November 23, 2020|By The Conservation Fund| Food and Farms

Taking Action for America’s Local Food—Key Takeaways

11 23 20 Crystal Organic Farm GA c Stacy Funderburke 202005180 Photo by Stacy Funderburke.

Farming isn’t what it used to be, but there is a lot of room for innovation.

The state of farming in America is troubling. The average age of a U.S. farmer is 58 years old and climbing. The small farms they own and operate are rapidly disappearing at a rate of three acres every minute due to consolidation and industrialization, sprawling development and lack of capital for new farmers to take over operations. Across the U.S., 11 million acres of farmland have been lost to development in the past 20 years.

This puts our food system in a perilous place. As farms disappear, so too does our local food production. This, in turn, endangers our rural communities and economies. According to a recent U.S. Department of Agriculture report, fresh produce imports will rise 45 percent from 2016 to 2027. If that trend holds, ¾ of our fruits and nearly half of our vegetables will be imported into this country.

Keith Kelly, owner of Kelly Products and Farmview Market in Madison, Georgia, can attest to this. He’s seen the number of dairies in Morgan County decrease from over 100 to 8 in his lifetime. He’s also seen row cropping virtually disappear. Throughout the state of Georgia, nearly 7,000 farms and 1.4 million acres of farmland have disappeared since 1997.

He’s started his own local food hub and market as an experiment in “conception to consumption” vertical integration. He raises cattle for both dairy and meat production, sells both in his grocery store, and serves them in his farm-to-table café. He also brings in products from 300 Georgia-based local businesses and farms to supply the grocery store, allowing small ‘Mom and Pop’ operations to sell directly without a distributor, allowing them to be more competitive without having to grow to an unmanageable scale.

11 23 20 CSXProject WestVirginia EzraGregg 120Photo by Ezra Gregg

The pandemic has made things worse but has awoken us to the challenges we must address.

Farming is already hard enough. It requires a lot of labor, expertise and preparation - not to mention high prices for land, supplies, and distribution with slim margins. Consolidation and industrialization have made it even harder to compete with economies of scale. It’s also made the food system unsustainable.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, agricultural supply chains and markets were showing signs of weakness. But in the face of lockdowns and quarantines, those insecurities became much more readily apparent. The images on the news are startling: scores of people are waiting in long lines for hours to get enough food to feed their families. Meanwhile, farmers in rural areas are dumping their crops and slaughtering their animals in the fields because they can't get them to market or shift factories and packaging fast enough.

According to Feeding America, there’s been a 70% increase in demand at food banks due to food insecurity, with 40% of that number coming from people new to the system. Altogether, 50 million people might experience hunger this year—including 17 million children. Clearly, there’s a massive failure in how our food is being distributed. The pandemic has exacerbated these underlying trends, completely disrupting the food system.


3) We have no time to wait. We must address the growing demand for local, sustainable food now.

During the pandemic, we’ve also seen a surge in consumers making the switch to local and healthier food. It’s easy to see why: local is more sustainable for Americans. The same cities gobbling up small and midsized local farms are home to the same people wanting locally sourced, healthy food, and there’s a growing consumer base that wants to know the farmer who grew their food and where they grew it.

The ecological benefits are also clear. Shorter distances between producers and consumers are associated with fewer carbon impacts and less waste. Local production further encourages more environmentally responsible practices by creating greater accountability among producers. There are also major health benefits.

According to Judith Winfrey, co-owner of Love is Love farm, “Farmers are the guardians of ecosystems on many different levels. From the microbiology of the soil to the microbiology of the gut, farmers provide sustainability in this really comprehensive way,” she says. “The more vibrant your local food system is, the healthier your food will be.” Buying and eating fresher local vegetables means less time in transit and more vitamins and nutrients, which has tangible health benefits for physical and mental health, as well as the earth.

Ciannat Howett, Associate Vice President for Resilience, Sustainability and Economic Inclusion at Emory University, agrees. "Investing in local food not only is a good thing to do in terms of furthering nutrition and health and preparing us for the challenges of climate change, but it’s an incredibly smart thing to do in terms of risk management.”

11 23 20 Working Farms Fund c Stacy Funderburke.jpg 3Demetrius Milling. Photo by Stacy Funderburke.

4) Strong markets and opportunities for new and diverse farmers are key to success.

A new generation of farmers and young people are ready to take over feeding their communities, but they need support. Many simply need land, access to capital, and the chance to succeed. Demetrius Milling, a 25-year-old next generation farmer from Love Is Love farm chose to get involved in farming because he wanted to learn something new and be challenged every day at work. Making something, achieving something, and helping the community every day drives him. Unfortunately, land and capital aren’t always easy to come by, especially when a farm needs to be competitive to survive.

Love Is Love farm currently leases their land, but it’s getting to the point, especially this year with increased demand for local foods, where they need to expand operations to keep up with supply and demand. “The ability to rent the land in the beginning and not take on all that debt while we scale up the business is super helpful,” Milling says. “Every farm is a small business and small businesses need supporters.”

Emory University is helping provide opportunities for new and diverse farmers like Milling. They’re committed to purchasing 75% local or sustainable food and are promising to buy food from farmers sight unseen so farmers can go to the bank and get the capital they need. This helps create market demand, ensures rural economic health and vitality and preserves open space. Emory also wants to work on climate action by reducing distance between farm to table and fight systemic racism by purchasing from farmers of underrepresented groups.

11 23 20 BhMarket c Ivan LaBianca 14Photo by Ivan LaBianca.

5) There is a lot of reason for hope.

Despite the daunting challenges for our food system, there’s reason for hope. In Atlanta, The Conservation Fund is working with groups like Emory University, farms like Love Is Love, and farmers like Keith Kelly to build a scalable, replicable model for America’s local food system. Our Working Farms Fund is set on creating a healthier and more equitable and resilient system that will permanently protect at-risk farmland, create opportunities for young and diverse farmers to scale up local food production, and use conservation easements to help those farmers affordably buy and own their own land. Currently, there are 27 farmers in the program (50% of whom are minority farmers) with 125 years of collective farming expertise between them.

Working Farms Fund aims to stop farmland loss before it is too late by investing in the future of our food system and securing long-term outcomes for healthy food production, climate, economic justice, and conservation. Let’s rethink the future of local farming in America. We can do this. 
11 23 20 Working Farms Fund infographicClick here to learn more about the Working Farms Fund and how you can help.