Given the fact that most Americans have to peel stickers or plastic off their produce before eating them, you'd think that the local-foods business represents a tiny, not-very-lucrative segment of the food system. But a new USDA report, whose findings the Washington Post summarized yesterday, says that 40 percent of all fruit, vegetable, and nut farmers sell their products locally. Not only that, U.S. farmers sold $4.8 billion dollars of "locally grown food" to consumers, restaurants, and markets in 2008.
Before you declare victory and celebrate with a Chilean pineapple, you should know that this figure in the billions comes with a few caveats: The USDA"s definition of "local" isn't clear, and it doesn't differentiate between organic and pesticide laden. Oh, and just for comparison, the AP reported yesterday that the United States is on track to export $137 billion worth of agricultural exports abroad in 2011.
Still, the USDA projects that the local-food business will reach $7 billion this year, and the number of farmers selling directly to customers has risen more than 50 percent since the 1990s. And "$7 billion dollar industry" has a nice ring to it, doesn't it? Kind of brings the local foods movement out of the realm of idealism and into the realm of profit, which is what will draw more farmers into the fold.