Supporting Local Foods in the2018 Farm Bill
Investing in regional food systems will ensure that our family farmers can continue to make a living and that rural communities are able to prosper.
For the past several decades, the prevailing mantra of American agricultural policy can be summed up in one phrase: “Get big or get out!” Under the guidance of Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz (1971–1976), domestic farm policy shifted to favor large, industrial farming operations predominantly growing commodity crops like corn and soybeans in vast monocultures, and mostly disregarded smaller, diversified farms that sold locally. Large agribusiness and food companies flourished under this climate and established global supply chains that sought to increase production efficiency and boost crop yields, all the while cheapening basic food staples and providing ever-increasing profits to multinational processing companies. The result was a highly consolidated food system that, among other consequences, decreased crop diversity and led to economic destabilization in many rural communities. At the same time, many American consumers became disconnected from food production and unaware of where their food came from.
While the lasting effects of these policies can still be felt today, farmers, consumers, and communities across the country have sought to reverse these trends and re-localize food production, spawning a local food movement. According to the USDA, the local and regional sector of the food industry is expected to grow to $20 billion in sales by 2019.1
Farmers’ markets are popping up in cities and a burgeoning interest in the “farm-to-table” movement is opening up new markets and creating economic opportunities for farmers and food producers alike. Recent Farm Bills have created a number of programs that support local and regional food systems. However, the reality remains that many farmers selling locally continue to face significant barriers—such as distribution or physical infrastructure, access to capital, and information gaps—that prevent them from expanding their businesses and thriving. Moreover, many of the USDA programs that have supported local and regional producers, and have helped to drive this current growth, lack permanent baseline funding and must be renewed with each iteration of the Farm Bill. As the 2018 Farm Bill continues to take shape, it is important to take a look at opportunities that will foster the growth of local and regional food economies.