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'Local' is biggest food trend in decades, says USDA

'Local' is biggest food trend in decades, says USDA
The number of certified organic producers continues to grow each year, but could an even bigger trend be fueling the future of organic? USDA's Kathleen Merrigan shares advice for how organic, local food can drive sales for natural retailers.

This week the USDA National Organic Program (NOP) announced the latest tally of certified organic operators in the United States and worldwide. Certified organic operations increased by nearly 500 from 2010 to 2011, bringing the total number of certified organic farms and processing facilities in the U.S. to 17,673. Worldwide, there are 28,779 certified organic operators across 133 countries.

The growth is another indicator that the natural and organic food market will continue to outpace growth of the total U.S. food market. And that the United States, claiming more than half of all organic operators in the world, will continue to lead in organic food production.

The news comes on the heels of the unveiling of USDA's Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food initiative that occurred shortly before Natural Products Expo West 2012.

For the last three years, USDA has been investing in local food systems. The Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food Compass (KYF Compass) is a PDF and interactive map that visually aggregates USDA's work related to these food systems. At Expo West, USDA Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan stopped by the newhope360 booth's video stage to share more about the KYF Compass.

Watch our interview with USDA's Merrigan

"Local retail is the biggest food trend we've seen in decades," Merrigan said, "and USDA is really putting some money on the table to help people build those food systems." The USDA hopes that KYF will spur national conversation on local and regional food systems and stimulate new economic opportunities.

"This will create new business for USDA," Merrigan said. When looking at the interactive map, "people are going to say 'I didn't realize USDA did that, and if they can do that there, they can do that here in our hometown.'"

But while USDA is excited about greater transparency and investment in local communities, organic producers and operators should take note: Local could be the ticket to even greater organic growth.

Cashing in on the organic, local food craze

While organic champions are kicking around the idea of a national organic food campaign similar to "Got Milk?", should they simply focus on their own backyards? With the non-GMO movement gaining serious steam on a national level, change could be effected more quickly on a local or regional level by catering to consumers who want their organic and want it local, too.

The 2011 National Grocers Association survey found that 86 percent of consumers said the availability of local foods in a store greatly influenced where they shopped. For retailers, this means making the connection between local farmers and shoppers. Whether it's through a farm-to-table meal, a community room meet-and-greet or a container gardening lesson, those retailers who harness the appeal of local food are bound to create more business.

How Whole Foods engages with local producers

Even in 2010, when Natural Foods Merchandiser asked natural retailers how they were working with local farmers, Lee Martinec of Mountain People's Cooperative in Morgantown, W.V., said, "We almost went out of business two years ago, but we really put our focus on local and low-cost healthy food, and were able to bounce back."

Two years ago, local was a big deal. Now, the USDA is backing local food more than ever before with the KYF Compass. What does this mean for the future of your natural store?

"Oftentimes I hear consumers say, 'I'm paralyzed when I go into my grocery store: Do I buy organic or do I buy local? What's the higher good?'" said Merrigan. Don't make them choose. Offer shoppers the best of both worlds: locally-grown, organic food.

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