GUY RAZ, host:

Now, Secretary Vilsack's ideas don't necessarily sit well with everyone in the business of tracking the farming industry. Sallie James does that for a living. She's an agricultural trade policy analyst with the libertarian Cato Institute here in Washington. And she is in the studio with me.

Sallie James, welcome to the program.

Ms. SALLY JAMES (Trade Policy Analyst, Cato Institute): Thanks for having me.

RAZ: How economically feasible is it for the vast majority of Americans to buy and eat local foods?

Ms. JAMES: Not very. I think it's going to be very difficult not only to get people within that local, quote, unquote, "distance" of a farmers market, but to have enough of production agriculture to feed 300 million people.

RAZ: I mean, as we heard in our conversation with Secretary Vilsack, right now, about 75 percent of the produce and meat we consume in this country is made by 4 percent - less than 4 percent of farmers in America. Wouldn't this plan that the Agriculture Department is now promoting put an end to that monopoly?

Ms. JAMES: Maybe, although I think one of the reasons we get those sorts of outcomes in agriculture is the subsidy system, which, because it's partly based on paying growers per unit of production, encourages kind of that commercial, large scale farming. It may well be that if we did away with production subsidies that we may see a different breakout of production patterns in America. But certainly, that suggests that for efficiency reasons, agriculture depends on economies of scale.

RAZ: Farmers markets in this country have expanded over the past year by some 13 percent. The Agriculture Department argues that it's because of the set up in marketing that they have helped to provide that we have seen that rise. What's wrong with the government sort of getting involved in promoting things like farmers markets where people would have access to fresh, locally grown produce?

Ms. JAMES: You know, you throw enough money at something, of course, it's going to thrive. So I'm not surprised that, you know, it's not front page news that the Agriculture Department invests a lot of money in promoting farmers markets, we see more farmers markets. That to me is pretty much a no-brainer.

What I'm suggesting is it's not the best use of money. There is absolutely very little wrong with encouraging people to eat healthily. But what the problem is here is poor people having access to fresh fruit and vegetables.

RAZ: So, how do you change that?

Ms. JAMES: You allow Wal-Mart to come in to urban areas and provide cheap, fresh produce to people. A lot of the same people who are advocating farmers markets for health reasons also oppose Wal-Mart going into urban areas: the city of Chicago, Los Angeles, some problems in Washington, D.C., with Wal-Mart coming in. But they - the reality is they have a very good distribution network. They can get fresh produce into, you know, rural and exurban areas very well. And I'm sure they'd love to provide produce to poor people. But often, activists prevent that from happening as well.

RAZ: Sallie James is a trade policy analyst with the Cato Institute. She joined me here in the studio.

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RAZ: Sallie James, thanks for coming in.

Ms. JAMES: Thanks so much for having me.

RAZ: Do you think Americans would be willing to pay more for locally produced food? Get in on the conversation by commenting at npr.org.

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