Future of Local Foods & Small Farms[1]

John Ikerd[2]

When anticipating the future, many people tend to examine trends of the past and simply project them into the future, as if current trends are destined to continue indefinitely. Many futurists forecast the future of farming in this way, whereby they foresee a continuing trend toward fewer and larger agricultural operations that rely on increasingly sophisticated electronic and biological technologies. However, trends actually never continue, at least not indefinitely.

In 1991, in the journal Science, several scientists proposed a list of “top twenty great ideas in science".[3] Among the top twenty were such ideas as the laws of gravity, motion, and thermodynamics. The top twenty also included the idea: Everything on the earth operates in cycles—everything physical, biological, social, and economic. Some scientists suggested that things “tend” to cycle, meaning some cycles don’t have precise patterns. [4] This is particularly true of biological, social, and economic cycles. Some cycles are extremely long, like cycles in global climate due to natural causes. Others are short, like our daily trip around the sun and changes in seasons. Regardless, everything that “goes around eventually comes around,” and all trends eventually stall out, change course, and then trend in fundamentally different directions.

I believe the trends toward an industrial agriculture and a global food system have pretty much run their course. I think the future of farming and food production will have far more in common with family farms and local food systems of the past than with the factory farms and agri-food corporations that dominate our agri-food system today.

The ideas of family farming and local or community-based food systems certainly are not new. These ideas are simply being reassessed in response to growing public concerns about the current global food system. When I was growing up on a small family farm in southwest Missouri in the 1940s and early 1950s, our family’s food system was essentially local. Probably 80% or more of our food came from our farm or was produced and processed within 50 miles of our farm. There were local canneries, meat packers, and flour mills to supply grocery stores and restaurants with locally grown food products. Small family farms grew crops and livestock to support the local food system. Farming was a way of life, not just way to make a living.

Over the years, however, the local canneries, meat packers, and flour mills consolidated into the giant agribusiness operations that dominate today’s global food system. Supermarkets and fast-food chains replaced the mom-and-pop grocery stores and restaurants. The once-small family farms became larger, and increasingly managed as bottom-line economic enterprises.

Today, I doubt there are many communities in the U.S. who get more than 10% of their foods from local sources. The most optimistic estimates place local foods at less than 2% of total food sales. Estimates of the average distance that food travels from production to consumption within the U.S. range from 1200 to 1700 miles. More than 15% of U.S. foods are imported, with more than 50% of fruits and 20% of vegetables grown in other countries.[5] Agricultural exports account for more than 20% of total agricultural sales and 30% of U.S. farm income.[6] The local food system of my youth has been transformed into the global food system of today. Small farms still exist but most will no longer support a family as a means of making a living or way of life. Most food in the U.S. is produced on large, specialized, mechanized, industrial farming operations. Most of these changes took place during 40-50 years, between the 1950s and 1990s.

Today, I believe we are in the midst of another “great turning” in the agri-food cycle. I believe the local food movement is the leading edge of fundamental change that ultimately will transform the American food system from industrial/global to sustainable/local. Organic foods were the leading edge of the movement. But, as organic foods moved into mainstream markets organic food began to seem more like other mainstream industrial foods, more global than local. Many consumers then turned to local farmers to ensure the integrity of their foods. Today’s local food movement is a response to this growing distrust in organics.

To understand today’s local food movement, it’s important to understand the birth of the modern organic movement. The organic movement has its roots in the natural food movement of the early 1960s, which was a rejection of the industrialization of American agriculture. Following World War II, the mechanical and chemical technologies developed to support industrial warfare were adapted to support industrial agriculture. The “back to the earth” people responded by creating their own food system. They produced their own food, bought food from each other, and formed the first cooperative food buying clubs and natural food stores.

Concerns about the health and environmental risks associated with the synthetic fertilizers and pesticides were important, but were not the only reasons they chose to grow foods organically. They were creating and nurturing a sense of connectedness and commitment to taking care of each other and caring for the earth. The philosophy of organic farming was deeply embedded in their communities. To these food and farming pioneers, organic was as much a way of life as a way to produce food. Their farms were intensively managed, with complex crop rotations and considerable hand labor, and their farms were accordingly small, by necessity.

