Are strong local food systems better for the environment than conventional food systems where relatively close proximity between points of production and consumption is not a defining characteristic? Despite growing support for efforts to strengthen local food systems, surprisingly little is known about the relationship of local food to environmental sustainability. In particular, the relationship of local food systems to the use of agricultural chemicals to manage pests, weeds and disease has not been a subject of systematic research. In this paper, I use longitudinal data from the US Census of Agriculture to explore whether growth in local food systems is associated with decreased on-farm use of agricultural chemicals. Drawing on county-level data from 1997 to 2012, I find that an increase in the strength of local food systems—whether measured as the number of farms that market products directly to consumers, or as the total value of direct market products—has been broadly associated with a decrease in spending on agricultural chemicals in the USA as a whole. But the magnitude of the relationship between direct marketing to consumers and changes in agricultural chemical use has dwindled over time, to the point where it is not clear whether contemporary local food systems are still incentivizing farmers to reduce their use of pesticides. Overall, this study lends new credence to the idea that robust local food systems can benefit the environment. But even where just one dimension of agriculture's impact on the environment is concerned, the characteristics of local food systems appear to have varied over time—a qualification that argues strongly for further research into the relationship of local food to agricultural practice.