Direct sales from farmers rose 49 percent, and organic farm sales more than tripled from 2002 to 2007, new USDA farm census data show.

USDA released the 2007 Agriculture Census data today, giving Americans a far more detailed understanding of agricultural trends — just as interest in local foods expands dramatically.

For me, one of the key indicators of the growth of interest in community-based foods is the rapidly rising sales of food direct from farmers to consumers. Direct food sales rose a whopping 49 percent to $1.2 billion in 2007, up from $812 million in 2002. This includes farmstand, farmers market, internet, or other direct sales of fruit, vegetables, meats, and many other foods.

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Once adjusted for inflation, that rise is not quite as steep, but still amounts to an increase of 30 percent in five years.

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Sales of organic foods rose even more rapidly, more than tripling to $1.7 billion in 2007 from $393 million in 2002. This is an increase of 335 percent, though it lowers to 281 percent once inflation is taken into account.

Responding to consumer interest in fresh fruits and vegetables, farms are also selling more fresh produce, the new data shows.

Sales of fruit totaled $18.6 billion for the U.S. in 2007, up 35 percent from five years before. Vegetable sales rose 15 percent to $14.7 billion. The number of farms selling fruit rose 5 percent to 112,690, while 69,100 farms sold vegetables, an increase of 17 percent.

Diet experts recommend that everyone eat five servings of fruit and vegetables each day. Moreover, produce purchases could bring significant economic benefits during troubled times. Iowa State University economist David Swenson calculates that if residents of one eight-county region in north central Iowa ate five locally-produced fresh fruits and vegetables each day for jjust three months of the year, it would create 457 new jobs and generate $6.3 million in new labor income in that locale alone.

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Total sales of all farm commodities rose to $297 billion from $200 billion in 2002. Farmers earned $56 billion more from marketing commodities in 2007 than it cost to produce them, according to the census, earning a net cash income of $75 billion. Comparable USDA figures for 2002 were a $48 billion farm production surplus, and $41 billion of net farm income.

Higher commodity prices helped farm sales recover from their recent slump, yet production costs are rising, too. USDA estimates that both fertilizer and fuel costs have nearly doubled in the past five years.

USDA estimates that farm income in 2008 was similar to 2007 levels. Yet agency economists predict that farm income “may well be lower in 2009.”

The census website has more information about farm conditions in your region, including interactive tables that will direct you to data for any state in the union. You may want to post some of your favorite findings, or pose questions as a response to this post.