By Ken Meter, Crossroads Resource Center
South Carolina, Indiana, and Alaska: It is hard to think of three states that hold more diverse landscapes. Yet each state government is posing the same question: how can we leverage local food into new jobs and investment? Each hired me to recommend practical steps.
South Carolina has four growing seasons in its low-lying coastal areas, and sources high quality tomatoes, peaches, and greens to the Eastern seaboard and beyond. Indiana proudly boasts, as the tenth-largest farm state in the U.S., that it “feeds the world” from its fertile expanses of rich black soil. Alaska has an incredibly short but sun-filled growing season that produces mammoth cabbages, flavorful potatoes, and sweet carrots, and exports premium salmon and king crab.
Yet each state imports well over 90 percent of the food it purchases.
In response, South Carolinians have launched small farms that focus on growing food for nearby consumers. Rural Hoosiers are setting up dozens of farmers’ markets at a rapid pace, in the middle of corn and soybean country, seeking access to fresh vegetables. Alaska commercial growers have launched year-round production of fresh greens indoors.
Indeed, every state in the nation imports food at a similar rate – but myriad local initiatives are determined to turn this around and harness local food production for economic development. For example: - Cities like Cleveland and Kansas City have supported intensive production of food in urban neighborhoods.
- Southwest Wisconsin has transformed itself into a prime source for organic produce for the Midwest.
- Toronto and Vermont have become pioneers in comprehensive food system planning.
- Public markets in Detroit, San Francisco, and Philadelphia have focused new enthusiasm for local eating.
- Suburban areas near major metro areas have learned that they will be able to protect farmland – and the rural views that attract new residents – if they grow food for their own metro area.
- Downtown developers from Raleigh to New Orleans to Portland have learned that restaurants featuring quality food can spark urban renewal.
- Minneapolis-St. Paul has spawned a thriving co-op grocery sector that has inspired private firms to wake up to the potential for local food.
Food has become an economic driver because everyone eats three times a day (if they can), and consumers are starting to insist on higher quality fare from farms they know. For the time being, we also have consumers with money they are willing to spend to advance their values.
Still, I find that food issues are so complex that many municipalities get bogged down trying to launch their own local foods initiatives. I’m often called in to help bring a stronger focus. So here are my practical tips for getting the most impact from your work:
1. Start by bringing farmers into the conversation. It is critically important that the wisdom local farmers hold about markets, weather, and the risks of producing food get taken into account from the earliest stages. You will primarily want to reach out to seasoned produce growers, or young farms that are just starting to get their businesses underway, to learn what issues they face.
Commodity grain farmers are not likely to take the lead in this conversation because they probably do not have much experience raising food for local markets, and the investments they have already made mean they will continue to focus on global buyers. Still, their daughters and sons may, as they realize the family farm has been priced out of their reach.
2. Assess the local farm and food economy right away. I am amazed at how many local foods initiatives launch themselves without assessing the current state of the economy. Even where food system assessments are commissioned, many of these studies catalog long lists of producers and retailers, yet miss the underlying economic issues that drive development. Many miss important local assets that already exist in the community. Many overlook emerging industries that are shaping the future. Many avoid discussing issues that suggest change is needed. Those regions that do look deeply at their own strengths, and honestly at the challenges they face, are most likely to succeed.
3. Invest in local infrastructure. In a nation where most communities are importing their food from distant sources, it will be critical that local stakeholders, both private and public, invest in creating new efficiencies for local food trade. Rather than support specific businesses or pursuing other programs that pick the winners and losers, create new local opportunity by investing in physical facilities, local transportation routes, knowledge bases, and social capital.
4. Invest for the long term. You are unlikely to find quick fixes or sudden victories, so calculate your return based on your long-term goals. Understand that shifting our ways of eating, after investing in long-distance transport for decades, will not be a simple or rapid process.
5. Invest in building the local multiplier, not simply in measuring it. The newly emerging food businesses do not show up accurately in the proprietary databases we currently use for estimating economic impacts. Better alternatives are being developed, but in the meantime, spend that money building new assets and new connections in the community, and in clusters of food businesses that trade with each other — because that is precisely what will raise the multiplier.
6. Approach “food hubs” cautiously. In every state where I have worked, someone wants to build a food hub because they perceive this will give them a political payoff, or merely because it is the current topic of conversation. Yet very few regions have sufficient farm production to ensure a food hub can be sustained as a business, so few of the existing food hubs can support themselves from sales alone.
Aggregation centers can indeed play a vital role in helping to connect growers with wholesale buyers, and in shaping a local vision for food. Yet most will require subsidy for years to come, because they are fighting an uphill battle against food systems that are designed to transport relatively inert food long distances. Nothing is wrong with extending such a subsidy — it may be an essential way to support local food trade — but be prepared for the fact this may be a very long-term process. In the meantime, invest just as much in growing new farmers.
Taking practical steps such as these, South Carolina commissioned Crossroads Resource Center to prepare a $9.85-million investment plan for local foods. The plan distills complex ideas into a comprehensive approach with specific investments that will help balance supply and demand. It is available for free at http://www.crcworks.org/scfood.pdf.
Ken Meter is president of Crossroads Resource Center. One of the nation’s premier food system analysts, he has performed farm and food economy assessments in over 100 regions in 36 states, and served as a speaker at recent IEDC conferences in Orlando, Philadelphia, and Minneapolis. Learn more at http://www.crcworks.org.