Organic farming and food production remained on the fringes of American society until the environmental movement emerged and expanded into mainstream society. During the 1970s, scientists began to confirm the environmental and public health risks of chemically-dependent farming. As organic foods grew in popularity, organics eventually moved into mainstream supermarkets. Organic food sales grew at a rate of 20%-plus per year from the early 1990s until it slowed to growth rates of 8% to 10% per year following the economic recession of 2008. The organic food market reached $45.2 billion in sales in 2017 – more than 5% of total food sales.[7]

Small organic farms and different regional standards for organic production did not fit the dominant industrial model of mainstream food processing and distribution. Organic producers were pressured to consolidate into larger, more specialized farming operations. National organic standards in the early 2000s opened the way for consolidation of organics into a single national market. Except for restrictions on use of synthetic agrochemicals and food additives, the organic food movement eventually began to seem more and more like other sectors of the industrial food system. Consumers who were concerned about the environmental and social consequences of industrial agriculture then began looking to local farmers to ensure the integrity of their foods. Many farmers who marketed locally continued to use organic production practices but no longer bothered with organic certification. Their customers knew them personally and trusted them.

During the 1990s, the organic and local food system had followed very similar trends. However, when the organic markets faltered following the recession of 2008, the number of farmers markets continued to grow, increasing another 50% between 2009 and 2012, up to 7,864. It appeared that organic and local foods might have evolved into two different movements. However, in spite of the continued growth in farmers markets, USDA reported a slowing in sales of local foods, as well as organic foods, following the recession of 2008.[8] According to USDA estimates, “local food sales totaled $6.1 billion in 2012,” which was less than earlier industry estimates.[9] The growth in farmers markets also slowed after 2012 and increased only 2.5% between 2015 and 2017[10]--after increasing 8% per year between 1994 and 2015. Some local food advocates think the number of CSAs in the U.S. also may have peaked at around 12,000.

But then, local food sales rebounded to $9 billion in sales by 2015—an increase of 50% in 3 years—in spite of slower growth in farmers markets and CSAs.[11] In contrast, growth in organic sales had slowed to 6% by 2017. There was virtually no growth in sales of organic eggs or dairy products, both of which were exposed publicly as being produced mostly in large “industrial organic” or factory farming operations.[12] Organic vegetables sales grew by only 6%. With USDA approving certification of hydroponic, or “soilless” organic production, the organic vegetable, berry, and fruit markets could be next to suffer from the industrialization of organics.

Some critics believe local foods are saturating their small niche market and will be just another passing food fad. However, there are indications that the local food movement is simply going through an economic and structural transition and is poised for further market innovation and future success. One important development in the local food movement that seems to point to a more positive future for local foods, and more opportunities for small family farms, has been the multiple-farm local food networks, collaborative, or alliances of small and mid sized farmers.

These collaborations have taken on a variety of forms. Three with which I am personally familiar are Peoples’ Food Coop,[13] Good Natured Family Farms[14], and the Oklahoma Food Cooperative.[15] The Peoples’ Food Coop is a retail store in La Crosse Wisconsin that gives priority to procuring food from local, organic and sustainable farmers. Good Natured Family Farms is an alliance of farmers in the Kansas City area that market products collectively under their GNFF brand through locally-owned Ball’s Food Stores and other local market outlets. The Oklahoma Food Cooperative is a statewide organization that provides an internet platform for farmers to list products available for purchase by local customers, which are then aggregated and distributed to local pick-up sites. These marketing collaboratives range in size from a couple dozen to more than a hundred farmers.

