New Markets, New Opportunities: Strengthening Local Food Systems and Organic Agriculture

Tom Vilsack
USDA Results
Published in
14 min readApr 4, 2016


A powerful local and regional food movement is growing inside the United States; a movement that directly connects consumers with how, where and by whom their food is grown. It forges new pathways for rural families to stay on the farm and attracts new producers to farming and food-related businesses. It brings about a new appreciation for rural production and entrepreneurship among top chefs, food companies and grocers large and small. It connects schools and our nation’s children with fresher, healthier food to give them the energy they need to be successful into the future. And for all those reasons, it has become one of the four foundational pillars on which the U.S. Department of Agriculture bases its policies and programming.

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But let’s take a moment to look back at how we got here. Today, USDA supports and invests in local and regional food projects from coast to coast, in every state — but that wasn’t always the case. When President Obama took office in 2009, “local food” was still a relatively new concept. Right out of the gate, USDA gave new priority to giving consumers what they had been asking for: a stronger connection to their food.

We quickly flattened our bureaucracy and strengthened our support for diverse agricultural operations and food systems and began to create new programs and tools to support producers of all sizes and production methods.

By 2009, communities across the country had begun to build locally-supported systems to meet emerging market demands, and consumers were gaining more exposure to the concept of local food at their grocery stores and neighborhood farmers market. In our first months in office, USDA was able to hit the ground running with a definitive push to support local and regional food systems with staffing, research and financial support from one of the nation’s biggest fans of local food — President Obama. USDA began to carefully track its investments along with the steady growth of local and regional food systems and related economic impacts in rural communities. Slowly, we began embedding local and regional food systems into our policymaking and programming, and by 2012, USDA named it one of the four pillars supporting a new rural American economy along with biobased manufacturing, conservation markets and agricultural production. Since then, USDA has been working to institutionalize local and regional food systems across USDA’s sizeable footprint.

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Over the last four years, I’ve seen a shift. People who have never been on a farm are becoming interested in where their food comes from. Towns and neighborhoods that didn’t have regular access to fresh fruits and vegetables are getting them. Farmers and ranchers are tapping into new markets and keeping more money in their pockets by selling locally. And all across the country, innovative local food businesses are starting up and staffing up. Local food systems work for America: when we create opportunities for farmers and ranchers, our entire nation reaps the benefit.”
— President
Barack Obama

The significant and transformative investments USDA has made in rural America since 2009 have strengthened our nation’s economy, our small towns and our rural communities. Today, two-thirds of rural counties have demonstrated job growth and unemployment in rural areas has fallen considerably. Although there is still more work to be done to bring greater opportunity to our rural areas, the focus by USDA and our partners on a four-part strategy involving local and regional foods is generating returns.

Between 2009 and 2015, from the smallest on-farm projects like high tunnels, to large-scale investments like food hubs, USDA has invested over $1 billion in more than 40,000 local and regional food businesses and infrastructure projects. Today, more than 160,000 farmers and ranchers nationwide are selling into local markets, from farmers markets and CSAs to local restaurants, grocery stores and institutions, generating huge returns for local communities. Total retail and food services sales in the United States reached an all-time high in 2011 and have continued to set records each year since. In fact, industry estimates show U.S. local food sales totaled at least $12 billion in 2014, up from $5 billion in 2008, and experts anticipate that value to hit $20 billion by 2019. The numbers also show that these opportunities are helping to drive job growth in agriculture, increase entrepreneurship in rural communities and expand food access and choice.

I’m particularly proud of this Administration’s work to prioritize increasing diversity in agriculture — from local to global and from conventional to organic — to create more options for consumers and cement the important role that American agriculture plays in feeding American families and a growing world population. More than anything, I am proud that Americans are excited about their food again and ever grateful to those who produce it.

Supporting Local and Regional Food Systems

As consumer interest in “buying local” blossomed at the start of the Obama Administration, USDA recognized a growing need to support farmers, small businesses and communities interested in taking advantage of this new market opportunity. The Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food Initiative (KYF2) was launched in 2009 to break down bureaucratic silos and take stock of existing USDA programs across the Department that could support the growing demand for local and regional food systems.

