The biggest challenge the buy local food movement faces in Carroll County--and the Ozarks--is that supply doesn't equal demand. Our area's small farmers do not produce enough food to consistently meet the demands of local consumers and business customers.
Farmers view this situation as a chicken and egg problem. They want to be certain that customers will show up at area farmers' markets to buy their stuff before they invest time and money in expanding production. Customers, on the other hand, don't want to waste time going to farmers' markets unless they can get what they want at sufficient volume and choice, and at a competitive price. Customers are also busy and can't always fit their schedules to the times farmers' markets are open.
The end result is that farmers often grow just enough to meet the local farmers' market demand, but not enough to satisfy a broader market. And sometimes growing conditions or bad guesses result in not even satisfying the immediate direct-market customer base.
Farmers rely on a small but loyal base of customers who value the relationships they develop with producers. To these loyal customers, knowing the farmer who grows their food is more important than price, choice, and quantity because they can be assured that the food is organic, safe, and genuinely local. But not all consumers value the farmer-customer relationship to the same degree and ultimately farm income and farm sustainability is at risk.
I'm all for local buying and am a strong advocate for farmers markets and relational marketing. That advocacy, however, is balanced against knowing that we will never truly be food self-sufficient--and farmers won't make a living--until production meets the demand of both the local farmers markets and the full range of other market channels. The latest findings from USDA tell the story:
Marketing of local foods, via both direct-to-consumer (farmers markets & roadside stands) and intermediary channels (wholesalers, restaurants, processors, grocery stores, etc.), grossed $4.8 billion in 2008--about four times higher than estimates based solely on direct-to-consumer sales.
Farms marketing food commodities exclusively through intermediary channels reported $2.7 billion in local food sales in 2008--over three times higher than the value of local foods marketed exclusively through direct-to-consumer channels--and two times higher than the value of local foods marketed by farms using a combination of direct-to-consumer and interŽmediated channels.
Small farms (those with less than $50,000 in gross annual sales) accounted for 81 percent of all farms reporting local food sales in 2008. They averaged $7,800 in local food sales per farm and were more likely to rely exclusively on direct-to-consumer marketing channels, such as farmers' markets and roadside stands.
Medium-sized farms (those with gross annual sales between $50,000 and $250,000) accounted for 17 percent of all farms reporting local food sales in 2008. They averaged $70,000 in local food sales per farm and were likely to use direct-to-consumer marketing channels alone or a mix of direct-to-consumer and intermediary marketing channels.
Large farms (those with gross annual sales of $250,000 or more) accounted for 5 percent of all farms reporting local food sales in 2008. They averaged $770,000 in local food sales per farm and were equally likely to use direct-to-consumer channels exclusively, intermediary channels exclusively, or a mixture of the two.
Large farms accounted for 92 percent of the value of local food sales marketed exclusively through intermediary channels.
For small and medium-sized farms with local food sales, more operators identified their primary occupation as farming and devoted more time to their farm operation than operators of similarly sized farms without local sales. Vegetable, fruit, and nut farms dominated local food sales.
Direct-to-consumer sales of food commodities were affected by climate and topography that favor fruit and vegetable production, proximity to farmers' markets and neighboring local food farms, and access to transportation and information networks. We saw that in spades this year with first, our wet Spring, and then with the following Summer and Fall drought.
The value of locally sold food is highest in metropolitan areas and is geographically concentrated in the Northeast and on the West Coast. Communities in the Mid West in general, and in the Ozarks and Mid South in particular, lagged far behind.
A short term solution depends on the success of local farmers and farm advocacy groups, like Carroll County Fresh, to educate the public about the advantages--economic and nutritional--of local food buying--and to convince them to buy local.
The longer term solution is for farmers boost production and diversify their customer base to include intermediary channels to include many, rather than a few area restaurants, grocery outlets, and food processing companies. Until they do that, we will continue to depend on multi-national corporations to sustain our industrial production, industrial processing, and industrial eating habits.