Each Saturday during the growing season, 20,000 people flock to the Dane County Farmers' Market on Madison's Capitol Square. With 300 vendors, the legendary DCFM tops out as the largest producer-only market in the nation. From its humble beginnings in 1972, Madison's market is part of a national trend toward local foods that has exploded in the last decade. Wisconsin now stands at eighth nationwide in the number of such markets, bringing fresh summer bounty to people across the state.
For her Master's thesis, UW-Madison AAE graduate student Maureen Stickel
measured the economic impact across the U.S. of local food activity, which has been widely promoted as a driver of economic growth for communities. Stickel's advisor, Steve Deller
, has also been studying this question for several years.
"A lot of published research has credited the local food movement—such as farmers’ markets and community supported agriculture (CSAs)—with improving health and community engagement, environmental outcomes, access to healthy food, and other benefits," Stickel said. "But there have not been many studies on the economic impacts. Case studies of particular markets or communities have shown some positive effects, but I wanted to do a quantitative analysis at the aggregate level."
Dane County Farmer's Market
Using USDA data, Stickel compared counties with active local food activity to those without it, using the change over time in the less-active counties as her comparison group. Employment, wages, per capita income, and business growth comprised her metrics of economic performance.
"My methodology came from a class with Jennifer Alix-Garcia
," said Stickel. "It’s usually used to evaluate development projects, but it's never been used to study the economic impacts of local foods."
"I found no significant impact from local foods on counties across the U.S.," said Stickel, speculating that this could be because local foods represent such a small slice of any local economy. Only about 1% of total food sales come from direct selling, so even the exponential growth of recent years might be difficult to discern.
"Communities are continuing to encourage growth in this area, but the recent USDA data show it leveling off," said Stickel. Some markets may be saturated. "They also don't capture data on locally produced food sold to institutions such as restaurants, schools, and hospitals, so those figures would not be counted."
"I personally think farmers’ markets and CSAs do provide community benefits, particularly in the form of improving access to healthy food and encouraging better environmental practices. But improved economic performance did not come through in my analysis," Stickel said.
She notes the difficulty in gauging the effects of local foods on the economy. "For example, are people who are already healthy buying more local foods? In that case, it would be hard to identify a health outcome. Similarly, are the higher prices people pay for local foods spurring economic growth, or do those people simply have higher incomes?"
"I'm pro local foods, but unfortunately, my study did not prove what many people hope is true—that this movement will not only improve health and the environment but also bring prosperity to the communities that embrace it."