Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has made promoting locally grown and produced foods one of his top priorities since taking the helm of the department in 2009, dubbing it a pillar of rebuilding the rural economy. He’s mobilized staff, spent millions and rolled out new programs, all in the name of pushing local.
It’s worked: The number of farmers markets have more than doubled in the past decade. School districts are rushing to set up farm-to-school programs. Consumers are clamoring for locally produced products, ranking that in some surveys as a more important quality for their food than it being organic or grass fed.
The Economic Research Service (ERS) has done some research on local food systems. While there is no consensus about how to define "local food systems" in terms of the geographic distance between production and consumption, defining "local" based on marketing arrangements—such as farmers selling directly to consumers at regional farmers' markets or to schools—is well recognized.
ERS research on local food systems:
- explores alternative definitions of local foods,
- estimates market size and reach,
- describes characteristics of local consumers and producers,
- examines the economic and health impacts of local food systems, and
- studies how food environment factors—such as store/restaurant proximity, food prices, food and nutrition assistance programs, and community characteristics—interact to influence food choices and diet quality.
ERS recently hosted a webinar that provided an overview of Trends in U.S. Local and Regional Food Systems: A Report to Congress.
But how are conventional farmers viewing this moving trend to push “local” for their commodities? Most farmers in Nebraska take their crop to an elevator, livestock feedyard or ethanol plant. They can market their grain “locally”, but is this the same as labeling their crop and the end product as local? Here is what we can say about Nebraska corn:
Some of the corn that is grown in Nebraska is used right here in the state to make corn chips, tortillas and other corn-based products from food-grade corn. But much of it is shipped to another state which makes it a “domestic export”. California is the largest market for Nebraska corn, taking about 145 million bushels of Nebraska corn mostly for livestock and poultry last year (to make food!). Foreign sales make up about 6 percent of corn usage, with Mexico (via rail) being a top market.
So while some food products may be made out of state, yet with Nebraska corn, we think that is still pretty local!
In Nebraska, livestock production is the engine that powers the state’s economy. It is a more than $7.5 billion industry that is fundamental to the well-being of Nebraska – and contributes in some way to the financial health of every Nebraskan. We’d say that is pretty local!
About 16 percent of the Nebraska’s corn crop is fed to livestock within Nebraska, with the bulk of that (more than 70 percent) going to beef cattle. See complete breakdown
In total, though, about 40 percent of the corn grown in Nebraska is fed to livestock somewhere in the United States or around the world. One-third of every bushel used in ethanol production (local fuel) comes back as distillers grain, an outstanding feed ingredient. Nebraska is the #1 feeding state in the nation with more than 5,000 feedyards willing to work with cow-calf producers interested in retaining ownership or partnering on their feeder cattle. They offer competitive feeding rations from the quality feedstuffs available in the state.
Over the last three decades, ethanol made from corn has become an important fuel in Nebraska and across the country. Biofuels like corn-based ethanol directly replace petroleum-based fuels – and they’re renewable. Ethanol is better for the environment, helps keep fuel dollars here at home and it supports rural communities because that’s where most ethanol is produced.
Nebraska ethanol plants have a capacity of more than 2.0 billion gallons – making Nebraska the second-largest ethanol producing state in the country. They use about 700 million bushels of corn annually – and directly provide and support thousands of jobs. Since ethanol is made only from the starch in a kernel of corn, these corn ethanol plants also produce more than 6 million tons of distillers grains, a nutritious livestock feed from the remaining parts of the kernel, including protein and fat.
So you see, the term “local” is subjective to each person, yet we hope that you remember all of the great products made from Nebraska corn and consider them “local” next time you are buying food, feed and fuel!