Perhaps the most important current trend in local foods is on-line or internet marketing, which Joel Salatin refers to as electronic aggregation. [16] Lulus Local Foods[17] is an internet-based software platform that facilitates the establishment of online farmers markets and food hubs where customers can choose from products currently available from local producers. Products ordered online can then be picked up at local sites or home delivered. Riverford Organics,[18] in the United Kingdom uses an internet platform to market, aggregate, and distribute 47,000 boxes of food a week that is produced on farms in different regions of the country and delivered to customers in their vicinity. The National Good Food Network lists more than 300 “food hubs” in the U.S. [19] – although I cannot vouch for their success or authenticity.

The local food movement is so decentralized and dispersed that it is impossible to accurately estimate the size or importance of the movement. USDA estimates of local food sales do not include “intermediated sales” to local restaurants, retail markets, or public institutions. Local food advocates claim USDA data “grossly underestimates” the importance of “food hubs” that provide locally grown foods to local food coops, schools, and public institutions.[20] Virtually everywhere I go, I discover new local foods initiatives—many of which likely never show up in any database. Hopefully, the 2017 Census of Agriculture will provide useful local food data.

The local food movement is also so diverse that it is difficult to distinguish between those who are committed to ecological and social integrity and those who simply see local foods as another opportunity for profits. Some food hubs aggregate production from multiple local growers to sell to mainstream retailers who simply want to advertise that they sell “locally grown” foods. Admittedly, the future of the local food movement depends on being able to “scale up” to serve increasing numbers of consumers. However, if farmers compromise their ecological and social integrity in the process of scaling up, they will be little different from industrial farmers who are producing foods many of their customers are attempting to avoid.

I believe the local foods movement is a more important change in the food system than were the natural or organic food movements. The local food movement certainly offers more opportunities for small family farms than the organic food movement. Admittedly, large industrial farming operations are local somewhere. However, most large farms produce generic commodities for national and global markets. These farms can’t sell all, or even a significant part, of their total production locally. They are simply too large and too specialized in specific commodities. Large producers must sell to industrial processors and distributors, which are also too large to rely on local markets. Large industrial food and farming operations are inherently dependent on large geographically-dispersed markets. They simply cannot afford to give specific attention to the needs and preferences of people in the local communities where they operate.

The most frequently mentioned motivations of consumers for buying local foods include freshness, flavor or taste, and nutrition. People have learned that shipped-in foods generally are not as fresh and flavorful, and are probably not as nutritious, as fresh-picked, locally-grown foods at farmers markets, CSAs, and other local markets.[21] Many people consider local foods to be safer because they are more likely to be produced organically, or at least without pesticides or GMOs. In the case of meat, milk, or eggs, hormones or antibiotics are more common concerns. Most farmers who sell locally understand the concerns that motivate people to buy local foods and attempt to address concerns that are not being addressed by the industrial food system.

In return, people who buy local foods often mention their desire to support local farmers economically and to help build stronger local economies and communities. Estimates based on comparison of local and industrial food production in general indicate that foods grown for local markets contribute about four-times as many dollars to local economies as commodities grown for industrial food production.[22] That said, the popularity of local foods and the incentives to produce local foods cannot be reduced to economics. “Several studies have found that the social desirability of buying local food plays a central role in influencing consumers to participate in the local food economy.”[23] Many locavores trust “their local farmers” to not only produce “good food” but also to be good neighbors, good community members, and good stewards of the land.

Some experts may question the importance of social, ecological, and other unselfish economic motives for buying local. However, the fact that the local food movement diverged from the organic movement in response to the industrialization of organics suggests otherwise. Americans are trying to restore trust and confidence in “their food system” by “buying local.” For this reason and others, farmers motivated primarily by profits or joining alliances for economic reasons are unlikely to be successful in local markets. Eventually, their customers will see their foods as being little different from industrial foods and will value them accordingly.

The local food movement not only represents a rejection of industrial foods but also represents an emerging vision of a fundamentally better food system of the future. I foresee a time when every community will have its own local, community-based food system. Communities will not be “self-sufficient” in food production, but will give priority to buying as much of their foods as possible from local farmers who give priority to producing good food for local customers. They will give priority to farmers who maintain personal relationships with their customers through face-to-face contacts at farmers markets, on-farm sales, regular farm visits, or local food festivals that punctuate less-personal economic transactions. The primary objective of such community-based food systems will be to provide local assurance of quality and integrity, rooted in shared social and ethical values.

