The Farmplate Blog

USDA: Local Food and Farms Create Jobs. We Just Don’t Know Why

Jeff Gangemi Mar 15, 2012 News 0 comments


Much has been made of the USDA Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food Compass. We at FarmPlate approached the new tool with a healthy skepticism, particularly the map, which attempts to show all of the projects that the USDA has helped to fund in the last several years.

While we’re still not impressed with the clunkiness of the map (its user guide is seven pages long, though they promise ongoing improvements), the rest of the site is surprisingly user-friendly, and in some cases downright inspiring.

One part that tickles our fancy is a convincing argument about why local agriculture is so beneficial called The What and Why of Local Foods,” particularly the parts where the USDA is careful to point out the job-creating impact of local food and farms. 

From the above document:

“A 2011 USDA study finds that produce growers selling into local and regional markets generate thirteen full time operator jobs per $1 million in revenue earned, for a total of 61,000 jobs in 2008. Additional farm labor is not included in this figure. 

In contrast, farms that do not sell into these markets generate only three full time operator jobs per $1 million in revenue.”

The USDA admits to having no idea why this is the case. Later in the same document, it says “There may
be many reasons for the difference beyond farm size; farms selling locally may grow a wider variety of crops or be packing or processing on the farm, requiring more management time.”

A November 2011 blog post by Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Kathleen Merrigan again cites the agency’s confusion over why local food sales create more jobs: “Why is on-farm job creation for producers selling locally so much higher? It will take more analysis to understand these differences, but the take-home message is clear: helping farmers and small businesses develop the infrastructure to produce, store, process, distribute and sell food to consumers in their region is an important component of the work that USDA does to keep and grow jobs in agriculture overall.”

NPR and Grist, among others, have weighed in on various motivations for creating the site, some connected with the jobs argument.

There is no doubt that job creation is a complex topic, and one where confusing causes with effects is nearly impossible to avoid. But it’s great to see that the USDA recognizes benefits of small-scale agriculture. And by presenting such a time-consuming and well-produced site on the subject, the Agency is doing its best to spread the good word on Capital Hill.