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Local Food May Feel Good, But It Doesn't Pay


These days, farmers markets are springing up all over the place, from small towns to big cities. Locally grown food is booming, as shoppers invest more time, money and thought into what they eat. But not all is well in the local food movement.

As St. Louis Public Radio's Adam Allington reports, many of the farmers who supply local markets are barely getting by.

ADAM ALLINGTON, BYLINE: It's a chilly March morning in Elsah, Illinois, near the banks of the Mississippi. But inside Amy Cloud's greenhouse it's toasty warm.

AMY CLOUD: Right now we have lots of broccoli, cabbage, kale, onions, lettuce, Swiss chard.

ALLINGTON: Cloud owns Three River's Community Farm, where she grows vegetables to sell at farmers markets in nearby St. Louis. When it comes to farming, Cloud is no rookie, but it's taken years of hard work and sweat to eek out even a modest profit - somewhere between 25 and $30,000. That's for two people.

CLOUD: Both my husband and I live off of an income that any normal person would consider to be just enough for one person, certainly not for a whole couple. We don't have health insurance.

ALLINGTON: Stories like Cloud's are actually quite common. Despite the rapid growth of the local foods movement, it's still tough to earn a living. Iowa State economist David Swenson says these farmers often face a losing battle.

DAVID SWENSON: It's hard to produce the kind of income that says this is a good and profitable use of my time during the growing season. The income, the returns, the economics of it says that it's a hard uphill climb.

ALLINGTON: For starters, Swenson says the return on investment for fruits and vegetables is just too small, no matter how innovative you are.

SWENSON: I did a configuration in the class where I had somebody producing 25 acres worth of fruits and vegetables.

ALLINGTON: As it turns out, 25 acres is enough to feed a whole bunch of people.

SWENSON: Roughly, the needs of 5,000 people, a small Iowa town.

ALLINGTON: So imagine that. You're the sole supplier of fruits and vegetables for an entire town. Even then, Swenson says, you'd barely be creating one middle class job.

SWENSON: That basically sustained 1.34 jobs and only $35,000 in total labor income and that's labor income to the producer as well as to any help.

ALLINGTON: So farmer's markets are all well and good, but the reality, Swenson says, is we just can't efficiently produce most of the foods we buy locally. But others say that doesn't mean local producers can't develop a sizable niche.

GREG SCHWESER: The economies of scale aren't necessarily there and the efficiencies aren't necessarily there, but they're being developed.

ALLINGTON: Greg Schweser is a food systems planner at the University of Minnesota. Comparing local farmers to their agribusiness brethren is, pardon the pun, apples and oranges. Schweser says while scale may mean smaller returns, it doesn't mean you can't make money.

SCHWESER: One acre or two acres, you can make enough money by using hand tools to supplement your income. Now you go up to 10 acres or so, you might need a tractor. We're still not talking about 250 acres of corn and soybeans.

ALLINGTON: Schweser also points to the development of local food hubs, as well as the landmark success of farm to school programs across the country. That market is so new, its numbers aren't even tracked by the USDA.

JOE RINGHOUSEN: I've got Lodi apples. I've got Winesaps, Jonathans, Goldens and something else in there.

ALLINGTON: Joe Ringhousen(ph) farms about 80 acres here in Jersey County, Illinois. He used to sell directly to local wholesalers, but these days, those buyers are more likely to get their fruit from super hubs in Washington State and Michigan.

RINGHOUSEN: There used to be, like, 3 or 400 commercial fruit growers in Illinois alone. A man used to be able to have a family and 40 acres and make a living off of it. That's not going to happen today.

ALLINGTON: But if there's one universal truth to all farming, it's that some people make it and others don't. And even Joe's son is busy planting 500 new apple trees this spring to prepare the farm for the next generation. And Ringhousen says he's got a good chance to make it. He'll just have to be creative and that might mean selling apples to the likes of Wal-Mart while also building relationships with farmers markets, food co-ops and local bakeries.

For NPR News, I'm Adam Allington in St. Louis. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Adam grew up on a cherry farm in northern Michigan. He holds a BA in economics from Kalamazoo College. Adam's radio career began in 2003 at the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in Portland, Maine. He went on to cut his teeth filing stories for Maine Public Radio. Before coming to St. Louis Public Radio in 2006, Adam was was an international journalism fellow at Deutsche Welle in Bonn, Germany. He has regularly filed features for various shows and networks including NPR, PRI, Marketplace and the BBC. He received a Knight-Wallace Journalism Fellowship for the 2011-2012 academic year.