In late April, a trio of Republican senators -- John McCain (AZ), Saxby Chambliss (GA), and Pat Roberts (KS) -- wrote an angry letter to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, debunking a recent USDA program called "Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food." This initiative distributes grant money and loans with the goal of strengthening local food chains and linking consumers with farmers.
The Senators accuse USDA Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan of diverting urgently needed funds from rural communities in favor of: 1) "specialty crops" (the government's term for fruits, nuts, and vegetables, of which the USDA recommends each of us eat at least five servings a day); and 2) small growers and organic farmers (who the Senators stereotype as hobby producers "whose customers generally consist of affluent patrons at urban farmers markets.")
They conclude that:
American families and rural farmers are hurting in today's economy, and it's unclear to us how propping up the urban locavore markets addresses their needs. Given our nation's crippling budgetary crisis, we also believe the federal government cannot afford to spend precious rural development funds on feel-good measures which are completely detached from the realities of production agriculture.
The not so subtle subtext of this letter is that to be a "real" farmer, you must be engaged in "production agriculture." One can only assume this means corn, cotton, wheat, rice, and soybean production -- the five primary commodity crops grown across hundreds of millions of acres in factory fields, propped up by the lion's share of $15-plus billion in yearly USDA farm bill payments. In their view, the small producers benefiting from the Know Your Farmer program are not just do-gooders raising organic heirlooms for elite urbanites. They're sucking away subsidies that should be going to the nation's real farmers. Never mind that there are now more than 5,000 farmers markets across the country; or that an average of 10 million Americans shop at one on any given Saturday during the harvest season; or that farming organically is extremely hard and valuable work.
Here's the bottom line. The Know Your Farmer program has spent a reported $65 million total so far with plans to invest another up to another $1 billion in loans from the stimulus program. This is peanuts compared with the $60-plus billion in USDA commodity subsidies that production growers presently receive over a five-year period.
Since Senator Chambliss is the ranking minority member of the Agriculture Committee, he and his fellow scribes must be aware that the U.S. is now considering paying Brazilian cotton growers $147.3 million this year because of former production agriculture subsidies that were in violation of World Trade Organization rules. You read that right -- Brazilian farmers. The Wall Street Journal recently decried this as madness.
Such divisive political framing sets clear distinctions for how we talk about farmers, food, and our agriculture and nutrition policy. It might also backfire by fueling the fires of public opinion that have been rallying around healthy food production and raging against USDA subsidy programs. It is obvious to an increasing number of citizens and legislators that these programs:
- Divert billions of dollars to commodity agribusinesses whether they have actually suffered losses or not, whether they grow crops or not, with few funding caps, and few social or environmental mandates that would provide a public benefit to taxpayers in return;
- Support industrial crops that are more suited for animal feed, processed foods, and biofuels rather than a healthy, diverse diet;
- Flood the market with cheap, processed ingredients that contribute to a growing crisis of obesity and other diet-related epidemics.
Are these the feel-good measures McCain, Chambliss, and Roberts want us to get excited about?
Instead, they single out a long-overdue and modest attempt to repair links in broken local food chains and educate the public about the importance of knowing your farmer and where your food comes from. Revitalizing local food production can impact the every day lives of citizens -- Food Stamp recipients, for example, who can use their Electronic Benefits Transfer cards to buy organic produce at farmers markets; or public school kids that enjoy fruits and vegetables grown by productive farmers in their areas; or small livestock producers that can now process their pasture raised meats with the aid of mobile slaughtering units.
Why don't the Senators want us to know our farmers or care about where our food comes from? Maybe it's because they are clinging to the decades-old "Get Big or Get Out" story line that defines how the majority of the country's food is presently produced. This is the tragic story of 50 years of USDA policies that swept millions of family farmers from the American landscape and gave agribusiness the unimaginable powers they wield today over our entire food system.
Knowing your farmer and knowing your food will become the primary story of the next fifty years of food production. It is the story of saving local agriculture and local farmers before they disappear altogether. In saving regional food production, we become healthier, more engaged, more secure citizens. With quite a bit of leadership, and a comparatively minuscule budget, Vilsack and Merrigan are actually trying to restore relationships and rewrite the stories of decentralized modern farming.
If Senators McCain, Chambliss, and Roberts cared about the health and vitality of rural communities they might be better served to embrace the inevitable re-diversification of the food supply. It certainly deserves its fair share -- and then some.