Over the last 80 years, federal policy has increasingly put small farmers at a disadvantage by massively subsidizing a centralized, industrial agriculture system that produces cheap food. Activists have spent decades pushing federal reforms, such as organic standards, with incremental success. Now, a surge of state and local government policies that promote local food and small farms as engines of economic development is making waves in Washington, D.C., (see map at right). In 2008 and 2009, for example, at least 13 state legislatures passed bills encouraging the growth of farmers markets. Arizona removed barriers to selling beef and lamb at market, while New Mexico, Washington and other states made it easier for those on public assistance to buy food at farmers markets. Some states directed limited funding toward the infrastructure and promotion of such markets.
And local governments are looking beyond farmers markets, spurred by the growing interest in local food. Each week, Mark Winne at the Community Food Security Coalition's Food Policy Council Program hears from three to five communities interested in starting new food policy councils. These quasi-governmental groups unite the food-related missions of NGOs and state agriculture, health, welfare, environmental quality and other agencies to improve access to safe, healthy food, build local food-processing infrastructure and boost small farmers.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture launched its own Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food initiative in September 2009 to link small farmers with the growing number of federal local food programs, including $10 million a year in grants in 2011 and 2012 to expand markets, roadside stands, community-supported agriculture (where consumers pay individual producers for a season's worth of produce) and other local food sources.
The number of farmers markets in the country grew by 16 percent from 2009 to 2010, according to a USDA survey, giving small farmers access to more customers. Still, direct farm-to-consumer sales make up a tiny proportion of overall farm sales. Small producers still face significant obstacles, from unfriendly land-use regulations to federal and state licensing procedures that are meant to ensure public safety, but can prove unduly cumbersome -- and expensive -- for small operations.
So activists hope the local-food groundswell will influence the 2012 Farm Bill debate. It's already had a major impact on the Food Safety Modernization Act, which was signed into law this month. The bill forces industrial farmers and food processors to be more vigilant about food-borne diseases, requiring them to create new food safety plans for Food and Drug Administration evaluation. The FDA will also rejigger its inspection process so that higher-risk facilities receive more attention. But thanks to a hard-fought amendment from Montana Sen. Jon Tester, D, an organic farmer, the new law exempts producers who sell most of their wares directly to local consumers and gross less than $500,000 a year. Tester and his supporters say that small farms have much better safety records anyway. And spared the expense of the new safety standards, they may find it easier to compete with mass-produced prices.
"These folks are folks that really helped build this country," Tester said during his Senate testimony on the bill late last year, "and undue regulation on them ... would simply stop a movement in this country that has gone on since (its) inception."