Most of us feel pretty good when we buy local berries knowing they are fresher, perhaps more nutritious, and that they weren’t long-hauled from California. It feels good to put my money into the hands of people who work the land around here, knowing that local food purchases strengthen our own economy and create jobs. But how much do our local purchases help? Could we be helping more?
Marylanders consume over 2 billion pounds of vegetables per year, yet we produce less than 200 million pounds per year and a good portion of that is sold outside the state. That means that well over 90 percent of our food comes from outside Maryland, and our food dollars are going elsewhere.
So let’s pretend, say, that all 200 million pounds of vegetables grown in Maryland are also sold in Maryland. And, for the sake of quantifying how much we spend, let’s pretend that we (consumers) buy all our vegetables at the low retail price of $1 per pound. Eating what we produce and buying it for $1 a pound translates to $222.6 million per year, money that goes to Maryland farm businesses and all others associated with farming, getting the product to market and selling it.
So what if we were to increase production and local sales by 20 percent or even 30 percent? We could add as much as $667 million per year to our local economies. Most of our vegetables are grown during the warmer months so aside from extending our season with greenhouses or other enclosures, we wouldn’t expect to grow all of our crops here, but we could certainly grow and sell more than we do now.
I looked around the nation where some real research had been done on the economic impact of local food and the importance of day-to-day purchases. Low-income consumers from five small Minnesota communities buy a total of $123 million in food each year, the vast majority of which is purchased from outside vendors. As families with small food budgets turn more frequently to fast food meals, the amount of money leaving their poor communities grows to $280 million per year. What if at least some of that money stayed at home in their community to help jumpstart new farm businesses, seed companies, farm equipment shops and small marketplaces in neighborhoods that sell local foods? Imagine the benefits in walk-to-able places, lower transportation costs, community building and more.
So how can we keep food dollars in our community, and why is it such a challenge?
Let’s examine two trends that influence where we are today. The first is loss of farms, and with that goes farmer know-how, supportive businesses and infrastructure. Between 1982 and 2012, the total number of Maryland’s farming acres decreased by 526,000-plus acres, a 21 percent loss. Over 30 years, we lost 3,927 farms, and with them went our food. Production of tomatoes fell by 88 percent, sweet corn by 45 percent, kale by 92 percent and apple orchards by 69 percent. Acreage in soybeans increased 15 percent.
The second trend is the growing market opportunity for local food. Since 2007, the number of farmers markets has increased 180 percent. “Food hubs” (facilities that aggregate, distribute and market local food) have increased 255 percent, and farm to school programs by 430 percent. On average, food hubs alone have annual sales of $1 million, buy from about 40 small and mid-sized growers and employ 13 people. The Local Food Hub in Charlottesville, Virginia, has 12 full-time and one seasonal employee and buys from more than 70 producer partners; since opening it has reinvested more than $3 million in the local economy through its purchasing.
As money changes hands within a community, economic activity and income rise, which generally means job creation. Spending money on locally grown products has a multiplier effect because locally owned businesses (farms, food hubs, equipment dealers) are more likely to re-spend their dollars locally.
Community FARE is conducting a feasibility study for a food hub that would pay a fair price to farmers for their food to provision schools, hospitals, supermarkets, restaurants and other institutions. Our findings thus far indicate great demand. We welcome your input and support as we work to address the many challenges to keeping our home grown food home, and growing much more of it. Like us on Facebook and become involved in the movement.
Janice Wiles writes on behalf of Community FARE, a nonprofit founded to help safeguard a diverse and healthy local food economy that will preserve farmland integrity and biodiversity and ensure that food grown here is accessible to residents of Frederick County and its regional neighbors. Community FARE is supported by the Land and Cultural Preservation Fund Inc (www.l-cpf.org).