More and more people are taking up the cause of local foods, and for good reasons: it's often fresher, tastes better and, because it doesn't have to travel far, has less impact on the environment. But OSU Extension economist Bruce Sorte says the local foods movement can go beyond the taste-good and feel-good benefits to become an economic engine for rural communities.
In February, Sorte, along with doctoral candidate Paul Lewin and Extension program assistant Pamela Opfer, produced a report examining the relationship between Oregon agriculture and the economy. They concluded that, "Developing a stronger relationship between agricultural producers and consumers provides more accountability for the whole agricultural industry…It also develops customers who are willing to pay a premium price for local food, which increases the economic effects of the industry by keeping food dollars in Oregon."
Agriculture is an important stabilizing force in Oregon's economy, Sorte said, and one of the few areas that rural communities can depend on to provide a stable flow of income. But as technologies have improved, unskilled and semi-skilled jobs have been eliminated. "One of Oregon's most difficult problems today is how to employ semiskilled workers who want to learn skills on the job," the authors report. "Agriculture holds great potential to contribute to the solution, as long as the entrepreneurs and policymakers who recognize agriculture's role as an economic engine in the past continue to acknowledge its even greater potential for the future."
The challenge and opportunity for Oregon agriculture, Sorte says, is to focus on high-value agriculture that benefits many people. "Now we can take that next step. We know how to produce food and we know how to minimize our impact on the environment; now let's think about how we capture more of the market."
In June, the state legislature approved funding for a pilot program to encourage schools to buy food from Oregon producers. Another bill passed by the legislature funds "economic gardening," meant to stimulate job growth by creating formal collaborations among rural businesses to take products from farm to table. For instance, Sorte explained, a meat processor agrees to buy local meat, then sends it to a local packager who combines the product with local condiments, and a local distributor sells the product.
"You'll keep much of that value-added stream of expenditures within the community," Sorte said.
The report concludes that "Farmers, ranchers, processors, distributors, and shippers have a significant impact on Oregon's economy. When compared to national changes in agriculture, the number of Oregon farms and their agricultural acreage has remained more stable than expected for almost three decades. Agriculture still is one of the most reliable industries in Oregon in terms of sales."
Read the entire report, Oregon Agriculture and the Economy: An Update.