By Julie Murphree, Arizona Farm Bureau: Back in 2007, the Organic Farming Research Foundation reported that 79% of organic farmers sell their produce within no more than 100 miles of their farms. American consumers turning to farmer markets and retail markets and restaurants offering local produce really stood out back then. And a read of the current markets suggests that the local food markets are maintaining their popularity.

This conclusion is drawn from the more than $31 billion organic food market, according to the Organic Trade Association’s (OTA) a recent Organic Industry Survey (in 2007 the organic food market stood at $14 billion). Those tracking the market contend it will continue to experience healthy growth. The sellers of this produce reportedly rely on local communities as their customers.

Experts differ on the reasons for the continued interest in locally grown produce, but there is little disagreement as to the evident growth. “The U.S. organic sector continues to show steady and healthy growth, growing overall by 9.5 percent, and, for the first time, surpassing the $30 billion mark,” said Christine Bushway, OTA’s Executive Director and CEO in a statement on the industry’s growth.

She added, “Consumers are increasingly engaged and discerning when they shop, making decisions based on their values and awareness about health and environmental concerns. Price is still an issue, but with the wide availability of private label products and many venues for organic products, they have many choices for where to shop and a variety of products from which to choose.”

Here in Arizona, interest in locally grown produce also appears to continue growing at a healthy pace.

While, no formal statistics exist regarding Arizona’s local produce market, during a recent conference of the Sustainable Ag and Direct Farm Marketing in Coolidge, Arizona, participants were asked if locally grown produce was increasing in popularity. The audience unanimously agreed that the direct market for Arizona produce is growing mainly because today’s consumers want to know where their food comes from. Several participants said, “Securing local and direct gives consumers a better feel of security for how their food is produced.” Participants to this conference are local growers, distributors, and farmers market coordinators.

Additionally, the participants indicated an increase in the amount of people coming out to pick their own produce on “U-pick” farms. Parents are using this as a way to teach their children about agriculture production and because they want to support their local farmers.

A 2007 U.S. Census of Agriculture statistic does show that the value of Agriculture products sold directly to individuals for human consumption has increased. Between 2002 and 2007, sales of Arizona agricultural commodities sold directly to consumers (Farmers markets, farm stands and other direct market venues) increased by 34 percent to $5.3 million. Sales of Arizona organic production exploded from a meager $3.4 million in 2002 to $48.4 million in 2007 and the number of Arizona growers of organic production nearly doubled. However, when you look at total sales of all agricultural commodities which totaled more than $3.2 billion, these two segments of agriculture, although growing rapidly, are still fairly small compared to the size of traditional agriculture.

This spring, we’ll have new numbers about local agriculture’s economic impact from the USDA Census.

Sam Kelsall of the U-pick Mother Nature’s Farm on the south side of Baseline between Gilbert and Cooper (Stapley on the 60), can attest to consumer interest and give a hint of probable growth in Arizona as his primary crop, pumpkins, and continues to grow on average 20% a year. “The closer a consumer can get to the product’s ready-to-eat peak, the more they’ll pay for it as freshness becomes a premium for the conscientious buyer,” said Kelsall.

Kellsall’s 46-acre farm is in a prime location as traffic flow on baseline alerts the potential fresh-produce consumer to stop in and purchase. Managed by his son, Wade, Mother Nature’s Farm grows pumpkins, squash, peaches and Christmas Trees.

The biggest indicator, though, of increased market interest in locally-grown produce is the number of farmers’ markets cropping up in the U.S. Today there are 8,144 farmers’ markets in the country. This is a dramatic increase from the 2,863 markets that existed in 2000, according to the United States Department of Agriculture.

“There are new farmers’ markets coming up in Arizona all the time,” said Dee Logan, coordinator of Farmers Markets Support Services in Arizona that coordinates several markets in the Phoenix Metro area. “The challenge for small growers is Arizona’s urbanization pressures.”

The locally-grown produce farmer averages no more than 5 acres. And, of course, those in this market concentrate on selling directly to the market which includes selling to chefs and specialty restaurants, consumer groups such as subscription service-type setups, on-farm or u-pick produce, community-supported agriculture ventures and farmers markets.

John Scott of One Windmill Farms, grows a variety of seasonal fruits and vegetables on 10 acres surrounded by urban development. He weekly serves several farmers’ markets in the valley and can barely keep up the pace.

Previously a builder and installer of industrial equipment, Scott was surprised at the customer demand for local farmers’ markets when he first started serving the direct market. “We get calls all the time for us to do more markets,” says Scott.

Having completed a major planting of fruit trees a few years ago, Scott says his customers want whatever is the “new” thing. “So whatever is new to the consumer in the fruit and vegetable market that they think they have to have we put it in. Our customers love the idea that it’s grown locally.”

Scott also notes a growth in demand and says he’s increased his produce yields and acreage over the last several years by about a third.

The future for locally-grown produce is anybody’s guess. Arizona has larger urbanization demands than most states especially with its past recognition as the fastest growing state in the nation. Millions of agriculture acres have been converted into houses and shops. And for those small-acreage farmers who actually own land surrounded by development, the temptation to sell out at today’s prices is a daily consideration.

Russell Tronstad, extension specialist and University of Arizona professor, suggests the future depends on what the younger generation decides they want to do. “Many considerations talked about in the market involve tying food with tourism, one of our strongest industries. For example, even U-pick offering combines a unique recreation and educational experience with food for a total experience.”

Following in the footsteps of Queen Creek-based Schnepf Farms, this may be what Kelsall’s Mother Nature’s Farm has in mind by eventually providing a children’s discovery farm. “Population growth is what’s helping feed our growth,” adds Kelsall, “And we want to tap into that and take advantage of our location even with tourists and other visitors.”

“Ag promotion opportunities really have to be looked at and promoted on behalf of the direct-market, small produce farms,” says John Boelts, a Yuma-based produce farmer and Arizona Farm Bureau 2nd Vice President. “What’s so exciting is that an entity like Arizona Farm Bureau can be the umbrella organization to help advocate for all ag-related businesses in the state.”

As a large-produce grower, Boelts sees greater opportunity in the future for a diverse group of produce farmers from all size and shapes to come together. “We have to band together. While we may serve our customers differently, we have much in common as producers and marketers. We grow the best produce in the world and feed untold numbers together. ”

And as most agriculturalists like to point out, they are the best ones to promote agriculture and advocate for the consumer because they consume what they grow. 

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