USDA grant surveys viability for rural-urban food links

Todd Schmit

To grasp if rural towns benefit from selling local farm products to urban consumers, the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture awarded a $500,000 grant Feb. 25 to a team of Cornell researchers led by economist Todd Schmit.

“We want to know if rural-urban food links create wealth for farmers in rural communities,” said Schmit, associate professor in the Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management. “There is unmet, growing demand for local products, but the idea that rural-urban food linkages are a genuine benefit to rural communities hasn’t been verified, although the USDA has invested over $300 million in local food initiatives in primarily urban areas in the last five years,” he said.

The two-year case study will be based on GrowNYC’s Greenmarket, which runs 54 farmers’ markets in the New York City area, supplied by more than 240 fishermen and farmers from across the Northeast.

In addition to measuring the economic impact of the sales at the markets, the researchers will use a geographic information system to map where wealth is created and analyze profitability and losses in moving products from rural to urban markets. Beyond dollars and cents, the group will measure community wealth and capital, which includes natural, social, intellectual and cultural capital.

For example, Schmit said the team will be studying if there is a negative flow of social capital when farmers sell in the city rather than in their local farmers’ market because the farmer is not interacting with more local customers. They also will study whether selling in the city leads to the ability to retain greater habitat for wildlife, thus increasing natural capital.

“We are looking at broader ways to define wealth indices,” he said.

To resolve these questions, Schmit will work with David Kay, development sociology senior extension associate; Jennifer Minner, assistant professor of city and regional planning; and Becca Jablonski ’03, Ph.D. ’14, a postdoctoral fellow at Colorado State University.

The Cornell grant represents a portion of $14 million awarded by the USDA to support programs designed to increase prosperity in rural America through research, education and extension programs focused on promoting rural community development, economic growth and sustainability.

About 60 million Americans live in rural areas and they have great impact on the U.S. domestic economic infrastructure.

“To help these communities remain prosperous and viable, we need to support discovery of new ways that promote economic viability among producers, small businesses and communities in rural America,” said Sonny Ramaswamy, director of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

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Melissa Osgood