By DOUG SCHMITZ
WASHINGTON, D.C. – When USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue signed a proclamation declaring Aug. 6-12 as National Farmers Market Week, the move indicated the USDA’s continued support of producers by encouraging American families to meet and purchase fresh, healthy produce from farmers and other vendors at local farm markets.
Signed Aug. 3, the proclamation acknowledged farmers’ markets and other agricultural direct-marketing outlets contribute approximately $9 billion each year to the U.S. economy. “(Farmers’ markets) serve as significant outlets by which small-to-medium, new and beginning, and veteran agricultural producers market agricultural products, generating revenue that supports the sustainability of family farms and the revitalization of rural communities nationwide,” the proclamation read.
“The (USDA) recognizes the importance of expanding agricultural marketing opportunities that assist and encourage the next generation of farmers and ranchers; generate farm income to help stimulate business development and job creation; build community connections through rural and urban linkages, and more.”
Administered by the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS), the USDA’s Farmers Market Promotion Program (FMPP) has assisted farmers’ markets to expand opportunities for this specific agriculture sector to reach more consumers with healthy, locally grown food.
“The FMPP provides for the creation, development and expansion of our nation’s farmers’ markets, increasing the access to healthy, fresh produce for millions of people in both urban and rural communities,” said Larry Fisher, executive director of the Appalachian Center for Economic Networks in Athens, Ohio. “Through the program’s support, farmers can have access to direct-market opportunities that allow them to sell their products at a retail price, instead of wholesale, increasing the farm income and thus improving the sustainability of our small farms.”
In addition, Fisher said another benefit comes from the rural-urban connection that’s essential for rural farms to access a larger population of consumers.
“Through the USDA Agriculture Marketing Services and FMPP grants, these market connections can be developed to benefit both communities, bringing the produce to the urban centers, and increasing income and sales for the farms,” he said.
Established by Congress in the Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002 through an amendment of the Farmer-to-Consumer Direct Marketing Act of 1976, the FMPP awards competitive grants with the goal of expanding access to locally produced agriculture products and developing new market opportunities for farms and ranches participating in direct farmer-to-consumer marketing.
Since its creation in 2002, FMPP funding has assisted local producers to grow their businesses by helping them connect directly with the shoppers at farmers markets, roadside stands and through Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs.
During that time, the number of farmers’ markets in America has more than doubled from 3,137 to more than 8,684. FMPP grantees report an average 27 percent increase in vendor sales since receiving their grants, and 94 percent report an increase in first-time market customers.
Since 2006, the FMPP has helped communities establish farmers markets, CSA enterprises, roadside stands and agritourism in all 50 states and U.S. territories.
The 2017 FMPP grants support projects in 33 states, including projects to expand nutrition assistance programs in Mississippi, Montana, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, Tennessee, Texas and California.
Tracy Lerman, executive director of the Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Working Group in Kingston, N.Y., told Farm World, “Here in the Northeast, many farmers are smaller-scale and depend on direct markets and the added value of branding their product as local or with a specific regional designation (e.g., Hudson Valley Grown) in order to stay viable, because consumers respond to that.”
Small-scale farmers in Northeast need to promote ‘locally grown’
“Small farmers can’t compete on price alone,” she said. “They need to differentiate their product with a claim of local, or form relationships directly with their customers and communicate the value (beyond just an amazing product) of supporting farmers in our region.
“Farming is a great revitalizer of rural economies, communities and landscapes, and we’ve seen such a tremendous decline in farming in our region,” she said. “Programs like (FMPP) are one piece of what’s needed to keep family farming (or what remains of it) intact and growing here in the Northeast.”
The 2016 FMPP Report, titled Connecting Rural and Urban Communities, said demand for local foods and improving local food systems is increasing. FMPP was reauthorized with increased funding in both the 2008 and the 2014 Farm Bills.
Since 2008, the FMPP has received more than 2,700 applications, requesting more than $201 million, the report said.
Based on available funds, the program funded 879 applications, or 33 percent, awarding 879 grants of more than $58 million since the 2008 Farm Bill.
“Food and farm products grown for local markets has exploded over the last 10 years or so,” Wes King, policy specialist for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) in Washington, D.C., told Farm World. “The number of farmers markets have nearly double over the last decade to around 8,700 in 2017.”
At the same time, according to USDA data, between 2007 and 2015, direct-to-consumer sales – which include farmers markets, CSAs and farm stands – more than doubled from $1.2 billion to $3 billion in revenue for farmers engaged in direct-to-consumer marketing, he said.
