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Penn State Extension Supports Local Foods Movement

Posted: November 30, 2009

Pennsylvania agriculture continues to change. The number of farms that produce agricultural commodities such as milk or most grains has been falling for a number of years. Commodity items tend to be made into processed products and sold at large retailers and restaurants. Some consumers prefer these foods. However, other consumers place strong value on traits such as how or where the food was produced. Some also simply prefer to support their local farmer. This creates a very real market opportunity for smaller-scale farmers.

While commodity farm numbers are falling, the total number of farms in Pennsylvania has risen significantly.  In 2002, we had about 58,000 farms while in 2007 we had over 63,000.  To some extent, the growth in farm numbers is driven by preferences among some consumers for locally produced foods.  Many of these farms sell products directly to the consumer through roadside stands, on-farm markets, and farmers’ markets.  If the growth in the number of farmers’ markets is any indication, local food is growing in popularity.  Between 2008 and 2009, the number of U.S. farmers’ markets grew by 13%, from 4,685 to 5,274; this in a time of serious economic issues.

As we talk to individuals around the state, it quickly becomes clear that “local food” is an important issue.  Those in the “movement” cite a number of reasons for its importance, each of which can be hotly debated.  These reasons include:

  • Fresher products
  • Fewer food miles (that is, decreased transportation) means less environmental impact
  •  Better tasting products
  • Support for the farmers in the community

You don’t have to pick a side in the debate to understand that there are real market opportunities for discerning agricultural business owners.  A segment of consumers is willing and able to pay for locally-produced foods and some entrepreneurs stand to benefit from that fact.  We in Penn State Extension can help support local food systems in a number of ways.  Our particular interest is in marketing and business planning, so we highlight some of the events and educational programs/materials that you can use to learn more.

One of our Extension team’s goals is to help entrepreneurs to develop business plans, through educational courses and workshops.  One of our courses, titled “Your Future in Focus,” is an intensive course that will guide participants through the business planning process, helping them to determine whether or not an opportunity, such as targeting a local market, is right for them.  “Income Opportunities in Agriculture” is a one-day workshop showcasing some ventures that others have used to success.  For dairy producers, “Dairy Basics for Farmstead and Artisan Processors” is a two-day workshop being held twice in Spring 2010 (Feb 23-24 & Mar 2-3).  It addresses the processing and business/marketing issues that dairy farmers producing a value-added dairy product (including raw milk) need to be aware of to insure theirs is a quality product with a ready market.  All of these have a local market perspective.  We also have a publication series titled “Value Added Marketing” which is available on our website: farmbusiness.psu.edu.  It includes several publications relevant to local marketers. 

Finally, we have personnel in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh that stand ready to help buyers and growers make connections in the local food systems.  Bob Pierson and Nicole Sugerman in the Philadelphia County Extension office know the players in the local food system there and, in working with educators in other counties, can assist in making good connections between growers and buyers.  The same is true of Jon Laughner and Heather Mikulas in Allegheny County (Pittsburgh).

A special Pittsburgh Buyer/Grower event is being planned for spring 2010.  The event will connect farmers who are looking to sell their product(s) into the local market with buyers from the Pittsburgh area such as chefs, institutions, small retail markets, and so forth.   Educational workshops will be offered for those interested in marketing or procuring locally.  Extension personnel are providing leadership for that effort but are partnering with some key stakeholders to make it happen.

As Extension works to address this issue, it is critical to keep in mind that there are other interested parties working on it as well.  The Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA) is very interested in local food systems across the state.  Groups such as GrowPittsburgh, White Dog Community Enterprises, Fair Food, etc. have been working in their respective communities for many years to promote local foods.  Thus, partnering is the best way for Extension to have an impact and be a part of the existing discussions in these communities.

Penn State Extension supports the local foods movement because it generates real opportunities to sustain farms, particularly small and medium-sized ones.  Many operations have profited by serving local markets.  However, marketing locally can be challenging.  Selling directly to the consumer requires sales and marketing skills that aren’t required for “normal” agricultural production.  These and other related issues add a layer of complexity to business management.  Thus, our goal is to help producers make the best decisions possible, taking the pros and cons into account.  Well-founded decisions help to strengthen local food systems and the players within it.

By Sarah Cornelisse and Jeffrey Hyde, Penn State Cooperative Extension