Ask Farm Aid | March 20, 2012

Is the USDA truly supporting local and regional agriculture?

March 2012

Dear Farm Aid,

I heard about the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food initiative from the USDA, and I like what it’s all about. Is the USDA truly supporting local and regional agriculture?

Erin D.
Chicago, IL

Good food from local and regional family farms is all the rage these days. But it wasn’t always this way.

Ever since the first concert in 1985, at a time when family farmers were pushed off the land in droves, Farm Aid has worked hard to promote family farm agriculture. That work has evolved over the years, but at its core has always been the belief that family farmers are the backbone of America—not only are they the providers of the food that feeds us, but they are also stewards of the land and pillars of local economies. When family farmers thrive, we all thrive.

Does USDA’s Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food program do enough?

But as we’ve said many times before, our family farmers are threatened by the tight grip of corporate agriculture and federal policies that support it. Unless we start taking our food system back into our own hands, that won’t change. Recent initiatives at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), like Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food (KYF2), are a sign that our work has started to pay off. But how much and for how long?

A new direction?

A few years ago, the USDA launched the KYF2 initiative to strengthen the connection between farmers and consumers and “better meet critical goals, including reinvigorating rural economies, promoting job growth, and increasing healthy food access in America.”

That was sweet music to our ears, particularly after seeing the federal government tout giant agribusinesses and industrial agriculture as the solution for our economy, for decades.

At its start, USDA’s KYF2 initiative mostly promoted existing programs already funded by Congress. Programs like the Value-Added Producer Grant (VAPG) program, which supports farmers who process their raw products to add value to their businesses and retain a higher portion of the retail dollar. Or the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program (BFRDP), to support the next crop of farmers and ranchers with the knowledge and skills they need to succeed.

More recently, the USDA unveiled the KYF2 Compass, an interactive site that more fully lays out the benefits of local and regional agriculture and highlights what the USDA is doing to support it. TheCompass covers seven themes: local food infrastructure, stewardship and local food, local meat and poultry, farm to institution, healthy food access, careers in agriculture, and local food knowledge. It includes a hefty report that celebrates work being done around the country to rebuild local and regional food infrastructure and support small and mid-sized farmers, as well as an interactive map, stories and facts highlighting USDA research.

The focus of KYF2 is a big shift that’s generated a lot of buzz; never before has the USDA shined such a spotlight on local, sustainable, organic, and small and mid-sized farms. At the Compass launch event last month (Farm Aid was there!), a White House official expressed astonishment at the public response they were getting from supporters of local and regional agriculture and family farmers on Twitter. “I don’t think we’ve ever had this type of participation before,” he stated. “Keep tweeting!” And to that we say, “Keep supporting this kind of agriculture!”

But is it really a shift?

Several folks have noted that the KYF2 program has not been allocated fulltime staff or funding. The USDA is often subject to intense scrutiny from those (like us at Farm Aid) who think it needs to do much more to support local and regional food systems while cracking down on corporate concentration, but they’re also subject to the power plays of Congressmen who claim KYF2 is a waste of energy and that most Americans don’t and never will eat local food.

At Farm Aid, we know firsthand that a growing number of folks are in fact clamoring for local food and we hope KYF2 is just the start. The initiative has done a lot to raise the profile of good food and validate consumer support for family farmers, and the new Compass demonstrates the considerable value of local and regional markets. But we also know KYF2 is dwarfed by other programs at USDA and the billions of dollars that buttress the status quo of corporate-controlled agriculture. What’s more, many of the programs showcased in KYF2—programs that have been crucial in getting new farmers on the land and expanding local and regional food systems—will be targeted for cuts in the Farm Bill negotiations taking place this year.

The very farmers and ranchers that make local and regional food systems thrive are the same ones most threatened by trends of corporate consolidation and industrialization in agriculture. It is time that our policies work to support family farmers—true innovators and entrepreneurs in our society—who give us a real foundation upon which to build our economy.

That’s why it’s essential that we keep supporting this work, both at the national scale and in our communities where family farm-centered food systems are taking root. It’s why we must engage in the Farm Bill and make sure our Congressmen know that we want to see the work represented by KYF2 continue and grow.

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