The varying definitions of local foods make it difficult to define precisely the size and scope of the sector. To quantify the development of the local foods market, ERS researchers used census of agriculture data and data from the research firm Packaged Facts.

Direct-to-consumer marketing of local foods includes sales at farmers’ markets, farm stands/onfarm sales, pick-your-own operations, and community-supported agriculture (CSAs) operations. With CSAs, local residents purchase shares in a farmer’s expected harvest before planting, then receive weekly deliveries or pick up from the farm throughout the growing season. However, census figures on direct sales to consumers are not equivalent to the value of local direct-to-consumer marketing. For example, catalog and Internet sales are included in census’s direct sales to consumers, but such customers are typically not local. On the other hand, local food systems include community gardening, which does not involve commercial farming and so is not included in census data.

According to census data, direct sales to consumers account for a small but growing segment of U.S. agriculture. Direct sales of agricultural products, including Internet and catalog sales, totaled $1.2 billion in 2007, or 0.4 percent of total agricultural sales. From 1997 to 2007, direct sales increased by 105 percent ($619 million), compared with an increase of 48 percent for all agricultural sales ($95.8 billion).

Over the same period, the number of farms selling directly to consumers increased by 24 percent, compared with a 0.5-percent reduction in the total number of farms. In 2007, the 136,800 farms selling directly to consumers surpassed the number performing custom work (services for others such as planting, plowing, spraying, and harvesting), agritourism, and sales of firewood and other forest products, positioning direct sales as the leading onfarm supplemental enterprise.

Farmers’ markets and CSA operations also have grown considerably. Based on USDA surveys, the number of U.S. farmers’ markets rose threefold from 1,755 in 1994 to 6,132 in 2010. In 2005, there were 1,144 CSAs, up from 761 in 2001 and 2 in 1986. An online registry maintained by LocalHarvest indicates that there now are over 2,500 CSAs in the United States.