Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food
by Aimee Witteman
In September of last year, with most of the country immersed in the health care juggernaut, a little noticed announcement came out of Washington, D.C., signaling an important shift in the U.S. food and agriculture priorities. Standing next to the recently planted “People’s Garden,” dappled in autumn sunlight, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan introduced a new initiative they called “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food.” The initiative, they explained, was aimed at spurring a national conversation about the importance of understanding where your food comes from and how it gets to your plate.
For a nation that has become disconnected from its agrarian roots, the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food (KYF) initiative is a much-needed directive from the agency in charge of the country’s food and agriculture programs. In his comments, which aired on YouTube.com, Secretary Vilsack described the initiative’s goals, arguing, “Reconnecting consumers and institutions with local producers will stimulate economies in rural communities, improve access to healthy, nutritious food for our families, and decrease the amount of resources to transport our food.” Many people have been waiting restlessly to hear the Secretary of Agriculture wax poetic about the significance of connecting consumers with producers and the carbon footprint of the food supply. But what do Vilsack’s phrases mean in real time?
For the last two decades, the bulk of U.S. taxpayer dollars for agriculture has gone to support the production of raw commodities, such as corn and soybeans, which are most often destined for export or for transformation into animal feed or ethanol. During that same time, the food industry has consolidated; today, just a few major processing and retailing companies exert major influence over farmers’ and consumers’ choices.
Two results of these policy decisions has been a steady decrease in the number of U.S. family farmers, and the consolidation of farmland. Just 70 years ago, farmers comprised 21 percent of the workforce; today, they comprise two percent. The impact of this decline moves beyond the farm gate to rural communities throughout the country. Studies since the 1940s have repeatedly shown that communities with many small and mid-size family farms are healthier and more economically viable than communities characterized by large farm sizes and absentee ownership. The latter communities typically have lower median family incomes, higher levels of poverty, and lower education levels.
In addition to a declining number of family farmers, the infrastructure necessary for local and regional food systems to thrive has steadily eroded over the same time period. Small-scale meat slaughtering, grain milling, and dairy processing facilities, as well as packing and storing centers that used to dot the American landscape as recently as the 1960s, have all but disappeared. Disappearing with them have been jobs, revenue for rural economies, and a public awareness of the people and systems responsible for feeding us.
John Packer operates Northern Pine Farm in Vineyard Haven, where he and his family graze cows and raise chickens, which they slaughter on the farm and sell directly to friends and neighbors. They also breed and sell feeder pigs. “Lack of a slaughter-house is the major missing link in the chain,” John says of the single biggest hurdle for families on the Vineyard. He continued to explain, “Currently if you want to sell your meat to the restaurants and the markets, you have to take the animal off the Island and drive about 150 miles to a slaughterhouse and pick it [the meat] up a week later.” He says the time and money it takes to slaughter animals off-Island, not to mention the associated stress on the animals that have otherwise been humanely raised, creates a major barrier that is unfortunate, given the high demand for local meat on Martha’s Vineyard. “We’re in a predominantly tourist area, with important people coming to visit from all over the world. Imagine what it would be like if we could put local meat on the restaurant tables and at the Farmers’ Market—people could get a real feel for what local farmers do.”
In April of last year, Congress confirmed Kathleen Merrigan to the number two spot at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Many imagined Kathleen—the self-described “midwife” to the National Organic Standards, whose creation she oversaw under President Clinton—breathing new life into an agency that on several occasions has provided a stunning example of what is broken with government. Among other qualities, Kathleen is known for her ability to address complex problems using existing tools in a creative way. True to form, within six months of her appointment, she took the helm of Secretary Vilsack’s KYF initiative, getting the word out through memos that went viral on food blogs, live Facebook chats, a spiffy new website, and visits to rural and urban communities throughout the country.
