When Michelle Obama planted an organic garden on the White House lawn in 2009, she joined a growing number of Americans interested in local foods. "Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food" and her initiatives against childhood obesity further highlighted public concerns over the safety and healthfulness of food in the U.S.. But does local food production actually help rural economies thrive?
"There has not been much research on how this movement to "civic agriculture" (local, sustainable, organic) affects local economies," explains Steve Deller
. "My past studies show that counties that are more economically dependent upon agriculture have low economic growth or even decline. But over the past few years, there's been a resurgence of interest in supporting small- and medium-scale agriculture for rural development. The last rigorous study of the economic impact of small-scale ‘alternative' agriculture was done over 20 years ago, and a lot has changed since then."
Deller is launching a new study to determine whether there's sufficient demand for local foods to make such farming a driver of rural economic development. Increasing numbers of institutions, such as schools, hospitals, and even prisons, are looking for sources of locally grown produce, meat and dairy products. "Local trumps organic at this point, although locally grown organic food is still most popular," he notes.
This new project builds on Deller's and others' past study of the value of rural amenities, which finds that towns with a rich array of amenities can attract and keep a well-educated work force. As an Extension economist who routinely helps communities evaluate their development plans, Deller is concerned that local foods are being promoted without sound analysis proving their economic benefits.
"We're also looking at the public health and social capital effects of local foods initiatives," he says. "At this point, we are finding that higher levels of local foods are associated with higher levels of public health. But it's unclear whether access to local foods is driving public health or whether areas with higher levels of public health demand more local foods. Nor have we measured the ways civic agriculture contributes to the social cohesiveness of communities."
Recently, small-scale agriculture in Wisconsin has grown to such an extent that, despite the demise of many mid-sized farms in the past couple of decades, farm labor levels have remained stable. Deller and his collaborators speculate this is largely due to growth in the number of smaller operations. The share of small farms grew from 49% to 58% from 1987 to 2007, and in 34 of Wisconsin's 72 counties, agriculture supports one-seventh of the workforce.
To conduct the study, "we first have to define what local food means," explained Deller, "and then we'll do a spatial analysis showing the locations of high activity for that type of agriculture." Spatial variables include not just terrain, soil and climate, but also a farmer's access to financial and social capital, as well as cultural factors such as proximity to a metropolitan center's urban amenities and larger markets for locally grown food. "We want to discover whether clustering and location of local foods production and processing operations affects their overall economic viability."
Rural economies depend much less on agriculture than in the past. A century ago 41% of the U.S. labor force worked in agriculture, as opposed to 2% today. So re-defining agriculture's role in keeping these economically diverse communities vibrant can help guide policy and educational outreach to those rural areas, in Wisconsin and elsewhere.
"If we can show that this type of farming can support the farmer and the community, we can design incentives to keep it growing," says Deller.