The Rise of the Local Food Movement


Small-scale farmers are the backbone of the local food movement. (Photo credit: Thomas Barwick/Getty Images)

Eating locally is growing in popularity across the United States. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the growth in popularity resulted in profits of $4.8 billion for the local food industry in 2008. These profits include both direct-to-consumer and intermediated sales, such as through a restaurant or grocery store. Small farms accounted for 81 percent of these sales. A farm is considered “small” if it grosses less than $50,000 annually in sales.

What Does “Local” Mean?

Those who prefer to eat locally-grown food are called locavores. According to the Food, Conservation, and Energy Act enacted by Congress in 2008, “the total distance that a product can be transported and still be considered a ‘locally or regionally produced agricultural food product’ is less than 400 miles from its origin, or within the State in which it is produced.” Though often associated with sustainable agriculture, the term local only really refers to distance–it does not provide any information on how the food was grown or raised.

Direct-to-Consumer Marketing

Most small-scale farms rely heavily on direct-to-consumer sales. According to the USDA, direct-to-consumer marketing has doubled in the past decade, from $551 million in 1997 to $1.2 billion in 2007. Direct-to-consumer marketing refers to direct sales between the farmer and the consumer. Examples of direct-to-consumer marketing include farmers markets, community-supported agriculture (CSA) shares, pick-your-own farms and on-site farm stands or stores. Both farmers markets and CSAs have dramatically increased in number over the past 20-30 years. According to the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service, in 2009 there were 5274 farmers markets in the U.S.; in 1994 there were only 1755. According to a study by the National Center for Appropriate Technology, in 1986, there were two CSA programs in the United States. By 2005 this number had increased to 1144.

Farm-to-school lunch programs also are proliferating across the country. According to the National Farm to School Network, twenty years ago there were only two farm-to-school programs. In 2009 this number rose to just over 2000. These programs both supply locally-grown food to school meal programs and promote relationships between schools and farms, giving students a closer view of where their food comes from.

Support for Beginning Farmers

The average age of farmers continues to rise. According to the Census of Agriculture, in 2012 the average age of a farmer was 58.3 years old. However, more and more younger people are taking up farming as a full-time career, often starting with farms only a few acres in size. In 2012, beginning farmers (i.e., those who have farmed for 10 years or less) operated one-quarter of the 2.1 million U.S. farms.

The USDA runs a New Farmer program that offers beginner farmers a multitude of resources including education programs, grants, loans, and insurance. Several colleges and universities are now offering short-term education programs for beginning farmers and on-farm training apprenticeships are also gaining in popularity across the United States.

More to Explore
Beginning Farmers
USDA: Direct and Intermediated Marketing of Local Foods in the United States
The Rise of the ‘Locavore’
2012 Census of Agriculture: Organic Farming
USDA: Working the Land With 10 Acres: Small Acreage Farming in the United States
Small Farmers Creating a New Business Model as Agriculture Goes Local
USDA: New Farmers


This article was originally published on EcoZine in October 2015.


  1. very good article thank you

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