. She's based in Brooklyn, New York.

It’s a universally acknowledged truth that urban farmers markets are good for rural economies. Just ask U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. After announcing the availability of $96.8 million in grants to fund various local food projects on Monday, Vilsack said, “Increasing market opportunities for local food producers is a sound investment in America’s rural economies.” But is it?

That’s the question a team of researchers at Cornell University, led by economics professor Todd Schmit, will be digging into over the next two years, having received a $500,000 grant from the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture. Using New York City’s Greenmarkets as their case study, Schmit and his team will track the flow of dollars spent by farmers and urban market customers to better understand the impact urban markets have on rural communities—do more farmers markets in the cities mean fewer struggling farming towns? This study follows Schmit’s previous experience developing a framework to evaluate the financial impact of food hubs based on study of one in New York state.

In some cases, the question has been dismissed altogether. NPR reported that purchasing local food may feel good but ultimately doesn’t pay farmers a living wage. Schmit’s not going in pessimistic, but he thinks the idea that buying mustard greens at the Union Square Greenmarket benefits the Hudson River Valley community where it was grown is one that needs more empirical evidence to be considered ironclad.

That local urban markets might not be benefitting farming communities is an idea so shocking it could break the pastured eggs in a shopper’s organic, unbleached tote. Don’t we pay a premium for these goods to support local farming communities and their sustainable practices that benefit the environment and animal welfare?

“You often hear, ‘Support local foods.’ But to what degree is there that benefit of participating in urban markets back to the rural communities?” Schmit said from his office in Ithaca.

The USDA has invested more than $300 million in local food initiatives, primarily in urban areas, in the last five years, and while Schmit’s not conviced the logic behind that spending is wrong, “I’m saying there isn’t a lot of meat on the bones to defend it,” he said.

His hypothesis is that farmers make more money when they participate in these urban markets, in part because city slickers will pay a higher price for organic kale. Even with the added time, labor, distribution, and transportation costs of producers selling at New York City’s Greenmarkets, there continues to be a waiting list to be a vendor. Schmit suspects the ultimate financial impact on rural communities will be positive but potentially not very large.

Even if that ends up being the case, as anyone who has ever befriended their farmer or bonded with the bacon guy knows, there are benefits to urban markets that have little to do with money changing hands. Ambitiously, Schmit and his team are interested in measuring those other boons too. They’ve met with sociologists, planners, and educators who are also interested in food systems, and their collective goals are big. Can you measure social, intellectual, and political benefits of urban farmers markets? What would that even look like?

Like this, perhaps: When an urban shopper chats with a farmer about how she keeps her cows, that shopper walks away not only with a nice grass-fed steak but with more information about agricultural production and where food comes from. Knowledge could stir engagement, and that farmers market shopper could end up communicating with local representatives. That, in turn, could result in urban policy makers being more supportive of state-level agricultural programs. Knowledge is power—but in an economist’s eyes, it’s also capital, and this is an example of political capital, all from a shopping trip for a weekend cookout.

“I’m thinking, ‘Oh, my $500,000 project turned into a $5 million project if we have to think about all this,’” Schmit laughed. “But we’re missing the whole picture if we don’t think about some of these other measures of community capital.”

The team has stacks of surveys and are prepared to talk to a lot of people—the more than 230 family farms and fisheries who participate in New York City’s Greenmarkets, market managers, economic specialists, cooperative extensions, and neighboring businesses on the rural and urban sides of the equation, to tease apart the way our local food system works and the benefits it might generate in both the city and the country.

“This has been talked about, but it hasn’t really been done,” Schmit said. “So we think we’re doing something that’s really pushing the boundary of the way things have been done in the past.”