I believe this vision of a new and better food system best exemplified by local food networks – alliances, collaboratives, cooperatives, personally-connected food hubs and other innovative relationship markets. Such local community-based food systems could form alliances with other like-minded communities to create bioregional, national, and even global food networks. Skeptics may ask: would it actually be possible for local, community-based food systems to replace our current corporately-controlled industrial food system? When I’m asked this question, my answer consistently has been, yes. I am convinced such a change is possible, although I am not so naïve or idealistic as to think that the transformation will be quick or easy.

Why do I believe it is possible? First, as mentioned previously, I lived through the transition from the local, community-based food system of my youth to the industrial-global food system of today. I believe the new local/sustainable food and farming systems of today are further advanced than the industrial food and farming systems were in the early 1950s. I still remember the steam engine lumbering by my grade school, moving from one thrashing location to another. This was early industrial agriculture. I remember my mother handing her “grocery list” to a person behind a counter at our country grocery store who would select the items on the list from shelves, barrels, and the meat case, weigh and package as needed, put the items in a “paper poke,” and total up our “grocery bill” for the week. There were no supermarkets. I saw my first fast food restaurant when I went away to college – a McDonalds. The major part of the local to global transition occurred within a span of about 40-50 years during the latter 1900s.

Second, there are far more reasons to change systems of farming and food production now than before industrial agriculture. The main reason to change farming in the 1940s was to reduce the physical labor and drudgery of farm work and to free up farmers for the new higher-paying jobs in the factories and offices of a growing industrial economy. Industrial agriculture was also supported by farm policy as a means of reducing costs of food production, making “good food” affordable and accessible to everyone—eliminating hunger. It was a noble experiment but it didn’t work. We have more people in the U.S. classified as “food insecure” than back in the 1960s.[24] About one-in-eight Americans are “food insecure” and one-in-six American children live in food-insecure homes.[25] In addition, the U.S. is plagued with an epidemic of diet related illnesses, such as obesity, diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, and a variety of cancers. The industrial food system removed much of the drudgery of farming, but it hasn’t eliminated hunger and malnutrition. I don’t want to belabor the point, but an industrial food system is not sustainable. Sustainability is the ability to meet the needs of the present without diminishing opportunities for the future. Industrial agriculture has failed to meet even the basic food needs of the present—let alone preserve opportunities for the future.

Third, we need not return to the drudgery of farming of the past in order for smaller family farms to make enough good food affordable and accessible to everyone.[26] The basic concepts embodied in microcomputers, including laptops, tablets, and smartphones, are equally applicable to managing small farms more efficiently and developing small-scale equipment for growing, tilling, harvesting, processing, and preparing healthful, nutritious foods. Scale-appropriate technologies in farming include portable electric fencing, which has revolutionized the possibilities for sustainable small-scale humane, grass-based, and free-range livestock and poultry production. Walk-behind and small pull-behind tilling and harvesting equipment is reducing the drudgery, as well as costs, for small-scale organic, local, and direct marketers of produce and field crops.[27]

Fourth, and perhaps most important, new digital technologies make it possible to develop and sustain meaningful, “personal” connections among farmers and others who share a common commitment to good, sustainably-produced foods. The business of retailing – including food retailing – is changing fundamentally and rapidly. The total value of Amazon stock recently surpassed the total stock value of Walmart, although Walmart is still far larger in total retail sales. Virtually every major retailer, including food retailers, are scrambling to develop web-based markets. Food home-delivery programs – such as Blue Apron[28] and Hello-Fresh[29] – may be paving the way for local food systems that at least include a home-delivery option. The recent purchase of Whole Foods by Amazon.com could signal a coming revolution in food distribution and retailing.[30] Local food networks would seem to have a natural economic advantage in local home delivery of locally grown foods.