Former Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan gathered USDA staff representing every agency at the Department, and together, this KYF2 task force worked systematically to expand existing programs or develop new strategies to meet the needs of this growing segment of agriculture and to build capacity across USDA to serve local food stakeholders.

The KYF2 website became a one-stop shop for resources and information about USDA programs and a place where interested producers could find support for local and regional food systems. In addition to featuring information about relevant grants, loans, research and other tools, the site includes the KYF2 Compass, which maps over 4,200 federal investments in local and regional food made by USDA and other Federal Agencies since 2009. In the spirit of open government and transparency, all of the data on the map are downloadable, searchable and updated annually. The Compass allows users to search for federally-supported local food projects in their community and learn what others are doing across the country through keyword or geographic searches.

Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food Compass
Click for image info. Learn about how USDA and our federal partners support local and regional food economies; see communities putting these resources to work; and explore the map to find out what’s happening near you.

USDA has also launched several local food directories to help consumers find options near them, wherever they are. Our groundbreaking National Farmers Market Directory — the largest and most accurate directory of its kind when launched — helps connect consumers to fresh food right in their community. The directory now lists over 8,500 farmers markets nationwide. We also offer additional directories for Community Supported Agriculture enterprises, food hubs and on-farm stores.

USDA Programs in the Local Food Supply Chain illustration.
Click to download PDF.

Supporting Local Food on the Farm

The coordinated support that began under KYF2 has led to tangible results and changed the way USDA invests its resources.

In 2010, USDA launched a pilot to support the construction of high tunnels on farms around the country. These low-cost greenhouses extend the growing season, reduce input costs, conserve natural resources and make locally-grown produce available for a greater portion of the year. Since that time, the pilot has become a permanent and indispensable program, helping to construct more than 15,000 high tunnels with USDA support.

The number of Value Added Producer Grants awarded to local food projects has also jumped by more than 500 percent, between 2009 and 2014. During the 2014–2015 funding cycle, USDA dedicated nearly $14 million, nearly half of the awarded funds, to 116 unique local food projects through this program.

Read stories of businesses that used the VAPG program to successfully expand their rural operations. Click for image info.
Story 1: USDA Grant Recipient Featured as “America’s Best Ice Cream” on ABC’s Good Morning America.
Story 2: Made in Rural America: Value-added Agriculture Takes Oregon Wool from Ranch to Runway and, Now, to the Olympics.

We also began to recognize that smaller and beginning producers were sometimes encountering additional barriers to acquiring capital for things like making a down payment on a farm or building or repairing essential farm buildings. To make it easier to access USDA loans, we launched a microloan program in 2013 that has since financed over 18,000 farmers and ranchers in all 50 states, many of whom are engaged in local marketing. This program provides smaller loans of up to $50,000 and has become an important access point to credit for new farmers and ranchers. In fact, 70 percent of these loans have gone to beginning farmers.

And while a growing number of grocers and institutions are interested in buying local, their requirements often mean that farmers must undergo costly food safety audits and document their compliance with food safety plans. To help farmers meet these requirements, USDA partnered with to introduce a free online tool to help producers generate a food safety plan and verify they’re producing fruits and vegetables in accordance with the plan. USDA also launched a “GroupGAP” (Good Agricultural Practices) program that allows groups of farmers to be jointly certified to the GAP food safety standard, spreading the cost of certification across the group.

USDA’s Small Plant Help Desk responds to an average of 1,000 inquiries per month from small and very small meat processing plants, helping them maintain high standards for food safety. Click for image info.

And in an effort to further understand and institutionalize how to meet the needs and activities of farmers and ranchers selling into local markets, later this month, USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service will mail out the first-ever survey of local food producers. The study will gather data on a range of issues including value of sales, marketing channels, barriers to expansion, food safety and production practices, all of which will contribute to a better understand of the unique characteristics of this segment of agriculture.

