The 2007 Census of Agriculture provides information on the characteristics of farms engaged in direct sales to consumers. The census data show that access to urban markets is crucial to farms engaged in direct sales. Counties with the highest levels of direct sales are concentrated in the urban corridors of the Northeast and the West Coast.

Direct sales farms located in or adjacent to metro counties accounted for 84 percent of all farms engaged in direct sales, and earned 89 percent of all direct sales income. Direct sales per farm decreased for farms located progressively farther from metropolitan counties, averaging $10,987 for farms located in metro counties, $6,767 for farms in rural counties adjacent to metro counties, and $6,090 for farms in remote rural counties.

According to the census of agriculture, total direct-to-consumer sales in 2007 were roughly evenly split between small (less than $50,000 in total farm sales), medium (sales of $50,000 to $499,999), and large farms (sales of $500,000 or more), even though small farms accounted for 85 percent of the number of direct-sales farms. Direct sales accounted for over 35 percent of total farm sales on average for small farms, providing an important sales outlet for their farm output. In contrast, direct sales accounted for an average of 17 percent of medium-sized farms’ total sales and only 7.5 percent of large farms’ total sales.

Bundling other processing or farm-related enterprises with direct sales appears to be especially important for small farms. Small farms constituted 77 percent of all farms combining direct sales with other activities, such as production of value-added products (such as beef jerky, fruit jams, jelly, preserves, or cutting and arranging flowers), agritourism, alternative energy production, sales of forest products, and organic production.

There were fewer fruit and vegetable producers engaged in direct sales to consumers than there were livestock and other crop producers, but a larger percentage of fruit and vegetable producers sold directly to consumers. In addition, they earned two to three times more in direct sales per farm than livestock and other crop producers. Consequently, fruit and vegetable producers accounted for a disproportionately larger percentage of all direct sales. Among livestock farms, beef cattle operations accounted for 54 percent of farms selling directly to consumers and 47 percent of direct sales.

Vegetables and fruit need little processing and, therefore, are most readily available for market through farmers’ markets, roadside stands, and pick-your-own operations. According to USDA’s 2006 National Farmers’ Market Survey, the most popular product category sold at farmers’ markets was fresh fruit and vegetables, which was sold by nearly 92 percent of farmers’ market managers in 2005, followed by herbs and flowers; honey, nuts, and preserves; and baked goods.

Public policies and programs support local food systems

Numerous public programs and policies support local food initiatives, and the number of programs is growing. Some Federal programs provide financing that directly supports local food systems. For example, the Federal State Marketing Improvement Program provides matching funds to State agencies to assist in exploring new market opportunities for food and agricultural products. In 2009, 8 out of 23 grants awarded went to projects supporting local foods, such as funding to improve the effectiveness of Colorado MarketMaker. A national partnership of land grant institutions and State departments of agriculture currently active in 15 States and the District of Columbia, MarketMaker provides an interactive mapping system to match retailers, wholesalers, processors, and other buyers with farmers, farmers’ markets, and other sources of agricultural products.

Federal programs also provide support by encouraging purchases at local food outlets. The Senior Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program provides low-income seniors with coupons that can be used to purchase fresh fruit and vegetables at authorized farmers’ markets, roadside stands, and CSA programs. Farmers or authorized outlets then submit coupons for payment by the State agency that operates the program. In fiscal year 2009, 809,711 seniors received these coupons and 18,714 farmers participated in the program at 3,684 farmers’ markets, 3,061 roadside stands, and 159 CSAs.

Local foods remain a small portion of U.S. agriculture. But as interest in local food systems has increased, so has the desire to understand how local food markets affect farmers, consumers, and communities (Studies Examine Economic and Environmental Impacts of Local Food Markets). Understanding these impacts can result in more cost-effective programs that support local foods within the broader U.S. food marketing system.