We know demand for more locally produced food is growing. A recent U.S. Department of Agriculture study found sharp increases in direct farmer-to-consumer marketing ($551 million in 1997 to $1.2 billion in 2007), the number of farmers markets (2,756 in 1998 to 5,274 in 2009) and community supported agriculture organizations (400 in 2001 to over 1,400 in 2010).
But, as the USDA study also pointed out, direct farmer-to-consumer sales still account for less than one percent of the overall food system. How do we ramp it up? Currently, most local food production comes from small farms. While helping more small-scale farms succeed is critical, we also need to bring more medium-sized farms into the picture.
Last year, IATP began working with Compass Group of North America to design a new “Ag in the Middle” initiative aimed at expanding markets for mid-sized, independent farmers. Compass is a leading food service management company that serves over 10,000 hospitals, colleges, K-12 schools and other accounts in the United States. The Ag in the Middle initiative was launched last year with pilot programs in Minnesota, North Carolina and Washington, D.C. The company recently announced the initiative would be rolled out nationwide. In 2009 alone, Compass purchased $17 million in local food products (Local is defined as food produced within 150 miles or less of where it is consumed.). Compass plans on purchasing from 2,013 mid-sized farmers providing local food by 2013.
“This initiative is about building mutually beneficial relationships between farmers and buyers and creating a new way of doing business with the farming community,” said IATP’s JoAnne Berkenkamp in a Compass press release.
The Compass/IATP partnership is just one of a number of innovative efforts around the country involving mid-sized farms in local food production. An excellent new report by Farm Aid documents a number of other efforts around the country – utilizing a variety of models – helping mid-sized farms take advantage of local food opportunities. It all makes you wonder what could be achieved if government policy – like the Farm Bill – devoted more resources toward local food systems that work for farmers and consumers.