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Focus on Agriculture

October 2, 2013

What’s Different About Local Foods?

By Gary Matteson

What’s different about local foods, anyway? Fifteen years ago it was easy to dismiss the whole idea as a trendy food fashion, but now we’re talking upwards of $8 billion a year in sales. Local foods are no longer sold only in small-scale retail farmers’ markets, but have made their way into wholesale food distribution.

On the surface, it seems like a classic response by agricultural producers to supply marketplace demand. Probing deeper, there are diverse influencers and institutions that have helped make the market for local foods, and that is part of why local foods are different than conventional crops.

For years, many groups outside of agriculture have influenced ag policy. One recent example is the collaboration of the American Farm Bureau Federation with Pheasants Forever, Ducks Unlimited, the Environmental Defense Fund and the National Wildlife Federation, who joined to oppose eligibility limits on crop insurance only if conservation compliance was included. In this case, an unlikely political coalition was based on a common interest in natural resources.

Yet for coalitions effecting local foods policy, the ties that bind connect a different cast of influencers. Many of the players are “social entrepreneurship” ventures that use market mechanisms to achieve social goals. The “entrepreneurship” aspect allows for market-responsive innovation, while the “social goals” component strives to influence individual behaviors and benefit the community. Social entrepreneurship ventures are often nonprofit organizations seeking broad community, social or environmental objectives.

The groundswell of local foods activity beginning in the 1990s was initiated by a dedicated array of nonprofit organizations that established visibility and credibility. This laid the conceptual groundwork for changing the existing food system, ideally a local food system that would also accomplish social and environmental goals.

Newly created marketing channels for local foods included farm-to-school, farm-to-hospital, CSAs, food hubs, e-commerce aggregators and virtual markets. Consumer alliances and healthy food advocates promoted these solutions, which attracted the attention of big health care providers. Innovative programs such as doctors’ prescriptions for fresh vegetables purchased at farmers’ markets to combat diabetes and obesity illustrated the power of local food to improve lives. The social entrepreneurship aspect of local foods has become an essential part of its nature.

Local foods will continue to be different into the future. First, the nature of local foods and related activities will lead to the emergence of “Retail Agriculture” as a distinct sector separate from traditional commodity production, encompassing local foods, organic, sustainable and direct-to-retail sales. Second, product identity and farm practices descriptions will continue the information-rich character of local foods. Third, public and private social entrepreneurship ventures will persist as key innovators in developing new marketing channels for farmers to sell directly to diverse household and institutional consumers.

Projecting the future of local food begins with understanding its unique attributes. Retail agriculture will likely follow the same long-term cost curve as conventional agriculture: technological innovation will increase productivity, allowing efficient food processing and transportation to produce safe, abundant food. Our common future will need the miracle of conventional agriculture’s productivity and there is every reason to expect that retail agriculture will grow in capacity and influence.


Gary Matteson is VP for Young, Beginning, Small Farmer Programs and Outreach at the Farm Credit Council.