The Next Job Generator

By Viki Sonntag, Food Economics Editor, GoodFood World

With the pressure on to create employment in a faltering economy, local food systems are drawing interest as a possible source of green jobs.  But just how many is still a guess.

A recent study for the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture by a University of Iowa economist takes a stab at estimating the economic value and employment impact of increasing fruit and vegetable production to satisfy local demand in the six Midwest states of Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin.

In the more conservative of two scenarios, the study’s model indicates that replacing corn and soy production with a diversified mix of fruits and vegetables would more than triple the number of production-related jobs (from 1,900 to 6,700) and would also provide for another 6,000 jobs in distribution if 50% of the product was sold through producer-owned markets.  These results point to some interesting observations about job creation in going local and sustainable that are often neglected in standard economic analyses.

Generally, we can say that the labor intensity of sustainable farming is greater than with industrial agriculture owing to smaller farm sizes and less dependence on fossil fuel inputs and capital-intensive machinery.  Agricultural economists put this increase in labor requirements for organic farming at around fifteen percent.  But this underestimates the impact of going local.  Growing a mix of fruits and vegetables requires more labor than the row production common to corn and soy beans.  At the same time, the land required to grow enough to meet the needs of the six states in the study is roughly equivalent to the average amount of cropland in one of Iowa’s 99 counties.

The Leopold study also signifies a shift in the organization of the downstream value chain, hence the additional jobs in distribution.  Already there is a whole class of jobs emerging along with the growth of direct sales that includes positions such as farmers market managers and small farm product sales representatives.  The study supposes direct sales farmer-retailer operations, while noting that there are challenges to creating such a system, not least of which are the skills needed to manage logistics, warehousing, processing, distribution and direct sales.  Still when one considers the number of jobs involved, the organization of such a system warrants investigation.

Of note also is that – by definition – local food economy jobs are local, which means that the local food economy is a bright spot in a rather bleak economic landscape where most jobs can be outsourced in the blink of an eye.  Of course, more work needs to be done in demonstrating this potential but the Leopold study definitely gives us food for thought.

While the development of the local food economy is good news for the number of jobs, there is still the quality of those jobs to consider.

One thought on “The Next Job Generator

  1. Just a comment that there seems to be a lost group of secondary service providers to the Organic Service Chain. We (Aladdin Transportation and Warehousing, Inc.) decided to make the investment in time, money and process to become a certified organic warehouse service provider over 3 years ago. We are working to find ways to grow our business in this market niche however it is ever challenging for the organic trade to draw attention to and support the added value of those service providers trying to support the organic organic chain. In a search through your website for “Organic Warehousing” I came up with only one single article that related to the impact of additional job growth and happened to include the word “warehousing” one time. The article was dated Oct. 8, 2010. I would appreciate any follow up on ideas or suggestions on how a company like ours can better position ourselves to get the support of the organic industry.

    Randy Carpenter
    VP / Aladdin Transportation and Warehousing, Inc.

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