Here's good news not only for nutritionists, but for anyone who looks for live economic roots off Wall Street: not only did the recession not kill farmers' markets, they've been thriving since the crash.
In the spring of 2009, as wave after wave of layoffs and foreclosures hit the country, farmers' markets in New York, Washington, D.C., Alabama and Washington state reported record sales. That same year the Food Marketing Institute named purchases of locally and sustainably grown food a leading buying trend. Since then, the popularity of farmers' markets has led farmers in more and more regions, including Western Massachusetts, to continue direct marketing even in the winter.
Earlier, the groundwork for that trend had been laid by longterm growth in the amount of farm product sold directly to consumers. In an article entitled "Economies of Kale" in the current issue of Mother Jones, farmer Tom Philpott cites U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics: between 1992 and 2007, farm-to-consumer sales grew by 77 percent, reaching an annual volume of $1.2 billion.
Add direct sales from farms to grocery stores and restaurants (close to home, think of the CISA [Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture]-affiliated restaurants serving local produce) and by 2008 that $1.2 billion had swollen to $4.8 billion.
Philpott raises the hopeful question of whether continuing decentralization of food production can make a significant dent in unemployment, helping to rebuild our nutritional patterns and our economy at the same time. Philpott's point involves not only growing food but processing it—milling grain, slaughtering animals, processing dairy products, canning, storing, enterprises that not only serve growers' distribution needs but become minor industries in their own right.
There's plenty of room for growth, Philpott says, because food in America is a trillion-dollar-a-year industry, with most of the profits going out of the buyers' home towns to the headquarters of agribusinesses and chain foodstores.
It's often pointed out that when people shop at local businesses, two or three times as much of the money they spend stays in the community as when they shop at chain stores. Philpott refines on this by explaining that buying food from locally owned farmers or food companies keeps more money in the community than buying other things locally, because much of what's needed to produce the food comes from nearby, while clothing or books, for example, may be sold locally but are likely produced somewhere else. That's one of the advantages of building up local food industries (an advantage he doesn't mention is that the jobs involved in local food businesses can hardly be outsourced).
In Western Massachusetts, efforts to widen the range of crops grown locally and provide the services that make them salable have been vigorous. Besides fruit and vegetables, locally grown meat is available, and artisanal bakeries have persuaded a few farmers to contribute to the Valley's self-sufficiency in food by growing wheat.
"Scaling Up Local Food," a report by South Deerfield-based CISA (read the report at www.buylocalfood.org/page.php?id=61), tells of a meat farm in Shelburne that faced a crisis when the slaughterhouse in Athol that the farm's owners had used—the Adams Farm Slaughterhouse—burned down in 2006. With a combination of public and private funding, however, the slaughterhouse was rebuilt and now does slaughtering, cutting and smoking for the Shelburne farm and other customers from as far away as Pennsylvania.
But the Valley could use more slaughtering services as well as grain milling, dairy processing, cold storage and freezing facilities, and distribution and logistics coordination services, according to the report.