Farming Magazine - May, 2013

COLUMNS

New England Farmers Union: Know Your USDA

By Annette Higby and Sarah Andrysiak

The USDA's Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food (KYF2) program showcases what the department is doing for local food and the farmers who produce it. KYF2 attempts to strengthen the connection between consumer and producer, to grow jobs, to cultivate healthy eating habits across income lines, and to demonstrate the connections between food, agriculture, community and the environment. The program's website (www.usda.gov/wps/portal/usda/usdahome?navid=KNOWYOURFARMER) describes examples of projects it supports, and an interactive map demonstrates its impact across the country.

Launched by the USDA in 2009, KYF2 brings together staff from across the department to coordinate, share resources and publicize federal efforts related to local and regional food systems. KYF2 has no offices, no dedicated funding and no full-time staff. Virtually all of the featured programs were already in existence. However, by aggregating and coordinating these programs, and with the tireless efforts of Kathleen Merrigan (the USDA Deputy Secretary, who stepped down from this position in April), KYF2 demonstrates the USDA's support of local food and the family farmers who produce it.

Merrigan delivered the keynote address at the National Farmers Union (NFU) Annual Convention, held March 2-5, 2013, in Springfield, Mass. Merrigan hails from western Massachusetts, and the theme of her address was "Coming Home."

Merrigan told the group of roughly 500 attendees from across the nation that stronger consumer-producer relationships are good for farmers. As U.S. farmers and ranchers become more active with consumers, she said, consumers will "gain more appreciation for the hard work and sacrifice that goes into producing our food."

It's not surprising that this national champion of local food comes from New England, where there is a growing market for local food and a high percentage of direct farm-to-consumer sales. In 2011, the Economic Research Service reported that local food sales were significantly higher on the West Coast (23.8 percent of all local food sales) and in the Northeast (14.4 percent) than elsewhere. In its fact sheet, "Facts on Direct-to-Consumer Food Marketing," the Agricultural Marketing Service reported that all six New England states are on the list of the top 10 states in direct-to-consumer food marketing as a share of total agricultural sales.

In New England, KYF2 is having a significant impact. Among many other things, KYF2 projects have:

  • created a farmers' market to serve a food desert (Maine);
  • expanded a farmers' market so it could serve more of the surrounding lower-income, lower-access community (Connecticut);
  • created a "buy local" campaign targeting low-income areas, increased participation in a community-supported agriculture program by creating low-cost shares, and provided professional development skills to local farmers (New Hampshire); and
  • created a mobile farmers' market, providing fresh fruit and vegetables to lower-income residents in a food desert (Vermont).

As valuable as these projects are to the farmers, funding for many programs, including the Farmers Market Promotion Program, was left out of the 2008 farm bill extension passed as part of the fiscal cliff deal. Access to these markets for family farmers is also threatened by the proposed rules recently issued under the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) estimates that the average cost of compliance with the produce safety rules will be $12,972 for farms with average annual revenues between $250,000 and $500,000 and $4,697 for farms with revenues under $250,000. The actual costs of compliance could be much higher.

These rules are a serious threat to farm viability for many producers, and their potential to deny access to the specialty crop market for family farms cannot be understated. It is essential that farmers learn about these rules and submit comments to the FDA. Visit the New England Farmers Union website (www.newenglandfarmersunion.org) to learn how to submit your comment.

KYF2 highlights growing interest in local food and positions the USDA as a central player in the local food movement. This is more than good public relations for the USDA. Producers and entrepreneurs interested in local food can use KYF2 to learn about funding sources, relevant projects and potential partners. By showcasing meaningful results, KYF2 helps policy advocates demand funding for local food producers and their communities.

The program's Compass map brings KYF2 home to each of us. You can view projects relevant to issues you are interested in. There are data layers for local meat, farm-to-institution, infrastructure, stewardship, healthy food access, knowledge, and marketing and promotion. When you click on a project, you can see the funding source, year, recipient and project goals.

The projects are numerous and varied. Many projects support education, training and technical assistance opportunities for beginning farmers. Projects to build food system infrastructure - food hubs, processing, storage and distribution facilities - are enabling producers to expand their market reach. The development of farm-to-school programs and farmers' markets increases the demand for fresh, local food.

Local food and direct-to-consumer food sales are significant and growing. Gary Matteson, who directs the Young, Beginning and Small Farmer program for the Farm Credit System, has reported that, based on the 2007 Census of Agriculture, "organic, direct-to-retail and local foods sales conservatively added up to $8 billion." This is a big number - more than the $7 billion in sales of cotton and rice reported in the same census.

Matteson calculated that if the direct-to-consumer marketing channel were counted as a commodity product, it would be the fifth most common farm activity. However, with an agricultural census focused on tracking commodity products, the marketing channel data is difficult to find. Without good data, it can be difficult to get the policy attention the sector deserves.

This is why we need programs like KYF2 that promote the direct sales approach. Please join NEFU, where we are working with federal policy leaders like Kathleen Merrigan to draw attention and funding to these programs. Your support can also shape the proposed FSMA rules for the benefit of our local producers. Please visit www.newenglandfarmersunion.org and become a member today.

Annette Higby is the policy director for New England Farmers Union. Sarah Andrysiak is a communications consultant for NEFU.