ST. LOUIS (AP) — Carolyn Anderson likes to chat up the growers at her local farmers market in Missouri, at times hanging out behind the beds of pickup trucks brimming with ears of corn.
For Anderson, 29, it's all about keeping it "local." And there's fresh evidence of just how big of a deal that word can mean for farmers' finances.
A new U.S. Department of Agriculture report says sales of "local foods," whether sold direct to consumers at farmers markets or through intermediaries such as grocers or restaurants, amounted to $4.8 billion in 2008. That's a number several times greater than earlier estimates, and the department predicts locally grown foods will generate $7 billion in sales this year.
While there's plenty of evidence local food sales have been growing, it has been hard to say by how much because governments, companies, consumers and food markets disagree on what qualifies as local. The USDA report included sales to intermediaries, such as local grocers and restaurants, as well as directly to consumers through farmers markets, roadside stands and the like.
It found that farm sales to people like Anderson have just about doubled in the past two decades, from about $650 million, adjusted for inflation, in the early 1990s to about $1.2 billion these days. The much bigger, $4.8 billion figure came when sales to local restaurants, retailers and regional food distributors were added in.
"Think of it as expanding what the picture looks like," said Stephen Vogel, who helped do the study for the Agriculture Department's Economic Research Service. "What this report does is say, 'Look, this market is bigger than you thought.'"
But the report also puts the local food movement in context. It's dominated by fruit and vegetable growers. While only 5 percent of U.S. farms sell their products in local and regional markets, 40 percent of vegetable, fruit and nut farms do.
Consumers tend to assume that the produce they are buying at these markets are fresher, made with fewer chemicals and grown by smaller, less corporate farms. That may be true in some cases and not in others.
"Local" also doesn't necessarily mean "organic," a label that carries strict requirements for growers and is overseen by the Agriculture Department. But the word still carries plenty of cache with consumers like Anderson, a farmer's granddaughter who sees shopping at the farmers market in Kansas City, Mo., as a ripe opportunity to get to know the growers and what went into the stuff they're selling.