In an interview, Michael H. Shuman, Director for Research and Economic Development for the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies, explains a different way to look at farmers—as small business owners:
Farming is the world’s original small business, and in much of the world it remains the dominant business activity. Even in the United States, one of the most powerful ways communities can boost their economies is by EXPANDING their local farming sector—even heavily urban communities like Detroit and Cleveland. No picture of the economy is complete without looking at small farm businesses.
My colleagues at the Wallace Center and I used the term Community Food Enterprise (CFE) to refer to locally owned businesses involved in the growing, processing, distribution, serving, or selling of food. One key element is that the entity must be locally owned, since many of the economic benefits of CFEs spring from their local ownership. Another key element is that they must be enterprises—that is, they must be based on a cash-flow model that can plausibly become self-financing. Some farmers markets permanently depend on infusions from foundations or government agencies, and we would not consider these CFEs.
Shuman goes on to explain how the Community Food Enterprise project suggests supporting small farm businesses:
As our report [download] and my books (such as the Small-Mart Revolution) underscore, there is a very long “To Do” list we have. As consumers, we should buy food Local First wherever possible. This means shopping at small local grocery stores and farmers markets, being members of a CSA, and eating out at locally owned restaurants rather than chains. As investors, we should think about creative ways of putting our money into food cooperatives and the stock of local food businesses. As policymakers, we should get government entities to buy more local foodstuffs (farm-to-school programs are an example), creative revolving loan funds for new or expanded local food businesses, and create local food policy councils to identify other ways of improving the regional food system. It’s also very useful, as some colleagues and I are doing in Cleveland, to identify “food leakages”—all of those food purchases unnecessarily coming from the outside—and devise a plan for plugging them systematically. As voters, we need to push our politicians to abandon most of what they are doing in the name of economic development—typically attracting or retaining non-local businesses through tax abatements and the like—and to focus instead on growing food in our own backyards.
As Shuman says, supporting our local economies through food is something that we can all do with a little effort. We have several chances each day to make a choice about what and where we will eat. We can purchase a share in a CSA, find a local farmers market to purchase fresh food that we prepare at home, or eat at a local restaurant. Through these small choices, we can help grow our national economy. By starting small, we can all buy American and support our local economies.
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