Striving to Relocalize Food Production

To keep Americans eating healthful, fresh-off-the-farm food, states and localities are establishing regional food policies.
by | May 29, 2012
NatalieMaynor/flickr CC

Tom Arrandale

Tom Arrandale is a GOVERNING correspondent.

For generations, farmers have been harvesting onions, tomatoes, apples and other food crops on the dark fertile soils along New York state's Hudson Valley. But rising costs, increasing land values and nationally low prices for agricultural commodities make farming a tough way to earn a living. These days, the region's farmers earn an average of $6,000 a year or so, and a third of Hudson Valley's dairy farms have gone out of business. Land is being sold off to make way for new homes as newcomers move northward from New York City.

But agriculture still remains close to the Hudson Valley's heart and soul. Just 70 miles downriver, 250,000 people congregate four days a week to buy cheese, wine, meat, apples and vegetables from the region at Midtown Manhattan's Union Square Greenmarket. Americans' ever more voracious appetites for healthful, fresh-off-the-farm food has presented a unique opportunity for farmers: Working through the nonprofit Hudson Valley AgriBusiness Development Corporation (HVADC), four Hudson Valley counties are hoping to put local farmers back on sustainable financial footing by helping them market their wares directly to city dwellers.

New York City has 120 neighborhood farmers markets, and fine-food restaurants, corner stores, schools, hospitals and employee cafeterias are eager to buy directly from local farmers to feed the metropolitan region's 30 million people. HVADC and other organizations want to serve that demand by creating regional produce food hubs, attracting a new slaughterhouse and possibly opening a farmers-run grocery store. "Farming is still an essential part of our landscape and our quality of life, and this is the most cost-effective way to keep our farms economically viable," says Orange County, N.Y., Planning Commissioner David Church.

Millions of Americans visit more than 7,000 farmers markets each year, and more than 4,000 small-scale farmers have begun keeping more profits for themselves by contracting with neighborhood groceries, gourmet restaurants and households willing to pay premium prices for high-quality foods. As a result, state and local governments have begun establishing regional food policies that aim both to improve residents' diets and keep local farmers in business.

Michigan's farming industry could reap another $211 million in receipts, a Michigan State University found, by growing more fruits and vegetables and selling them to state residents. Another 1,700 jobs would also be created. Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York City and other densely populated cities, in particular, are studying the sustainable farming potential of the surrounding "foodsheds" just a hundred or so miles beyond city limits. Their goal is to protect public health by making sure that nearby farms and dairies can supply ample fresh foods so that they don't have to be hauled in from distant sources. Many cities are also encouraging residents to grow more produce themselves. Grocery stores have all but vanished from Detroit, where one-third of the land stands vacant, and officials are considering commercial ventures to cultivate abandoned lots as productive urban cropland.

As demand for locally grown foods expands, more and more universities are conferring degrees in sustainable farming, and urban high school graduates are increasingly studying diversified horticulture and small-farm management. Just in the last few years, newcomers have started moving into northeastern Iowa's rolling farm country to grow fruits and vegetables. Some have horticulture degrees, but mostly "they don't come from farming backgrounds," says Craig Chase, acting marketing director for Iowa State University's sustainable farming center. Most are trying to make it by selling directly to regular customers or by driving to some of Iowa's 230 or so farmers markets.

To help local farming prosper, many states are backing marketing partnerships that bypass grocery distributors and link rural producers directly to urban customers. Near metropolitan centers around the country, local governments are also helping new farmers find affordable land. Michigan's Ann Arbor Township leases a 153-acre farm for $1 a year to a nonprofit partnership that helps fledgling operations get going. Start-up farmers can plant crops or feed livestock at the farm until they save up to acquire their own land. West of Philadelphia, farmland sells for $45,000 an acre, so the Chester County Economic Development Council is working with Temple University and agricultural groups to create a land bank to keep fields available for new farmers to lease. As part of the Philadelphia area's "Eating Here" plan, the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission is contemplating helping farmers by paying them for ecological services like recharging groundwater and sequestering carbon on their soil and crops.

To make food supplies sustainable, more governments will have to think like that on region-wide scales -- across urban, suburban and rural political divides. The average age of a Hudson Valley farmer is 56 years old. They tend to share upstate New York's conservative skepticism about government-sponsored projects. But Church, the Orange County planning commissioner, says that viewpoint is already changing. Younger farmers "are much more comfortable with smaller niche operations, and (for them) working with government is an acceptable part of doing business," he says. Younger producers are more willing to haul produce through congested city streets to farmers markets and corner groceries.


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