“Related to that, it’s interesting to note that according to a report by the Farm Credit Council, using data from the 2012 Census of Agriculture, “if ‘direct-to-consumer’ (a sub-sector of the larger local food market) were a commodity (e.g., cattle, grains, etc.), it would be the fourth-largest commodity as measured by the number of farms engaged in the practice,” King said.
“This growth in revenue for direct-to-consumer has been part of the growth in the larger local and regional food sector of the agricultural economy, which includes sales to institutions, retail and through intermediaries as of 2015, according to the USDA, is an $8.7 billion market when looking at the revenue farmers receive.”
NSAC: More food sales means better access to local food
Whether it’s the growth in local and regional food sales as a whole or sales through farmers’ markets, King said, “Those increases in sales have naturally meant an increase in consumers’ access to healthy, local food.”
The FMPP report said the 2014 Farm Bill increased funding for FMPP and expanded it to support intermediated marketing activities such as aggregation, processing, storage and distribution of local foods through the Local Food Promotion Program (LFPP).
“That growth hasn’t happened in a vacuum,” he said. “The 2014 Farm Bill included historic investments in the local and regional food sector that have undoubtedly helped, along with growing consumer interest and demand in all things food and agriculture to drive growth within that sector.”
The broader program – now known as the Farmers Market and Local Food Promotion Program (FMLFPP) – supports food system activities essential for helping farms and ranches meet the growing demand for local food.
In fact, total funding was increased from $10 million to $30 million per fiscal year, with $15 million for FMPP projects and $15 million for LFPP projects, which require 25 percent in matching funds.
Since 2014, the LFPP has awarded $24.6 million to 350 projects, leveraging $13.6 million in matching funds or in-kind services from the recipients.
John Ferrell, manager of the Franklin County Farmers Market in Winchester, Tenn., told Farm World, the $43,000 grant it received in 2015 was used for a permanent-covered market shed.
“This grant enabled us to build a 50 (foot by) 150-foot covered market shed,” he said. “This facility has enabled farmers to sell their products in a safe environment and has helped our market grow to one of the best in lower middle Tennessee.”
This year alone, the FMPP awarded 52 recipients nearly $13.4 million in grants for farmers’ markets, which have helped create and expand hundreds of direct producer-to-consumer agricultural markets. In fact, 22 percent of FMPP grants supported startup or expansion activities.
The USDA reports FMPP grants fall into three categories: marketing and promotional activities; capacity building; and training, education and technical assistance.
FMPP funding helps farmers to improve marketing opportunities
The report said FMPP investments have also enabled direct producer-to-consumer markets to build capacity and enhance marketing opportunities through the purchase of new equipment. For example, new equipment was used for light processing of agricultural products to create value-added products in a commercial kitchen, and adding refrigerated storage also helped increase capacity. These capacity-building projects included 14 percent of the grants.
As one of the 52 award recipients this year, Fisher said the Appalachian Center for Economic Networks (ACEnet) was awarded a $162,140 FMPP grant under the category of capacity building to address a major problem with its 45-year-old Athens Farmers Market. Currently, the Athens Farmers Market operates with a large waiting list because of the limited opportunities due to the constraints of the existing location.
“The current location is precarious and is limiting the market growth, and we’re even having to drop vendors because of space restrictions,” he said.
According to the FMPP award description, the ACEnet will build the capacity for the Athens Farmers Market “to expand and provide many more opportunities for specialty crop producers, livestock and dairy producers, orchardists, prepared-food makers and value-added processors to increase sales and strengthen their rural livelihoods.”
The FMPP’s award description also said the ACEnet’s expansion will “create a larger economic outlet for local food supply, allow farming operations to scale, enhance community support and increase tourist visitation as a cultural destination for local food.”
“With this grant, we will be able to bring in our national partners, Project for Public Spaces and Dar Wolnik, to help identify new locations and provide support to the market as they look to make the transition to new space,” Fisher said.
“We believe the market could increase in size by more than 25 percent to as many as 125 vendors within the next three years,” he added. “The end result would be more opportunities for farm vendors, increasing their sustainability, while increasing the access to fresh, local foods for all our surrounding communities.”
On Oct. 4, U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and Reps. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.) and Sean Maloney (D-N.Y.) introduced the Local FARMS Act of 2017.
If included in the next farm bill, the act would renew and increase investment in the FMPP, the LFPP, “and a number of other important existing programs and new ideas,” King said.
“The USDA programs like the Farmers Market Promotion Program are helping to build the capacity of farmers markets and provide technical assistance to farmers and ranchers selling at farmers markets – and have been critical to this growth,” he said.
“As Congress continues to dig into the writing of the next farm bill, it is crucial that it include renewed investment in those programs that have helped to drive the growth in farmers markets, and local and regional food sales,” he added.