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Farmers markets: a potential engine for local economic growth?

farmers market at san francisco's ferry building

Now that the debt ceiling debate/debacle has ended (for the time being), Washington pols are talking jobs. Republicans think keeping taxes low is the answer; President Obama and the Democrats want to invest in infrastructure and green technology. According to a late July report from the Union for Concerned Scientists, both parties might want to think about another angle: supporting farmers markets.

That’s right: farmers markets don’t just enhance community food access, they also create local economic growth. Even with minimal government support, direct marketing of locally-produced food has grown at an impressive rate during past decades. “The number of farmers markets in the United States increased from just 340 in 1970 to more than 7,000 today, and there are now more than 4,000 CSAs. The USDA reports that the sales of agricultural products through direct consumer marketing channels reached $1.2 billion in 2007.”

With some tweaking to government policy, UCS argues that local agriculture and the distribution channels that support it could create “tens of thousands of additional jobs.” Even “modest support” for a few hundred low-performing markets could create “as many as 13,500 jobs over a five-year period.”

So what needs to happen to make the most of these possibilities? Among UCS’ suggestions is the universal acceptance of WIC vouchers, doubling the buying power of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits at farmers markets and government support for connecting local farmers to Farm-to-School programs. An overall shift of emphasis in the federal Farm Bill to local production (vs. conventional, cash-crop agriculture) could also make a big difference.

Of course, in addition to supporting the economic growth of the direct sale of local farm produce, these initiatives would also make fresh, healthy food more widely available. There are challenges, mainly in terms of scaling this economic model, but UCS takes note of innovations on this front and also makes suggestions for government support that could foster its growth.

Nope, this isn’t a solution to our overall economic woes, and some will certainly argue that staple crops (corn, soy, etc.) produced by conventional means are still an important part of the overall food system (and they’re right). But even modest job creation through the cultivation and sale of fresh, seasonal produce seems like a no-brainer for continued levels of government support.

Check out the report, or just the executive summary, and let us know what you think.

via Rodale, @groovygreenlivi, and @derekmarkham

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