Regional Foods = Rural Prosperity?

By Amanda Garris Ph.D. ‘04 

Barn graphicConventional wisdom holds that re-localizing food systems is not only good for urban consumers hungry for ripe tomatoes and crispy apples, but it also benefits rural communities through greater profits for farmers. A team led by Todd Schmit, an associate professor in the Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management, has been awarded a $500,000 grant from the National Institute of Food and Agriculture to put this hypothesis to the test.

“There is unmet, growing demand for local products, but the idea that rural-urban food linkages are a genuine benefit to rural communities hasn’t been verified, although the USDA has invested over $300 million in local food initiatives in primarily urban areas in the last five years,” Schmit said. “And, ultimately, we want to know do they create wealth for farmers and in rural communities?”

The two-year case study will be based on GrowNYC’s Greenmarket, which runs 54 farmers’ markets in the New York City area, supplied by more than 240 fishermen and farmers from across the Northeast. In addition to measuring the economic impact of the sales at the markets, they will use GIS (geographic information system) to map where wealth is created and analyze the profitability—or losses—in moving products from rural to urban markets. Their accounting will also develop a framework to measure community wealth and capital beyond dollars and cents, including natural, social, intellectual and cultural capital.

“For example, if a farmers sells in the city rather than in their local farmers’ market, is there a negative flow of social capital, because the farmer is not interacting with more local customers? Does the higher income from selling in the city lead to the ability to retain greater habitat for wildlife and therefore increase natural capital?” Schmit said. “We are looking at broader ways to define wealth indices.”

To solve this complicated equation, Schmit will work with a team of collaborators including David Kay, development sociology senior extension associate; Jennifer Minner, assistant professor of city and regional planning; and Becca Jablonski B.A.’03, Ph.D. CRP ’14, a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics at Colorado State University.