My fifth reason for believing a new and better food system is possible is that the local food movement is a part of a much larger social and cultural movement. As society begins to respond to national and global challenges, such as natural resource depletion, climate change, dying oceans, species extinction, social injustice, and economic inequity it will create the environment for fundamental changes in our systems of farming and food production. One of the 10 major trends in U.S. food retailing identified by Hartman Group, a leader in following food market trends, was that “Health, wellness and sustainability are starting to converge at the most progressive food retail and food service outlets. Consumers see the convergence as being all about mindfulness, integrity and authenticity.” [31] Virtually every major farm policy and food policy of the past 50 years has promoted and supported the industrialization of American agriculture and globalization of the American food system. Growing public concerns about industrial foods eventually will change farm and food policy. With supportive government policies, the transition from industrial/global to sustainable/local could become explosive.

This brings me to my final reason for believing a new sustainable future for farming and food production is possible. I believe that people are awakening to the need for the kinds of personal relationships and ethical commitments that are being developed among families on small farms, their local customers, and others involved in community-based food networks. There is a growing realization that the pursuit of material economic self-interest, including the quest for quick, cheap, convenient foods, has not brought greater satisfaction or happiness for farmers or consumers. We are finally awakening to the fact that we are not only material beings but also social and moral beings.

Certainly we need the economic necessities of life – food, clothing, shelter, health care, – things money can buy. But, we are also social beings and need relationships with other people for reasons that have nothing to do with any economic value we may receive in return. We need to care and be cared about, to love and be loved. And, we are moral and ethical beings and need a sense of purpose and meaning in life. We need to know that what we do matters, that it is right and good. Caring for the earth is not a sacrifice; it gives meaning to life – it matters. The creation of a new sustainable/local food system for the future, is not just about a better way to fuel the human body, it is also about feeding the human heart and soul. I believe the spiritual awakening that is driving the local food movement eventually will “change everything.” In this kind of awakening, there is always hope.

End Notes:

[1] Prepared for presentation at the Farm to Fork Summit, sponsored by New Growth and West Central Missouri Community Action, Osceola, MO, January 15, 2019.

[2] John Ikerd is Professor Emeritus, University of Missouri, Columbia, MO – USA; Author of, Sustainable Capitalism-a Matter of Common Sense, Essentials of Economic Sustainability, A Return to Common Sense, Small Farms are Real Farms, Crisis and Opportunity-Sustainability in American Agriculture, and A Revolution of the Middle-the Pursuit of Happiness, all books available on Amazon.com: Books and Kindle E-books.

Email: JEIkerd@gmail.com; Website: https://www.johnikerd.com .

[3] Robert Pool, "Science Literacy: The Enemy is Us." Science. American Academy of Science. March 15, 251:4991. (1991)

[4] Elizabeth Culotta, "Science's 20 greatest hits take their lumps." Science. American Academy of Science. March 15, 251:4999. (1991).

[5] Margaret A. Hamburg, Food Safety Modernization Act: Putting the Focus on Prevention, Food Safety.gov, http://www.foodsafety.gov/news/fsma.html .

[6] American Farm Bureau Federation, “The Voice of Agriculture,” Fast Farm Facts, http://www.fb.org/newsroom/fastfacts/ .

[7] Organic Trade Association, “Maturing U.S. organic sector sees steady growth of 6.4 percent in 2017 https://ota.com/news/press-releases/20236 .

[8] Luke Runyon, “Are Farmers Market Sales Peaking? That Might Be Good For Farmers,” February 5, 2015. http://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2015/02/05/384058943/are-farmer-market-sales-peaking-that-might-be-good-for-farmers .

[9] Sara Low and others, Economic Research Service, USDA, “Trends in U.S. Local and Regional Food Systems: A Report to Congress,” January 2015, https://www.ers.usda.gov/webdocs/publications/42805/51173_ap068.pdf?v=42083 .