Improving Infrastructure to Connect Producers with New Markets

Even the most productive farmers can’t succeed if there is no way to get their products to market. With support from USDA, our infrastructure base is expanding to meet the needs of a diversifying agricultural industry. Since 2014, USDA has made over 900 investments in local food infrastructure that include food hubs, warehouses, local processing facilities and distribution networks connecting farmers with local markets.

We’ve also invested in innovative retail opportunities that keep more of the food dollar in farmers’ pockets and improve consumer access to fresh and local food. USDA data indicate that the number of farmers markets nationwide has increased by 93.3 percent between 2006 and 2014. Our investments in farmers markets and other direct-to-consumer local food marketing activities through the Farmers Market Promotion Program (FMPP), have provided $60 million in assistance for over 900 projects nationwide since 2009. In recognition of the success of this program, in 2014, Congress expanded FMPP to include the Local Food Promotion Program (LFPP), which supports more complex local food supply chains including aggregation, distribution, storage and processing of local food. LFPP has funded over 350 projects totaling nearly $25 million since it launched.

In addition, thanks in part to strong support from this Administration, the number of food hubs has nearly doubled since 2009, with more than 300 now operating around the country. Food hubs aggregate products from small and midsize farms and distribute them to large-volume local buyers like grocery stores. That’s good for consumers and good for the economy too. In fact, according to a survey by Michigan State University, on average, each food hub supports 20 jobs and generates nearly $4 million in annual sales — meaning that since 2009, market growth of food hubs, supported in part by USDA, have led to approximately 3,000 new jobs, and $600 million in sales.

Improved Access to Healthy, Local Food

Our efforts at USDA have helped farmers, businesses and schools increase access to fresh, local food for the communities that need it most, including low-income children and families. USDA has worked to ensure that participants in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, have access to healthy, local food options by helping farmers, farm stands and farmers markets accept electronic nutrition benefits. The number of local food vendors that accept SNAP has grown from 753 in 2008 to more than 6,400 today — that’s more than eight times greater than when President Obama took office. In fiscal year 2008, annual SNAP redemptions at farmers markets were approximately $2.7 million. They rose to $19.4 million by 2015 an increase of approximately 620 percent, showing the high demand for fresh, local foods for families trying to make ends meet.

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In 2010, USDA launched a new Farm to School program that has helped schools supply healthier food to millions of students in all 50 States, the District of Columbia and the U.S. Virgin Islands. USDA’s Farm to School Census, released last month, showed that in the 2013–14 school year alone, school districts spent nearly $800 million on locally and regionally-sourced food, representing a 105% increase over school year 2011–2012. Nearly half of these districts plan to purchase more local foods in future school years, an investment in both their local economy and in the health of America’s next generation. We also recently launched an Office of Community Food Systems that will coordinate not just Farm to School, but also farm to summer and farm to child and adult care — helping bring the farm to many of our nutrition programs.

Our Specialty Crop Block Grant Program helps support growers of American specialty crops like fruits, vegetables, tree nuts, dried fruits, horticulture and nursery crops — a segment of the industry that provides over 900,000 jobs to the rural economy. From 2009 to 2015, the Specialty Crop Block Grant Program has strengthened the market for specialty crops like fruits, vegetables, tree nuts, dried fruits, horticulture and nursery crops by funding 5,484 projects totaling $392.9 million and brought more specialty produce to markets everywhere. The grants are awarded to State departments of agriculture for projects that help support specialty crop growers, including locally grown fruits and vegetables, through research and other programs to increase demand.

We’ve also taken steps to support communities as they build partnerships to increase community food security. Since 2009, USDA has provided $37.4 million to 186 Community Food Project awards in 48 states to help communities assess strengths, establish linkages and create and implement plans that promote self-reliance for community food access.

And with federal partners including the Environmental Protection Agency and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, USDA launched the place based initiative, Local Food, Local Places, which provides technical assistance to communities that are using local food as a tool to develop more walkable, livable, healthier and more vibrant neighborhoods.

