Over the last century, America watched its marketplace change from local to national. Big box stores pushed mom-and-pop shops aside. Unique local restaurants fell victim to snazzy corporate chains. Bright lights and catchy advertising promise convenience and consistency, often at the expense of nutrition and taste. Bigger became better.
But not so quietly any more, a consumer movement is gaining momentum, and society is showing trends of coming full circle, back to local markets. More and more baby boomers — and their children — are seeking self-sufficiency and individualism. That can be as simple as starting a victory garden in the back yard or raising chickens that taste like the ones Grandma served at Sunday dinner. More and more folks are retiring to the country, and they're hungering for information about producing and marketing on a local scale.
Even before America's economic downturn, there was a growing emphasis on a new sustainable economy that focused on locally based products. Think farmers markets.
Remember the fad of boutique breweries and wineries? Big corporate brands did their best to swallow up the little fish. Now, there are too many. While sales of big national brands like Budweiser and Miller grew by less than two percent in 2007, market share for America's more than 1400 craft brewers grew more than 17 percent. Today, according to one estimate, one in 15 beers purchased in supermarkets is a boutique brew. A decade ago, less than 50 wineries dotted Missouri's landscape. Today, the Missouri Grape and Wine Board lists 84 wineries.
More and more, consumers are breaking the corporate mold in search of better quality, better taste and better nutrition. Big city restaurants search for rural suppliers who produce a healthier brand of meat. It's even happening in the corporate world, as chains like Chipotle Mexican Grill seek suppliers who raise hogs and chickens in a more humane environment. The result? Less antibiotics, better taste and climbing profits.
As more and more people get back to their roots, they're searching for "how-to" information. In the past, MU Extension provided much of that information to millions of rural folks. Generations of farm families grew up raising livestock and crops in 4-H and FFA. Along the way, they learned leadership and the importance of sustainable agriculture.
The economic downturn has forced Missouri to look at cutting back on services. The decisions are gut-wrenching. But one caution: now more than ever we need a strong extension program to assist local production and the growing local markets.
An old business rule of thumb says in tough times, advertise more. In the same vein, as more and more people return to their roots and learn lost arts of self-sufficiency, Missouri will benefit from the 114-county extension service that provides the know-how and the "how to."
Russ Kremer is president of the Missouri Farmers Union.