[10] USDA Agricultural Marketing Services, “National Count of National Farmers Markets Directory Listings, 2017, https://www.ams.usda.gov/sites/default/files/media/NationalCountofFMDirectory17.JPG .

[11] USDA Census of Agriculture Update, “Direct Farm Sales of Food,” December, 2016. https://www.agcensus.usda.gov/Publications/2012/Online_Resources/Highlights/Local_Food/LocalFoodsMarketingPractices_Highlights.pdf .

[12] Organic Trade Association, “Maturing U.S. organic sector sees steady growth of 6.4 percent in 2017 https://ota.com/news/press-releases/20236 .

[13] Visit the Peoples’ Food Coop website at http://www.pfc.coop/our-co-op/about-the-peoples-food-co-op/ .

[14] Visit Good Natured Family Farms website at http://www.goodnaturedfamilyfarms.com/

[15] Visit the Oklahoma Food Cooperative website at http://www.oklahomafood.coop/ , list of other state food cooperatives: http://www.oklahomafood.coop/Display.aspx?cn=otherstates .

[16] Jon Springer, “Expo East: Salatin challenges food system 'orthodoxy'” Market Perspectives, Tuesday, September 22, 2015. http://haccmarketing.blogspot.com/2015/09/expo-east-salatin-challenges-food.html .

[17] Visit the Lulus Local Foods website at https://www.luluslocalfood.com/ .

[18] Riverford Organics, UK https://www.riverford.co.uk/ .

[19] National Good Food Network, “US Food Hubs, Full List,” http://www.ngfn.org/resources/food-hubs .

[20] Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, Iowa State University, “Food Hubs in Iowa,” https://www.leopold.iastate.edu/marketing/food-hubs .

[21] A summary of studies of motives for buying local foods in provided on page 30 of the report by Sara Low and others, Economic Research Service, USDA, “Trends in U.S. Local and Regional Food Systems: A Report to Congress,” January 2015, https://www.ers.usda.gov/webdocs/publications/42805/51173_ap068.pdf?v=42083

[22] John Ikerd, “True Cost of Big Farms,” University of Missouri, presentation paper, 2016. http://faculty.missouri.edu/ikerdj/papers/SanFranciscoFarmScale.pdf .

[23] Low and others, ERS, USDA, “Trends in U.S. Local and Regional Food Systems,” 2015, page 30. https://www.ers.usda.gov/webdocs/publications/42805/51173_ap068.pdf?v=42083

[24] CBS documentary, “Hunger in America,” 1968, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h94bq4JfMAA.

[25] USDA, ERS, “Food Security in the U.S., Key Statistics,” Updated Tuesday, October 11, 2016, https://www.ers.usda.gov/topics/food-nutrition-assistance/food-security-in-the-us/key-statistics-graphics.aspx#foodsecure .

[26] At a recent small farms conference, one of the speakers was a young farmer who has written a book about Lean Farming, a term common in corporate business management. I thought he would probably focus on how to make more profit though efficient farm management. However, he focused on how to take the drudgery out of farm work while making a good living on a small farm and stilling having time for family, friends, and the things that add quality to farm life.

[27] VersaLand, for example, “develops code, systems, and machinery for sustainable farming systems,” http://www.versaland.com/about/our-equipment/ .

[28] Blue Apron, “Discover a Better Way to Cook,” https://www.blueapron.com/.

[29] Hello Fresh, “More than Just Food,” https://www.hellofresh.com/tasty/ .

[30] Abha. Bhattaral, “FTC Clears Amazon.com Purchase of Whole Foods.” Washington Post. August 23, 2017. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/business/wp/2017/08/23/ftc-clears-amazon-com-purchase-of-whole-foods/?utm_term=.d647f2a0c8fe .

[31] The Hartman Group, “Consumer Trends in Health and Wellness, November 2015. http://www.forbes.com/sites/thehartmangroup/2015/11/19/consumer-trends-in-health-and-wellness/#3b83af5f4be7 .