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Creating Opportunities in Organic Agriculture

Organic food is one of the fasting growing segments of American agriculture, and USDA is creating even more opportunities for organic operations. At the same time, consumer demand for organic products continues to increase, with U.S. retail sales growing from $13 billion in 2005 to more than $39 billion in 2014. Today, the number of certified organic operations in the United States has grown to more than 21,700 — nearly a 300 percent increase since 2002. Worldwide, the USDA organic seal has become a leading global standard, with more than 31,000 certified organic operations in more than 120 countries.

Over the past seven years, USDA has strengthened programs that support organic operations, helping to make organic certification more accessible, attainable, and affordable through a “Sound and Sensible” approach. This initiative includes streamlining the certification process, focusing on enforcement and working with farmers and processors to correct small issues before they become larger ones.

Read more about Sound and Sensible. Click for image info.

We’ve also established a number of resources to help organics producers find technical and financial resources to help them grow domestically and abroad. Our site,, creates a one-stop-shop for operators. We’ve also made market and pricing information for approximately 250 organic products available free of charge through USDA’s Market News. In 2015, USDA made more than $11.5 million available to assist organic operations with their certification costs.

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Not only that, but USDA is working around the globe to expand horizons for U.S. organic producers. Organic equivalency arrangements provide increased access to a growing global organic markets and allow organic products certified in one country to be sold as organic in each respective market, reducing the cost of duplicative certifications, fees and inspections. Under this Administration, USDA has established equivalency arrangements with Canada, the European Union, Japan, Korea and Switzerland, providing U.S. organic farmers and businesses with streamlined access to international organic markets valued at over $35 billion.

Here on our own soil, USDA began offering crop insurance for organic producers that reflects organic market prices in 2011 — one of most important steps we’ve taken to provide effective insurance coverage for organic crops and better risk management tools for organic producers. And beginning in 2016, the Whole-Farm Revenue Protection insurance policy became available to producers. This policy allows producers to insure between 50 to 85 percent of their whole farm revenue. While the policy is available for all farms, it was specifically developed for diversified farms that tend to sell to direct, local or regional, and farm-identity preserved markets, such as organic. Organic producers meeting the requirements of the National Organic Program may use their organic prices to value their commodities under this Federal crop insurance policy. Under the Noninsured Crop Disaster Assistance Program (NAP), we’ve also allowed separate market prices to be established for organic crops, providing non-insurable crop producers financial assistance to protect against natural disasters that result in lower yields, crop loss or prevented crop planting.

Our conservation program staff have also created numerous tools to support organic producers, developing an organic handbook and a tool that connects conservation practices with USDA’s organic regulatory requirements. Through public-private partnerships, we’ve expanded our field-level capacity to implement voluntary conservation practices on organic acres. Since 2009, we’ve provided more than 6,800 farms with $115 million in assistance to help producers transitioning to organic production through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program Organic Initiative.

Don’t have a farm? Start a garden!

April is also National Garden Month, which is a good time to recognize that growing your own food can be a gateway to farming and a good way to build a healthier plate. Research shows that people who have access to fruits and vegetables eat more of them, and that children who garden are more likely to have greater knowledge about nutrition and healthy eating habits. Not only that, but eating a diet high in fruits and vegetables is associated with a decreased risk of many chronic diseases, including heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, diabetes and obesity.

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We began the People’s Garden Initiative — named in honor of President Lincoln’s description of USDA as the “People’s Department” — in 2009. It has since grown into a collaborative effort of local and national organizations all working together to establish community and school gardens across the country.

If you don’t have a farm nearby, the USDA People’s Garden Initiative has resources to get you started:

The simple act of planting a garden can help unite neighborhoods in a common effort and inspire locally-led solutions to challenges facing our country — from hunger to climate change. People’s Gardens serve to encourage healthy eating, connect people to agriculture and serve as launch pads for communities to begin selling locally-produced agricultural products at farmers markets and CSAs across America.

Header photo: President Barack Obama and The First Lady Michelle Obama at the First Lady’s Let’s Move! Initiative during a Kids’ State Dinner in the East Room of The White House on Friday, Jul. 18, 2014.