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.”

Wal-Mart, EBT and food hubs

Wal-Mart remains a major player in U.S. nutrition and Ron McCormick, the company’s Senior Director for Sustainable Agriculture, is keen to see regional produce hubs “around each of our 41 food distribution centers. Today, we are working to establish a supply base to supply those distribution centers, with a goal of having fresh produce that was harvested at noon one day and then in-store by noon the next day.”

McCormick told the committee he “dreams of” having food hubs near each of the company’s food distribution centers. That “would be an answer to my personal prayers and a great part of our business model. For us, we’re talking about the more sustainable agriculture and building a supply chain that can sustain itself. It’s an integrated supply chain, not just buying from lots of small farmers.”

Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts, committee ranking member, asked McCormick why it is more difficult for a grower of 50 acres to implement food safety standards and undergo food safety audits than it is for a larger operation. Roberts said that seems counterintuitive.

“I don’t think it’s necessarily harder, it’s a matter of the obstacles being greater for a small farmer that doesn’t have a lot of capital and time to invest,” said McCormick.

What sort of obstacles?

“A piece of it is simply the cost of the audit itself,” replied McCormick. “For a small farmer to pay for an audit, it will average about $1,500. … It’s difficult. One of the great values of routine audits is more than just what the auditor helps prevent happening.

“Repeated visits for an audit help a farmer get better, whether small or large. It helps him develop a system that prevents the threats to food safety from occurring.

“So, often for a very small farmer wanting to grow to be a bigger farmer, there is a capital outlay that’s (will be required). And it’s a new experience for a small farmer, a daunting experience.”

Does Wal-Mart require third-party food safety audits of all suppliers regardless of size?

McCormick: “All suppliers regardless of size. Our smallest farmers, we have a sort of step-up program where we work to take them to GFSI certification standards, the highest standards around.”

What’s the cost of an audit of a grower with 50 acres of land?

“An audit can cost from $750 to about $1,500 – plus, sometimes, the travel cost of the audit,” said McCormick. “Often, the travel costs are the most expensive. One of the things our small farmers tend to benefit from is our food safety department and the farmers around one of our distribution centers coordinate activities.”

How do those running farmers markets ensure that produce sold is truly locally-grown?

“That was a big issue for us starting in 2004/2005,” said Hardin. “We’ve worked several years to figure it out. We’ve determined that ‘source verification’ – actually creating markets where we require a source verification where we go on-farm, some market management goes there – is necessary. We can’t have a successful market without it.

“Imposters will come into the market (otherwise). They put on their farmer hat and sell things and tell customers they come from the local areas. That really displaces the local farmer. So, it’s very important to me that we verify the source of the produce.”

How has the expansion of EBT machines impacted farmers markets?

We had a slow start (in sales) but, right now, seems to be gaining momentum,” said Hardin. “I’d like to see an expansion of the program or access to more of the electronic wireless devices…

“One of the biggest barriers is just an awareness of where the markets are and that EBT is accepted at farmers markets. We’re lacking a campaign in our state to get it out there. But as awareness grows, we’re seeing much more interest and participation each year and we’re really building on that. I’ve seen a lot of growth recently.

How can states work best to get food from a regional or local area to schools? More flexible delivery options, for example?

Hardin and colleagues would like to set up “aggregation processing facilities geared directly for our schools. (The biggest) concern from the schools is that there is no inventory of local food and they’re required to do a lot more meal planning throughout the school year.

“So, we want to have some type of inventory, some kind of projection of what will be available for the school year so they can adequately plan for their menus; regional markets, more organized distribution centers.”

dbennett@farmpress.com