Tuesday Talks With Dr. Patterson

October 7, 2014

In conversations with business leaders in the fruit and vegetable industry, I often ask if the drought in California will result in increased fruit and vegetable production in the Southeast, particularly Alabama, where water supplies are more abundant. Many say yes, but they add that the buy local or farm-to-table movement is also an important motivating factor. While some may have dismissed the buy local movement as a fad, the new farm bill and recent announcements by USDA suggest that it is here to stay.

Last week, the USDA announced $83 million in funding for programs to encourage local production and expand organic production. The programs are part of the new farm bill, which many describe as much more supportive of specialty crop (fruit and vegetable), organic, and local producers. Michigan Senator Debbie Stabenow, who represents a very diverse agricultural state with extensive specialty crop production, is credited for introducing these new elements into the farm bill. Among the programs announced last week is the Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive Program, which will make $31.5 million available through the National Institute of Food and Agriculture to fund pilot projects demonstrating how to make locally produced, fresh fruit and vegetables available to SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) participants. The Farmers Market Promotion Program and Local Foods Promotion Program will share $27 million in funding to support grants that will improve farmers markets and local food enterprises, such food processers. The Organic Research and Extension Initiative will help producers who have already adopted organic standards to grow and expand their businesses through $19 million in few funding. The Community Food Projects will focus on local food security issues (Chase). In addition, the Federal-State Marketing Improvement program continues to provide funding to state departments of agriculture and universities for research and demonstration projects that help improve food marketing and distribution systems. Also last week, the USDA announced the availability $118 million in grants through the Specialty Crop Block Grant Program and the Specialty Crop Research Initiative, which were also authorized under the farm bill (Agri-Pulse). All of these programs are intended to expand local production, strengthen local economies, and make local products more readily available, particularly to low income and food insecure families.

People have long expressed the desire to buy local as a way to support local producers, to obtain fresher products, or to reflect other beliefs about food systems and the environment. In fact, the term locavore was the New Oxford American Dictionary word of the year in 2007 (OUPblog). Obviously, Congress has heard the consumers (and voters) and the USDA is now acting on these demands. Retailers too have heard consumer demands. As early as 2010, Wal-Mart established
goals to increase its procurement of local products (Clifford). Other retailers have followed suit and are now making these demands on their suppliers. Meeting the local procurement goals of large retailers will be a challenge.

Modern food production and marketing systems have evolved to produce and deliver large volumes of food through distributed, specialized systems that enforce strict food safety and food quality standards. Plugging small quantities of seasonal food supplies for local distribution into his system is difficult. And, it’s debatable whether the locally procured foods are fresher, safer, or better (Patterson). Some have argued that while food miles (the miles a food product is transported to a market) are down, the amount of greenhouse gas emitted per volume of delivered food is actually higher through local systems. So, there is a legitimate question as to whether local products are better for environmental reasons (Patterson; King, et al).

Nevertheless, whether local or even organic foods really are better, fresher, or safer, the consumer wants them. And, if local or organic producers can differentiate their product and earn a premium price, there exists a profit opportunity. As was said by Lt. Holden, played by Tony Curtis in the 1959 movie Operation Petticoat, “in confusion there is profit.” Furthermore, whether specialty crop production expands in Alabama due to long-term supply concerns (i.e. water availability in California) or to meet the demand for local foods, it represents an opportunity to grow Alabama’s economy. It also represents an opportunity for new farmers and
entrepreneurs in Alabama. Leaders in Alabama’s food and agricultural sector need to foster this growth opportunity and should be looking closely at the new programs available under the farm bill.


Agri-Pulse Staff. “USDA Announces $118 Million in Grants for Specialty Crop Projects in 50 States.” Agri-Pulse, October 2, 2014. (Accessed October 5, 2014): http://agri-pulse.com/USDA-announces-118-million-grants-specialty-crop-projects-50-states-10022014.asp

Chase, Spencer. “USDA Announces Local, Organic Food Programs.” Agri-Pulse, September 30, 2014. (Accessed: October 5, 2014): http://www.agri-pulse.com/USDA-announces-local-organic-food-programs-09302014.asp

Clifford, Stephanie. “Wal-Mart to Buy More Local Produce.” New York Times, October 15, 2010, B1.

King, Robert P., Michael S. Hand, Gigi DiGiacomo, Kate Clancy, Miguel I. Gomez, Shermain D. Hardesty, Larry Lev, and Edward W. McLaughlin. Comparing the Structure, Size, and Performance of Local and Mainstream Food Supply Chains, ERR-99, U.S. Dept. of Agr., Econ. Res. Serv. June 2010.

OUPblog. “Oxford Word of the Year: Locavore.” Oxford University Press’s Academic Insights for the Thinking World. November 12, 2007. (Accessed: October 5, 2014): http://blog.oup.com/2007/11/locavore

Patterson, Paul M. “State Grown Promotion Programs: Fresher, Better?” Choices, 21(2006):41-46.


Dr. Paul Patterson is associate dean for instruction for the College of Agriculture and Professor of Agricultural Economics.