By: Kirk Johnson
The New York Times – July 1, 2012

SEATTLE — The cultivated rusticity of a farmers’ market, where dirt-dusted beets are status symbols and earnest entrepreneurs preside over chunks of cheese, is a part of weekend life in cities across the nation as the high days of the summer harvest approach.

But beyond the familiar mantras about nutrition or reduced fossil fuel use, the movement toward local food is creating a vibrant new economic laboratory for American agriculture. The result, with its growing army of small-scale local farmers, is as much about dollars as dinner: a reworking of old models about how food gets sold and farms get financed, and who gets dirt under their fingernails doing the work.

“The future is local,” said Narendra Varma, 43, a former manager at Microsoft who invested $2 million of his own money last year in a 58-acre project of small plots and new-farmer training near Portland, Ore. The first four farmers arrived this spring alongside Mr. Varma and his family, aiming to create an economy of scale — tiny players banded in collective organic clout. He had to interrupt a telephone interview to move some goats.

Economists and agriculture experts say the “slow money” movement that inspired Mr. Varma, a way of channeling money into small-scale and organic food operations, along with the aging of the farmer population and steep barriers for young farmers who cannot afford the land for traditional rural agriculture, are only part of the new mix.

A looming shortage of migrant workers, with fewer Mexicans coming north in recent years, could create a kind of rural-urban divide if it continues, with mass-production farms that depend on cheap labor losing some of their price advantages over locally grown food, which tends to be more expensive. From the vineyards of California to the cherry orchards of Oregon, big agriculture has struggled this year to find willing hands. Local farm sales are becoming more stable, predictable and measurable. A study last fall by the Department of Agriculture said that local revenues had been radically undercounted in previous analyses that mainly focused on road stands and markets. When sales to restaurants and stores were factored in, the study said, the local food industry was four times bigger than in any previous count, upward of $4.8 billion.

More predictable revenue streams, especially at a time when so many investments feel risky, are creating a firmer economic argument for local farming that, in years past, was more of a political or lifestyle choice.

“How you make it pay is to get closer to the customer,” said Michael Duffy, a professor of economics at Iowa State University, capsuling the advice he gives to new farmers in the Midwest.

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