Kathleen says the objective of KYF is to introduce (or reintroduce) people to existing USDA programs that facilitate local and regional food markets—programs like the Business and Industry Loan Program and the Value-Added Producer Grant Program. The first provides federal loan guarantees for regional slaughter, cold storage, packing, and aggregating facilities; the second provides competitive grants for farmers and ranchers to do feasibility studies or to market their product as “local.” Kathleen emphasizes that the initiative is not “size-specific or organic-specific” and that the USDA wants a “diversity of farmers to consider local and regional food markets.” She cites in particular mid-size farmers—those grossing between $250,000 and $1 million annually—as an important segment because they are the bedrock of the agricultural economy. Kathleen says the programs highlighted by KYF can help those farmers retain more of every dollar others spend purchasing their products while positively contributing to the economic fabric of their rural communities.
A team of staff from the Department of Agriculture is charged with working with Kathleen to implement the KYF initiative. Ann Wright, Deputy Undersecretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs at the USDA, is one of them. She says that KYF “institutionalizes a commitment to the importance of regional food systems by utilizing staff and resources from the many mission areas across the USDA.” KYF isn’t just about existing programs, she adds, but will also help the USDA identify what additional support is needed by farmers, businesses, and consumers. To make KYF effective, Wright says, there needs to be an open dialogue between stakeholders and the USDA so that the federal government can work with people to create really sustainable long-term opportunities in agriculture. “We need to hear from people,” says Wright.
Since KYF was unveiled last fall, it has received mixed, but mostly positive, reactions. While some wish the agency would move more quickly to analyze gaps and put new money towards broader regional food endeavors, others recognize the importance of KYF’s first steps. Dr. Kate Clancy, one of the nation’s leading authorities on food systems, thinks the KYF initiative could have an important lasting impact. “We should not discount the substantial policy effect Know Your Farmer will have if it leads to improvements and greater use of existing USDA programs by farmers, small businesses, and community-based organizations,” she says. “At some point there will have to be new money if we are going to scale up regional food initiatives throughout the country, but right now the folks at USDA are doing a brilliant job of tackling as much as they can with existing resources.”
As might be expected, even without any new federal funding for KYF, the unprecedented attention given to local and regional foods by Secretary Vilsack and Deputy Secretary Merrigan is causing a stir among the more conventional agricultural interests and even some powerful, conservative U.S. Senators. Still, the momentum for local and regional food seen throughout the country, in both rural and in urban areas, indicates that the USDA’s KYF is in step with the changing face of food and agriculture—including right here on Martha’s Vineyard.
In early June of this year, Island Grown Initiative was awarded a Rural Business Enterprise Grant—one of the programs high- lighted by the KYF initiative—to do a feasibility study for a mobile slaughtering unit for cattle, sheep, pigs, and goats. The RBEG-funded mobile slaughtering project builds upon IGI’s previous success securing a mobile slaughtering unit for broilers, which in three years led to a three-fold increase in the number of locally-raised chickens slaughtered on the Island and six new part-time jobs. This new mobile slaughtering capability is the missing link in the chain that John Packer and other local farmers have been hoping for, and it will eventually lead to more locally-raised meats in area restaurants and markets.
Jay Healy is the Rural Development State Director for Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut, and also owns and operates Hall Tavern Farm in western Massachusetts. What’s happening on Martha’s Vineyard is a microcosm for the whole region. “The good news is that in New England, we have the markets and the people,” says Healy. “The bad news is that over the last several decades, with globalization and the concentration of slaughtering and retail facilities, we have a big vacuum where the infrastructure for regional food systems used to exist.” Healy says that he and others are prepared to make Tom and Kathleen’s vision a reality, but that it won’t happen overnight. “Putting more products on the ‘local food table’ will bring more economic vitality to our communities, but we have to educate consumers and farmers and public officials.”
Clearly, the KYF initiative isn’t just about getting to know your farmer, but an opportunity for transparency both inside the USDA and in the department’s dealings with the American people. Local efforts to support regional food systems are springing up all over the country, and the USDA has committed to seeking their counsel. During the past year and a half, the most salient feature of the initiative that has emerged is the willingness to communicate. The USDA is engaging in and inviting dialogue. Stay tuned.