November 14/St. Louis/The Associated Press -- A new U.S. Department of Agriculture report says sales of "local foods," whether sold direct to consumers at farmers markets or through intermediaries such as grocers or restaurants, amounted to $4.8 billion in 2008. That is a number several times greater than earlier estimates, and the department predicts locally grown foods will generate $7 billion in sales this year.
While plenty of evidence suggests local food sales have been growing, it has been hard to say by how much because governments, companies, consumers and food markets disagree on what qualifies as local. The USDA report included sales to intermediaries, such as local grocers and restaurants, as well as directly to consumers through farmers markets, roadside stands and the like.
It found $4.8 billion in sales to local restaurants, retailers and regional food distributors were added in.
"Think of it as expanding what the picture looks like," said Stephen Vogel, who helped do the study for the Agriculture Department's Economic Research Service. "What this report does is say, 'Look, this market is bigger than you thought.'"
However, the report also puts the local food movement in context. It is dominated by fruit and vegetable growers. While only 5% of U.S. farms sell their products in local and regional markets, 40% of vegetable, fruit and nut farms do.
Consumers tend to assume that the produce they are buying at these markets are fresher, made with fewer chemicals and grown by smaller, less corporate farms. That may be true in some cases and not in others.
"Local" also does not necessarily mean "organic," a label that carries strict requirements for growers and is overseen by the Agriculture Department. However, the word still carries plenty of cache with consumers.
The number of farms selling directly to consumers has grown, from an estimated 86,000 in the early 1990s to about 136,000 now, according to the USDA. Also, the number of farmers markets has about doubled, from 2,756 in 1998 to 5,274 in 2009.
From the November 15, 2011, Prepared Foods' Daily News.