Over the last few years, the USDA and state governments have created programs and initiatives to bolster local food markets by bringing farmers and local communities together. In the lead-up to the next farm bill, a March 7 hearing by the Senate Agriculture Committee delved into the success and future of those efforts.

“Local food is one of the fastest growing segments of agriculture, with direct consumer sales doubling in the past decade to reach close to $5 billion in 2008,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told the committee. “More than ever, consumers are interested in where their food comes from and are seeking out a connection to the men and women who put food on our tables. Buyers in every sector of the food system have increased local food purchases, and conversations between farmers and consumers are taking place every day in every part of the country.”

For more on the hearing, including witness statements, see here.

Vilsack also said that in 2009, USDA rules were streamlined to allow food stamp recipients (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) to make easier purchases of locally-grown produce. “This allowed more SNAP participants to use their Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) card to purchase food at local and regional markets. At the same time, the Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) began making grants through the Farmers’ Market Promotion Program to fund the installation of wireless point-of-sale devices so that outdoor markets could accommodate the use of EBT cards. … The result of all this work was a more than 50 percent increase – just last year – in the number of farmers markets accepting SNAP benefits. When farmers’ markets and farm stands can accept electronic benefits such as SNAP and coupons from participants in the WIC program (Women, Infants, Children -- which serves low-income women, infants and children), beneficiaries gain access to healthy, local food while farmers and ranchers increase their customer base.”

Among the hearing's witnesses was Jody Hardin from Grady, Ark.

“We currently own 1,000 acres, with about 50 percent of it leased to conventional row-crop farmers,” said Hardin. “We raise nearly 150 acres in vegetables each year that are sold in regional wholesale markets and directly to consumers through a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program with 80 family subscribers and in our own farm stores that feature local and regional specialty crops.

Hardin, who has 37 employees and serves as founder and President of the non-profit Certified Arkansas Farmers Market, is also involved with Argenta Market and Hardin’s Farm Market, “located in a rural location adjacent to our CSA farm in central Arkansas. I have been participating in farmers markets for over 26 years, the income from which I used to fund my college education. In addition to being a farmer, I am also an entrepreneur. I was the founder of the All Arkansas Basket a Month CSA that has served nearly 200 families with locally grown food year-round for the last six years, and I am proud to say, with great success. This cooperative buying program serves nearly 40 farmers and was a catalyst that seemed to spawn a local foods movement in central Arkansas that continues to expand today.”

Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow, committee chairwoman, asked Hardin how “the local community around the market has developed.”

“I’ve witnessed something I’ve never seen before,” answered Hardin. “Around 2007, we began our local food movement developing the ‘Certified Arkansas Farmers Market.’ Since then, we’ve seen a blighted area – no one would ever come down to this part of town – (change with) new restaurants, new grocery stores. There has been tremendous community investment and support.

“Now, I think there are over 1,200 homes planned in the downtown area. People want to live there, we’re building walk-able communities. Everyone around central Arkansas has witnessed this growth and now wants to create their own farmers market and help their farmers.”

Argenta’s success “illustrates a good point” about what can happen “when you take light-rail and a transportation system investment and add it on to a local food system investment,” said another witness, Dan Carmody, president of Michigan’s Eastern Market Corporation. “You really get miraculous results. It’s an example that in an austere fiscal world you can add 2 plus 2 and get 10.”