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A USDA report finds that local food is a much bigger market than previously thought, with a healthy growth curve and sales projected to reach $7 billion this year.

We all know someone who rolls their eyes when ‘Local Food’ comes up – who tells you that it’s just a trend, that it’s not economically viable in the long term. Numbers are emerging that say otherwise – if growth in the sector continues on pace,  those skeptics just might be shopping at the farmers market sooner than they’d imagine.

The U.S.D.A. recently conducted a study that found that sales of local food, either direct-to-consumers through venues like farmers markets, or through intermediaries like restaurants or grocery stores, amounted to $4.8 billion in 2008. That’s “several times” greater than forecasts had predicted, and the department estimates that local foods will generate $7 billion in sales this year.

The Associated Press covered the report in a widely distributed piece. More key findings:

  • Farmers markets are a primary point of sales for local foods. As demand has grown, they just about doubled in number between 1998 and 2009, from 2,756 to 5,274.
  • The number of farms selling directly to consumers has grown, from an estimated 86,000 in the early 1990s to about 136,000 now.
  • Direct-to-consumer sales of local produce by farmers have increased from $650 million per year in the early ’90s to $1.2 billion today. The larger $4.8 billion figure includes sales to restaurants, retailers and local distributors.

Why are so much growth? It’s not complicated. The AP piece quotes farmer Paul Gnaedinger on why his customers buy from him directly:

“They do tell me they don’t want to buy something in Colorado one day, then see it shipped to California before it’s shipped here.

“There’s real demand in the market for people wanting to know where their food is coming from, that it’s going through local channels.”

So perhaps it’s true that once people get a taste of fresh, local produce grown by farmers focused on quality rather than by far-flung companies focused on volume – once they start asking who’s growing their food, how it’s being grown and where it’s being grown – there really is no going back.

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